"What is longing made from?
What cloth is put into it
That is does not wear out with use?
Gold wears out, and silver wears out,
Velvet wears out, and silk wears out,
Yet longing does not wear out.
The moon rises and the sun rises,
The sea rises in vast waves,
But longing never rises from the heart."
~ Welsh poem, 17th century
The ancient language of Wales has given the world its poetic language, including the word hiraeth* which roughly translates as an abiding sense of longing. Not simply a momentary yearning, but to the strength of a sort of homesick longing. Something that is intrinsic to the human spirit. Martin Lloyd-Jones used the word to refer to a consciousness of one being out of their home place and that which is dear to them; he equated this hiraeth to a soul’s yearning for the Divine. And in that context, Saint Augustine’s legendarily penitent restless heart looks more to me like a heart longing for a home place of recognition and acceptance. Home can tangibly manifest as a knowing and unconditional embrace, even more profoundly than as an edifice of bricks and mortar. We long for signs that we belong.
Light sources and shadows live noticeably side by side. When I have endured crises of traumatic loss, the longing followed later, after the stabilization of survival with a quieter yearning to regain my sense of self. But indeed, when what we imagine as our selves has broken to its foundations, the yearning desire is to rebuild- but indeed the new structure will not be the same. It takes time to believe the new will be better. Of course, there need not be crises to set off a profound sense of longing. There can be simple reminders, and such insights are well worth our attention. Longing for the familiarity of home, especially when far away from those reassurances for extended periods of time. One afternoon, during a sojourn in Paris, my customary long walk along the Seine caused me to notice the absence of the salt aroma of the Maine coast. My adventures along the Great Lakes were wanting for the deep dark blue of Casco Bay. More overtly, I recall being aboard an eastbound, cross-country Amtrak train reaching the Berkshire Mountains. A man stood up and began regaling nearby passengers about his home town, with a hiraeth worthy of the Welsh definition, but with an eastern Massachusetts accent thick enough to place him in Dorchester or Southie. He was pronouncedly homesick. It was all really entertaining (especially the anecdotes about his favorite bar), and it seemed to syphon off some of my own sense of displacement. All it seemed to take was for the Lake Shore Limited to transition from the flat Midwest by barreling across the Housatonic River.
Finding ourselves far from home, and far from those who recognize us, will set off longings we may had forgotten about. Distances may be geographic, and they may be metaphorical. Reminders can be subtle, but what they reveal comes with a tenacity that can span many years, even to childhood. A profound sense of disenfranchisement and disregard that I knew as an adolescent brought its tiresome residue into adulthood. Having endured harshness so many years ago- surely enough years for anything to lose its strength and worth- challenges us to choose to treat ourselves with the gentle compassion by which our hearts and souls were created, in order to retrain the mind away from cataloguing and maintaining regrets. Loss and absence can provide the crossroads of our vision. One evening, a few years ago, I had been awarded an extraordinary honor at a special reception. Many of my friends and students were there, but during the drive home I glanced at the inscribed plaque on the passenger seat, and powerfully felt the absence of my parents- not just then and there, but for nearly all of my years. Along the road that night after eating and enjoying, in my good clothes and hearing my gold watch chain whenever I turned with the contours of Route 302, it became vital to enjoin myself to remember who was there, and my own profound gratitude. We must recollect what confirms to us that we belong- especially that which transcends our titles and trappings. Our friendships, our soul’s kindredships, have the potential to be the witnesses our lives long to have; and I am certainly part of the reciprocal. By caring, we instantly become earthly signs of grace, drawing from sources that far precede and exceed us. A very wise friend once reminded me to “treat yourself the way you treat your friends,” and I have never forgotten that gentle admonition.
How we long for a communion that will reinforce and confirm us! Reassurance comes to us in the forms we are best able to comprehend, and can be thankfully unpredictable (unconfined by our finite notions). And then our longings are reciprocated. “The assiduous heart is an open door,” wrote Saint Mark the Ascetic, in The Philokalia. Our souls’ yearnings, the prayers of the heart, can be catalysts that turn our embrace toward the present, giving a renewed sense of what is yet ahead of us. Such thirst for authenticity of spirit keeps us from standing still, quite like Augustine’s aggrieved and restless heart motivated him to reach for a place of peaceful abiding. But our hearts’ desires are surely meant to be answered, and when that happens we can surely rejoice and be strengthened in our hopes and the hope we are for others. Truly we temporarily can only know in part, but it is well worth looking ahead to the time we will know even as we have always been known. Such longings founded upon our faith bring us to risk everything in order to gain everything. Thomas Merton called it “gambling on the invisible.” Merton wrote, “we have to risk all we can see and taste and feel, but we know the risk is worth it, because there is nothing secure in the transient world.” Steadfast love is the good investment, the treasure compounded in heaven, and a worthy risk. I have seen the forward steps of trusting faith as embodying the very opposite of cowardice. Hesitation represents a fearful clinging to what anchors us to the temporal trappings of this world, and such hesitating will cloud what dynamic hope- even our heart’s deepest longings- can clarify.
* rhymes with "clear scythe"