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.

Not-So-Great Expectations (Part 2 of 2)

In my last post, I described our human tendency to impose silent expectations on others, rather than asking for what we desire or need. That behavior works well enough for everyday interactions. It becomes irrational or foolish when we are expecting others to make our pain go away or to fulfill the deepest yearnings of our heart.

I mentioned the book Seven Desires by Mark and Debbie Laaser. They identify seven universal human longings: to be heard and understood, to be affirmed, to be blessed, to be safe, to be touched in a meaningful way, to be chosen, and to be included. They also offer the image of an iceberg. What we think of as “the problem” is often just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, silent and massive, lurks a strong force in motion that warrants much greater attention. If ignored long enough, it will advance with unstoppable momentum.

As I read their book, I felt the scales falling from my eyes. I now recognize that I was sometimes unwittingly placing expectations on others and that I was letting others place them on me. I realized that I often felt anxious or unsafe, rejected or shameful, alone or misunderstood. It was not other people’s fault that I felt those things. It was okay that I felt those things. I was not trapped. I was not doomed to feel those things forever. I could do something about it. My heavenly Father, my Blessed Mother Mary, and my true friends were there, if only I would ask for help. Not everyone can help me all the time.

In fact, it is much more appropriate that they do not. It is so important for us ordained ministers to have a strong support network outside of the communities we serve. That allows us the freedom of heart to love and serve the people in front of us.

After years of downplaying my emotional and spiritual pain, I began seeking and receiving additional support in facing my wounds of fear, shame, rejection, and abandonment. One of my friends and I have been on a similar journey, and regularly encourage each other to stay on the path of healing. It’s tempting to turn aside! He and I like to quip, “The problem with facing painful emotions is that they’re painful.” It is no surprise that many of us prefer to avoid them.

I totally relate to the analogy offered by Sister Miriam Heidland in her book Loved as I Am. She describes the numbness we feel in winter if we come indoors with frostbite. Following the numbness comes an excruciating pain – which is a step in the right direction – and finally the recovery of normal sensation in our appendages. Like little children, we often need to be encouraged that coming in from the cold is good for us, and that the unbearable pain is only temporary.

Jesus modeled for us a willingness to depend upon others, to ask for and receive what he needed. The Gospels describe how frequently he withdrew to abide with his Father, and how he radically depended upon his Father. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus humbly asked his friends to spend an hour with him in prayer – perhaps knowing that they might not give him what he asked for. Imitating his Father, he respected their freedom. He was secure in his identity as God’s beloved Son and had full confidence that his real needs would still be provided for.

Above all else, Jesus modeled true freedom for us. I yearn to imitate that freedom: “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely” (John 10:18). He offered himself freely as the spotless Lamb of God, but he never played the victim card.

I must admit that I still find it challenging to let my “yes” mean “yes” and my “no” mean “no” (cf. Matthew 5:37). I sometimes find myself saying “yes” grudgingly, and then needing to battle through resentment or self-pity. I sometimes experience irrational guilt or shame when I say “no” – even when my “no” is for very good reasons. Instead of a simple “yes” or “no” I often feel the need to justify myself.  My heart is a work in progress.

In my lack of full freedom, I can see that I am still struggling with unreasonable expectations – sometimes with those that others try to impose on me, but especially with the unreasonable expectations that I place on myself.

I’ve learned to listen attentively to my heart and lips, guarding against those words, “I have to…” In truth, I never “have to” do anything. No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely. There is always a choice. God always respects our freedom. Look at Adam and Eve. Look at the prodigal son. The Father allowed them to go their way. He allowed them to learn from the consequences of their choices. He never “makes” us do anything. We are always free.

I have to” is a lie. Often we believe it because we are avoiding a conflict or running from a challenging situation. Other times we tell ourselves “I have to” because we somehow believe that our self-worth will be diminished if we don’t fulfill this expectation of the other person. That’s a lie. We remain God’s sons and daughters; his Fatherly love never changes. When we can believe the full truth about who we are as God’s beloved children, then we can break free from the prison of fear. We can shake off the shackles of unreasonable expectations and begin freely giving and freely receiving, abiding in authentic human love.