The Ceaseless Longing


Driving home late this rainy spring evening I am listening to the radio. A man is talking about one of those untranslateable German words, like schadenfreude. This one is fernweh. Literally, it’s “farsickness,” but what the Germanic word connotes, the man says, is something more like “longing for a place you’ve never been.” Maybe I am acutely aware of that pining since I am driving home from a pastoral visit in which I stood by a woman’s bedside and offered “Prayers at the Time of Death.” Last rites.

“Longing for a place you’ve never been.” How is that possible? We’re conditioned to believe that all our desires have a clear object. Modern advertising, in all its banality, encourages us to objectify things and people. You know you want it, it whispers. Perfect for a materialist world in which things are the only reality. The promise of that worldview is that your sweetest hopes can all be satisfied with the things of this known world.

But then one day you hear a piece of music that is more than “beautiful.” It seems an echo of some unheard and greater melody, a prelude to a more sublime expression that you almost heard, until the echo was lost. For C.S. Lewis it was

…that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.

Then you know no object will ever satisfy your deepest longings, only the Source of it all. Then you recognize, often with a stab of joy, that even your most profound experiences of fulfillment are only partial: this beauty or ecstasy is infused with an infinite suggestion, intimations of a glory that beckons far beyond itself into the boundless. For me, it happens when Eva Cassidy sings “Fields of Gold.”

“God has put eternity into their hearts,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes, and the aching, beautiful task of man and woman is to go through life as limited, finite beings…with eternity planted in their hearts. It’s not surprising, then, that people like us would have a longing for a place we’ve never been. Those are moments when this fleeting world recedes and the weighty realm of eternity seems more real and present. I can hear Johnny Cash singing in that Folsom prison voice, I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger, traveling through this world below. There is no sickness, toil, or danger in that bright land to which I go.

If I have any faith it is simply this, without apology for the contradiction: I know there is an eternal Presence because at times I have felt it nearer and more real than any material thing, though I have never seen it and could supply no proof. I felt it, I realize as the wipers cleanse my vision and my car blindly feels its way home, I felt it when I stood by that bedside and heard myself praying, “Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world. . . . May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the paradise of God. Amen.”

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Trust Yourself

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The Secret Prayer

  Fourth in a five-part series As a young boy I remember going to “Prayer Meeting” on Wednesday nights at the Baptist Church. We sat in the pews, we sang hymns, the pastor preached a sermon–it was just like Sunday morning, except that we took some prayer requests and the preacher offered a longer “pastoral…