Hiraeth Part II: Beauty Breaks Through

In my previous post I explored the human experience of hiraeth, which the Welsh describe as a bittersweet ache of our heart for some kind of elusive homeland. It’s a rather unique word describing a rather universal human experience – at least for those willing to look deeply within their heart.

I suggested that the experience of hiraeth is ultimately an invitation into Christian hope. In the remotest depths of our heart we “remember” a homeland that has not yet come into full existence. We have tasted its fruits, like the Israelites on the edge of the promised land. Like them, we are held back by sadness and fear. By the power of God, Joshua (Yeshua in Hebrew) led the Israelites through dangers and into the promised land. Jesus (also Yeshua in Hebrew) will lead us through the dark valley and into his Kingdom, the fruits of which we begin to enjoy even now.

Even with Jesus at our side, it can be so hard to muster the courage to re-enter the dark and scary places of our heart. We live in a world that encourages us to escape reality and numb our pain. Instead of grieving well, many brokenhearted people turn to manifestly destructive behaviors: drunkenness, illegal narcotics, internet pornography, sexual promiscuity, impulse shopping, overeating, chain smoking, or compulsive gambling. Aside from addictions, we find more subtle ways of hurting self and others as we try to cope: being critical or sarcastic, “fixing” others, engaging in manipulative behavior, lying, peevishness, or fault finding.

Perhaps we don’t turn to behaviors that are directly hurtful, but run from our pain all the same. I think here of activities such as daydreaming, spending long hours playing video games, binge watching TV shows, a never ending quest for tattoos or piercings, fanatical exercising, plunging into busyness or careerism, obsession with sports, and so forth. We numb and anesthetize, hoping somehow to avoid our pain forever. But it will not go away on its own.

Please don’t get discouraged in reading these lists! Probably all of us engage in some level of coping. It’s part of our survival instincts – which are there by God’s design to help us get through the troubles of life. The problem is when the “high alert” switch gets stuck in the “on” position and we don’t learn how to calm down and face reality.

I look back now on my childhood and realize that I had an enormous amount of emotional and spiritual pain without knowing how to face it. I coped for several years by turning to extensive daydreaming, and so I struggled in school and in sports. As I entered adolescence, I learned how to pay attention and became an overachiever. All seemed well, but it was actually a new way of trying to escape from pain. I spent my down time playing thousands of hours of video games, and otherwise strove towards every accolade I could achieve. There was good that came from all of these things – but they ultimately avoided the pain rather than help me overcome it.

Thankfully, truth and goodness and beauty have a transcendent power. They are always capable of lifting up the human spirit. In my Catholic high school years, I experienced a significant spiritual conversion. Even as I strove to “achieve” in my religion classes, I was captivated by the objective truth and goodness and beauty that I encountered. God writes straight with our crooked lines. My faith and spiritual life deepened, and I went on to have many profound moments of conversion.

Nonetheless, there was still plenty of minimizing and false hope, ignoring the signs that all was not well with my soul. It was only during the most recent years of my life that I realized the need to grieve some of those old wounds in earnest.

For me, as for many others, there were formidable walls of pride and self-protection. In my need to feel safe, I found ways to isolate and protect those places of pain – also keeping the out the good in the process. At times truth and goodness would beat at the door, and I would yield, even if it was painful. I cannot stand to live a lie. But I can be pretty darn skilled at minimizing. My mind is a gift that sometimes works against me.

But beauty breaks through. It has a way of catching us when our guard is down and sneaking past our defenses. Occasionally over the years I would find myself tearing up at scenes in movies. I didn’t always understand why (and was glad no one could notice in the darkness of the theater). But when I became serious about facing past wounds and growing in hope, I realized that I would benefit from turning actively to art, music, poetry, movies, and other aesthetic expressions. I sought and found those that spoke to my heart. And speak they did. I let the tears flow – sometimes cathartically. I talked to trusted friends and to the Lord about what I was experiencing. Layer by layer, the encounter with beauty has helped to heal my heart and increase my hope.

We all have dark and scary places in our heart that we would rather avoid. Thankfully, like Peter and James and John on Mount Tabor, we occasionally receive a glimpse of glory, a foretaste of our true destiny. Like them, we can find the strength to endure the darkness of Good Friday and journey forward in hope to the glory of the Resurrection and Ascension.

Living and Partly Living

On December 29, 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in Canterbury by knights acting on behalf of King Henry, his former friend. The great poet T.S. Eliot memorialized this event in Murder in the Cathedral. In a previous post, we journeyed with T.S. Eliot into the human heart of Thomas Becket as he came to grips with his imminent death. But Becket’s heart was not the only one impacted by the event. Even more fascinating is the transformation that takes place in the peasant women of Canterbury. Throughout the play, they sing as the Chorus. As the plot unfolds, we witness the conversion of their hearts. Initially, they angrily oppose Becket’s return to England and the inevitable conflict that he brings. Eventually, they surrender themselves to the event, asking Thomas to pray for them and promising to pray for him.

There is a recurring refrain in their singing: “Living and partly living.” It describes their pitiful existence as they scrape by in poverty. They go on surviving, resentful of their misery. But at least the misery is manageable and predictable. It is what they know. By contrast, they are overwhelmed and terrified by the winds of change that propel the sails of Becket’s boat as he lands in Dover. Like most of us, they would so much rather stay mired in the hellhole that they know than venture out into new and scary horizons.

They beg and plead with Becket:

O Thomas, return, Archbishop; return, return to France.
Return. Quickly. Quietly. Leave us to perish in quiet…
We do not wish anything to happen.
Seven years we have lived quietly,
Succeeded in avoiding notice,
Living and partly living.

They describe years of plenty and years of famine; birth and death; joy and fears. Like typical humans, they tend to deny and minimize just how awful things are. They hint at dreadful realities that they regularly endure – their daughters taken by the wealthy and powerful, untimely deaths, oppression, and violence. Somehow these painful parts of life seem “okay” or manageable in comparison with a new beginning of an unknown future.

As the old saying goes, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Rather than face our pain, rather than resolving conflict, rather than humbling ourselves and asking for assistance, we are much more likely to tell lies to ourselves and deny that change is needed. We choose surviving over thriving. Living and partly living.

Or we minimize. Personally, I’ve always had a passionate commitment to Truth and Goodness and Beauty. When those realities hit me between the eyes,  I realize that I can no longer live in denial. But oh, have I been a master of minimizing! For years, I carried painful and unhealed wounds that needed attention from God and others. I acknowledged them as best I knew how. But I shaded the truth. I told myself that it wasn’t all that bad, that other people had it so much worse, that I should be grateful for what I have, and so forth. I was surviving, not thriving. Living and partly living.

Back to T.S. Eliot. As Thomas faces his spiritual battle with the final tempter, the women of Canterbury chime in. They begin shedding their denial, admitting a bit more of the truth:

We have not been happy, my Lord, we have not been too happy.
We are not ignorant women, we know what we must expect and not expect.
We know of oppression and torture,
We know of extortion and violence,
Destitution, disease…
Our sins made heavier upon us.
We have seen the young man mutilated,
The torn girl trembling by the mill-stream.
And meanwhile we have gone on living,
Living and partly living…

As they begin facing the pain, they feel a clutching panic gripping their hearts:

God gave us always some reason, some hope; but now a new terror has soiled us, which none can avert, none can avoid, flowing under our feet and over the sky;
Under doors and down chimneys, flowing in at the ear and the mouth and the eye.
God is leaving us, God is leaving us, more pang, more pain than birth or death…
O Thomas Archbishop, save us, save us, save yourself that we may be saved;
Destroy yourself and we are destroyed.

It is one of the oldest human stories. We recognize the need for change. We begin to accept it. Perhaps we even make a firm resolve and take some serious first steps. Then, as the familiar fades from view, we panic. We become dizzy and disoriented. We feel a fear as of death. All too often, we scurry back to our hellhole. The battered woman returns to her abuser. The addict resumes his familiar rituals, and finds himself “surprised” to be acting out, yet again.

In this case, the women of Canterbury persevere. When December 29 arrives, they choose to be courageous. Even though they feel enormous fear and dread; even though they are yet quite feeble and imperfect, they give their consent:

I have smelt them, the death-bringers, senses are quickened…
I have smelt them, the death-bringers; now is too late
For action, too soon for contrition.
Nothing is possible but the shamed swoon
Of those consenting to the last humiliation.
I have consented, Lord Archbishop, have consented…
O Lord Archbishop, O Thomas Archbishop, forgive us, forgive us, pray for us that we may pray for you, out of our shame.

Thomas enters the scene and affirms them:

Peace, and be at peace with your thoughts and visions.
These things had to come to you and you to accept them.
This is your share of the eternal burden…
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

Indeed. Truth and Goodness and Beauty transcend us. We receive them and are received into them as we are capable. It is a slow and sometimes painful journey of conversion and growth. It is okay that we stumble and struggle so much along the way. God understands, and so do our true friends.

The play concludes. Thomas is savagely murdered, just as he and the women foresaw. They have already asked pardon of Thomas. Now they ask pardon of God. They are finally ready to confess truthfully their greatest sin – fearing the fullness of God’s love, and protecting themselves against receiving God’s blessing.

Forgive us, O Lord…
Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;
Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God;
Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal,
Less than we fear the love of God.

God only wants to bless us. We are his dear and precious children. Any changes he asks of us, any sacrifices, any sufferings are only for the sake of stretching us, enlarging our capacity, and then filling us superabundantly with his love. We, like the women of Canterbury, cannot bear very much reality. Hopefully we will consent to put to death our old ways, to leave them behind, and to fare forward (to borrow words from another T.S. Eliot poem). Yes, we will feel fear, and probably all sorts of other emotions: shame, guilt, anger, sadness, or loneliness. Still, we can fare forward. With the support and encouragement of God and others, little by little, we can learn to leave behind our self-protective hellhole and step out into the light of God’s love, receiving grace upon grace.

Evangelization: The Barnabas Option

In the Acts of the Apostles, Barnabas offers a shining example of Christian evangelization – one that any of us can learn.

He goes to Antioch, a pagan Greek city, where many are beginning to experience the call to conversion. As Luke describes, “When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart, for he was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith. And a large number of people was added to the Lord” (Acts 11:23-24).

Barnabas followed three simple steps: (1) He saw; (2) He rejoiced; (3) He encouraged.

Barnabas saw. He noticed what God was doing. How? Not by himself, but because he was “a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.”

From start to finish, evangelization is God’s work. The Father draws every single human being to himself. The Holy Spirit is always there, ready to work within our hearts.  Perhaps we harden our hearts, in which case conversion will not happen. God will simply wait in love, like the Father waiting for the prodigal son. But if there is even the tiniest crack or opening, the Holy Spirit will begin working the grace of conversion.

If the evangelist is guided by the Holy Spirit, he will notice what the same Holy Spirit is doing in the other person’s heart. He will see. He will rejoice.

Barnabas rejoiced. The work of the Holy Spirit is always cause for joy. Any sign of progress, no matter how small, should be celebrated as “Good News.” Growing and maturing spiritually is so much like the process of little children growing up. Most of us find great joy in watching a baby speak his first words or take his first steps. We communicate that joy with enthusiastic encouragement.

Barnabas encouraged. Literally, Barnabas means “son of encouragement” – in Greek, huios paraklēseōs. Notice how paraklēseōs is related to “Paraclete” – the title Jesus uses for himself and for the Holy Spirit. They are both sent by the Father to encourage, to console, to comfort, to advocate, and to heal.

We all need encouragement. We always have and always will. We need it from God and we need it from at least some other human beings in our life.

Indeed, brain science shows us that encouragement is how we learn to change at any stage in life – whether as little children or as “old dogs” who think we can’t learn any new tricks. Through small releases of dopamine, the pleasure center of our brain reinforces the lesson learned. Feeling encouraged by the small success, we desire to keep going. Success builds on success. It’s how little children learn, and it’s also how we adults change. Unfortunately, product peddlers, video game makers, social media engineers, and pornographers also understand this truth about how the brain works. In their case, they count on doses of dopamine leading people, step-by-step, into a dependency or addiction.

It is step-by-step that we get mired in sin. It is step-by-step that God heals and restores us. As Gregory the Great once said, we do not get to the top of the mountain by one great leap, but by steps. Barnabas intuitively understood that point. He allowed the Holy Spirit to work in his heart, aiding him to see and rejoice and encourage.

Why do Christians today struggle to evangelize? I see at least three attitudes that block successful evangelization from happening.

First, there is lukewarmness and mediocrity. Many Christians want that which is comfortable and familiar. They want their regular worship time, their regular seat, the same old parish activities, and they sure as heck don’t want any challenging change. Even priests and bishops are not immune to this apathy. Hopefully today we can see that “business as usual” has not been working for us!

Secondly, there is a spirit of fear and timidity. Yes, devout Christians typically want to see growth in their parishes. But they often see themselves as not educated enough to evangelize, not having the tools or skills. Barnabas shows us that the Holy Spirit is the primary evangelizing force. Do we really believe? If so, we can call down the Holy Spirit to equip our hearts. We can be confident that the same Holy Spirit is truly at work in the heart of the person we are speaking Good News to. We can always call on the Holy Spirit to help us see and rejoice and encourage what is there. He will.

Thirdly, there is a Pharisaical fear. Instead of seeing and rejoicing and encouraging, we smack people with the rules. We try to fix their problems. We start telling them all the things they need to do. When the Holy Spirit is working, full conversion will ultimately happen – we don’t have to panic or rush it! Like children, they grow into it step-by-step. But if they don’t experience that divine encouragement they are more likely to feel overwhelmed and turn away.

I must admit that I was guilty of Pharisaical fear myself. My wounds of shame and fear led me to be overly concerned with “following the rules.” I had to be good enough to be loved by God. I knew, intellectually, that God was an all-loving Father. But my heart struggled to internalize that truth. Unfortunately, as a spiritual father, I think I may sometimes have passed on the wrong message. I probably also missed a few opportunities to evangelize.  I’ve been learning to surrender the urge to be in control and instead to be like Barnabas. It’s amazing how the Holy Spirit takes over from there!