Monday, April 06, 2009

Takeaways from the getaway: on Sehnsucht

This time it was the mattress in the corner of the room.

It had been a great Tuesday at the student getaway. Good conversations, and a sense that people had been helped by the seminar I was presenting. Even better was the 10 minutes when I walked into the kitchen to calm my nerves just before the start of the main evening session, which I was due to lead for the first time. There I found a friend, feeling a little downhearted that the day hadn’t quite gone the way he hoped. A few words of encouragement, then heads bowed low and hands clasped. More words – petitions delivered upward this time. Nice warm fuzzy feelings. Then off I went to lead the session and enjoyed it very much. Even shockingly managed to deliver a half-intended gag with perfect comic timing. And bags of fun after Bible time.

Before you know it, it was time to call it a night. I meandered into my room, looked at my mattress, and then all of a sudden, I felt inexplicably...sad.

But why? The day had turned out better than I expected. And perhaps sadness is not quite the best word for it. Because it wasn’t as if all those mountain peaks of jubilation, those feelings of bliss, had altogether evaporated. Perhaps, bittersweetness is the better term. A little like a cocktail of spirits and bitters. Great day, sure but midnight beckons. Another day. It was fun while it lasted. All good things must come to an end. Etcetera.

And I knew what it was. That nagging feeling that we’re not quite there yet, that yearning for “more”, whatever that was. Sehnsucht. Christian scholar David Naugle, in Reordered Love, Reordered Lives, has the lowdown:

The German term Sehnsucht describes this obstinate aspiration for something that satisfies even though we seem perpetually estranged from it. Amidst the storms and stresses of daily life, this "inconsolable longing" gets triggered unexpectedly and stabs us in mind and heart with a “pang” in most unexpected ways and times. Whether it’s elicited by a blue sky, a beautiful face, the melancholy of a requiem, the lure of romance, the crashing waves of the sea, the scintillations of sex, the profundity of a film, an illuminating line of poetry, a beautiful song, or an unobstructed view of the Milky Way, we occasionally experience a mysterious and tremendous feeling that attracts and baffles us simultaneously. We need “it” and want “it”, whatever “it” is. We are convinced it is what we have been searching for all our lives. (p.28)
But was it such a bad thing? Well, surely yes? Why would I want my feelings of joy to be contaminated by all these unwanted dregs of melancholy? Unless I’m a masochist. Or is this how it’s going to be all the time? Never 100% happy. Suddenly that Buddhist doctrine of getting rid of all desire doesn’t sound so strange after all.

But when I think about it, I begin to see, that far from a curse, Sehnsucht can be a gift from God. What if I never experience it? I'm saying I’m happy with current lot, with the world as it is. It’s the shrug of resignation. But I’m not happy with the world as it is. I shouldn’t be. Life, relationships, work went well that day. But not always. It certainly didn’t go as well later on in the week. I’m not in Eden anymore. Things go awry. I go awry.

Sehnsucht is that sudden jolt that I’m in a foreign land. I bear traces of Eden, and the world bears traces of Eden. But the garden doesn’t exist anymore. I’m homeless. I hear the echo of a tune I’ve never heard, news from a country I’ve never visited, as C.S Lewis memorably puts it, in Sehnsucht. For, as Lewis also suggested, the Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are far too easily pleased. God is looking to whet our appetite, ring the alarm to prevent complacency. And it reminds me too, that the loveliness of what I'm seeing is but a window into what it will be like, all the time, when God comes to take his children home.

Bittersweetness. But I shouldn’t just look at the first two syllables, but the last 2 as well. Sadness and longing, but satisfaction and contentment as well. The cross and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit makes that possible. I don’t just gain a new status, but a new life when God made me, us, his disciples. No longer a wanderer, but a pilgrim. And so a new mission. Surely that dispels any talk of being too heavenly minded to be of no earthly good. On the contrary.

That wasn’t the first time I experienced Sehnsucht, and it won’t be my last. When I looked at the mattress that night, it symbolised the end of one day which happened to be good, with no guarantee that the next would be similar. Jesus’ words take on a new poignancy then: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." Rest now? Maybe, maybe not. But a Sabbath-rest spent in the presence of God in the new creation; definitely.



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