Finding Answers in the Ache
In my previous post, I reflected on the painful silent periods of faith, using the metaphor of the darks side of the moon. When we enter periods of darkness and confusion, as difficult as it can be, we must try take a step back and enlarge our view. To this end, think of an opposite moment in your life, a good and clear moment—perhaps a time when you were intensely captivated by some person, moment or experience. Think 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. Picture it, feel it again. Do you remember the magic, the wonder? If you are struggling now, that moment is likely as far away from how you feel as the earth is from the moon. Such impossibly sweet moments should last forever! But they don’t.
Instead, what you have is a memory, rather than the continuation of the experience. Intuitively, we understand “endings,” and learn to dread them. “I wish this would never end!” we might think, even as the good thing is happening. After, in the glittering residue, and the sweet, terrible ache, we are left with confusion. What’s going on? I’ll tell you. In the middle of it all, something very important is happening. Eternity is leaking into your life.
Our souls, in immaturity, want to capture every happy feeling and bottle it, even as it slips from our grasp. Not knowing what else to do, we vainly try to recreate that feeling. It never works. Or we ignore it, and try our best to resume normalcy, thus missing the precious gift the ache is meant to impart. It’s what happens when you wish on a star, when you stand on the threshold of ephiphany, but never quite reach it. C.S. Lewis captured this feeling in his ruminations on the concept of Joy, which he called sehnsucht.
“Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning…a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again.” (from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)
Outside, Looking In
These moments of joy and clarity rise in us as if from another world. It may be the sight of Michelangelo’s stunning, tragic Pieta, or standing on the plains of Salisbury in the shadow of Stonehenge, sensing something ancient and strong in the earth around you. It may be far more simple: the fresh smell of cream on a bowl of strawberries, or the sun’s glittering reflection on a field of frost-covered grass. It happened once for me in junior high, the moment I tried on contact lenses for the first time, saw the world clearly, and realized what I had been missing. It happened as an adult, when I travelled to Europe, and found a tantalizing little love note left in my luggage by my wife, urging me to come home soon.
For you, it may be a memory of childhood that floods your mind while driving down a country road, or the score of a movie that carries you away (Star Wars does it for me, every time). If you could, when you hear that song, you would fly away to that world and leave this one behind. But you can’t, you can only ache for it. A window opens in your soul, even for just a few seconds, whispering secrets about how life is meant to be. Something hearkens all the way back to Adam, of a world that is right and fair, not stained and fallen, rising from within, from “eternity set in their hearts” (Ecc. 3:11).
Lewis said these inconsolable longings were never really meant to be satisfied. Quite the opposite, they are meant to frustrate and irritate us, thereby forcing us from a place of adolescent bondage to eternal liberty. He described it as a “lifelong nostalgia to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside.”
Hear that word: outside. Do you hear the ache of it? Like a child outside the candy shop, peering inside, licking his lips. But instead of being satisfied, he is taken by his mother’s hand and led away. He got one brief, sweet glimpse. If only he could have that candy! But no, it was home to chores and Hamburger Helper for dinner. Or like a kid at recess, waiting to be picked by the popular team, wanting to be included. When the captain’s finger finally points to him, a feeling stirs. A rush of blood and adrenaline. This is his moment! Today is the day! Oh, wait, the captain was pointing to the person behind him. Letdown. Longing. Ache.
When gaps are revealed between a joy I briefly knew and the disappointment I largely feel—between what once seemed possible, and what is now, clearly, impossible—I am confronted with the reality that eternity is the only true haven for my soul. In the gap between joy and pain, the broken links inside me are temporarily restored. I am a creature born of spirit and mystery far more than blood and bone. Therefore, I cannot help but feel the impermanence of impermanent pleasures. When we find ourselves outside looking in, wondering where we fit, these feeling of loss and displacement are both severe, and merciful. Something on the other side is drawing me ever on, and the many enticements on this side taste more and more like the ashes that they are. Though the clarity is painful, I am reminded that I am built for something more… (To be continued)