Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Half-Blind Longing for the Light of the World

I got a touch of the old Sehnsucht today. (Like sunstroke, only metaphysical.) First, there was the message this morning about the ineffable beauty of Grace and the Phoenician woman in Mark. Then, there was a lunch in the park which was all laughter and dappled greenery and gypsy children. Finally, I had occasion to reflect on the mingled sorrow and joy of changing friendships: joy, because I love my friends, and sorrow, because tyrannous distance is intervening.

The cumulative effect was a profound wistfulness for I know not what: for an imperfect heart, perhaps, that clutches at grace and then falls away; for the endless summer of childhood past; for the foreshadowing of the time when we will be in relationship forever. 

C.S. Lewis took Sehnsucht from the Germans and made it his own. The word denotes a longing - a craving - intense yearning. In The Weight of Glory, he wrote: 

In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country...I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter...the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Sometimes I think I live my life in a haze of longing for the scent, the echo, the news that Lewis here describes. Perhaps we all do. King David certainly did: he was forever crying out - How long O Lord? which is frequently a cry on my lips also, even (and perhaps especially) while I am living a full life. This is a weighty paradox - that even when life is rich and good, there is an inexorable yearning on the edges of it. The thing to do, then, is to acknowledge that it's there - to look at it square-on and strike a detente with it. George Herbert did - in his poem Bitter-sweet, he described the terms of his truce: 

And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

That's the thing to do - lament and love in equal measure, and acknowledge that "blue unclouded weather" experiences have a flip side, which is the taste for heaven and the longing they instil in us. Sehnsucht is a foreshadowing - or, according to Lewis, a remembering - of beauty and glory and eternity. It is the experience of looking through a glass darkly. It causes us to long for the One who we catch peripheral sight of; He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Platonic form, the truth in the darkened glass; and we wait for the day when we will see him face to face. The apostle Paul frequently tells us to rejoice in this hope - to wait with hope - to embrace it - to hold it fast. 

In the meantime, one can't walk around in this sort of heightened Germanic spiritual state for ever: a return to the mundane reality of boiled eggs on toast for dinner is desirable, and so I draw to a close with this thought, which isn't mine at all, but Paul's: Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. And if that isn't cause for joy, I don't know what is.

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