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Sehnsucht & the Intensity of Yearning

Loiter, even briefly, near the Rabbit Room and you’ll surely hear the word. And even if you don’t hear it mentioned, you’ll surely sense its impact.

There are two reasons, primarily. One, because it preoccupied the Inklings—the original Rabbit Room regulars—especially C. S. Lewis. Two, because it’s one of those aspects of life that seems to require another’s articulation of it before our own awareness of it.

You guessed it. I’m talking about Sehnsucht. It was a word beloved of the German Romantic poets like Goethe and as such attracted Lewis’s attention, via his hero George MacDonald. You can tell that a language is struggling when it has to borrow from another. So inevitably, what the word grapples with is hard to define in English. “Disorienting longing” might be one definition, while simultaneously being a “blissful longing;” an experience with intimations of a transcendent reality, another. It’s that profound—if fleeting—sense, not only that there’s more to existence than anything in this life, but also that the beyond is where we belong. That’s why we yearn for it. That momentary awareness is what Lewis encapsulated (somewhat confusingly, I think) in the word joy. It was a crucial apologetic for his belief in God.

We need it deeper

At the most recent Hutchmoot, the concept of Sehnsucht featured. A lot. I expect it does so every year. The problem is that to the unfamiliar, it seems pretentious; to the regular, almost clichéd; but to the desperate for the really real, it’s indispensable. This is because the experience it articulates is reassuringly complex.

These days, western culture has an infuriating tendency to find comfort in crude simplifications: the strapline, the soundbite, the elevator pitch, the bullet points. They make life easier or more efficient. Or so we’re told. And so we settle for them. But too often, their comfort is illusory. They’re never enough, because life doesn’t work like that. So these days, I find myself increasingly saying (or, more likely, muttering under my breath), “It’s more complicated than that…” As puddles are to wells, so soundbites are to reality.

This is because the experience of Sehnsucht is multifaceted and paradoxical. It brings pleasure and wonder but also cuts deep and hard. It is frustratingly momentary and yet it somehow tethers us to the eternal. Each of us encounters it uniquely—a result of our unique matrix of genetics, background, culture, temperament, and experience—yet it seems a universal phenomenon.

But we should expect nothing less if the Teacher is to be believed. “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) That final clause by itself ought to hold any glib theological formula in check—while, of course, never to be set against the importance of what God has revealed.

We need it darker

Leonard Cohen’s final album, You Want It Darker, was a haunting, starkly beautiful meditation on mortality. As I blogged at the time, it was strange that David Bowie had also released his last work earlier that year (2016). Both were relentlessly creating while cancer was corroding them; both were determined to leave a posthumous musical legacy; both were intent on peering unflinchingly into the darkness. But while I was profoundly affected by both albums, it is Cohen’s that has stood the test of the last four years for me. Bowie’s darkness is creepier, displaying an almost gleeful relish in occult mystery, whereas Cohen is prepared to plumb the depths of human pain and perplexity, even when he has been the cause of both.

He provokes us with You Want It Darker. He seems to be saying, “Well, you did want me to be real, didn’t you?! So I’ll do just that.” He’s going to face reality, however dark it gets. Impending death often does that for people, doesn’t it? Once you stop denying mortality, it’s hard to deny anything else. Up until then, as Eliot noted early in his Four Quartets, our tendency is to settle for mirages:

… human kind Cannot bear very much reality. The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot

But thankfully, we don’t need only to wait until life’s autumn to face reality. Moments of Sehnsucht have a similarly sobering effect.

What about those moments of being spellbound with wonder? Or swept up in the sublime or ecstatic? Our God-given, exquisite yearning reminds us that the object of our wonder can never fully satisfy. It was coming to terms with this reality that was instrumental in C. S. Lewis’s conversion. Tim Keller often refers to this in his preaching:

Tolkien talked and said to Lewis, “You know when you’re in the presence of great art, there’s a joy you experience, but the joy is never delivered by that great art. The art makes you feel there’s ultimate truth, but it’s not ultimate truth. It makes you feel there’s perfect love, but it’s not perfect love. It makes you feel there’s meaning. Even as you experience it, you realize this feeling is just coming through the art, but actually there’s an underlying reality from which we’re cut off that we never feel we can quite get to that we so need, that we so want.” Lewis looked at Tolkien and he said, “Of course I know all that. Everybody understands that.” [Lewis continued,] “Yes, the great music, the great books, the old myths, the great legends, how they make you feel like there really is meaning …” Then he looked at Tolkien and said, “But myths are lies, though breathed through silver.” Tolkien looked at him and said, “No, they’re not.” He began to make two points Lewis never forgot. The first point he says is, “Think of the logic here. How is it possible that you would, unlike the animals, feel there is an underlying reality, that there is a meaning and there is a truth, and there is a love nothing in this world can satisfy if that doesn’t exist anywhere?” Christmas Wisdom, Tim Keller

This means that Sehnsucht is a surprising hindrance to our worship of created things. We are forced to recognize that there is something greater or deeper beyond. If what is ultimate is alone deserving of our worship (as only the Creator can be), then we are foolish to rest here. The person driving to London doesn’t pitch a tent at the first road sign pointing to London. 

But what about the times when we are wracked with private anguish? Or those times when we are overcome with compassion for the agonies of others? Doesn’t our longing for the home beyond lift our eyes and reassure us? Suffering, let alone death, will never—no, can never—have the final word. Those fleeting touches of Sehnsucht bring us solace in a broken creation. We were not made for this; we were made for perfection. Why else would we even be tempted to strive for it?

Sometimes people need it darker before they can get to that point. But doing so is no less than following in the Master’s steps. He is enthroned, but he will never not be the slain lamb on the throne.

We need it safer

But here’s the thing I love about Hutchmoot. It is safe.

Take note. I didn’t say comfortable—reality is rarely comfortable (is it ever?). Nor did I say easy—reality is rarely easy. And I am definitely not suggesting it’s safe because it provides a retreat from reality. I mean rather that it offers the gift of healthy safety. That is crucial because facing reality is risky, at times painful and bewildering. It can leave us intensely broken. Yet, simultaneously, it is crucial when we are confronted by beauty and artistry.

It's that profound—if fleeting—sense, not only that there's more to existence than anything in this life, but also that the beyond is where we belong. That's why we yearn for it. Mark Meynell

So many of our contemporaries seem to try to inoculate themselves with a ready wit and easy cynicism. They want to guard against the threat of wonder and awe, thickening what Charles Taylor so helpfully called “buffering.” In the secular west, we are “buffered selves,” surrounded by experiences and artifacts that keep us several steps removed from transcendent reality. We’re immersed—”encased” might be a better word—in the results of human manufacture. Consequently it’s nigh on impossible to see why God is even relevant. How easily we disdain our dependence for our every breath on the sustaining power of the living God.

But in a place such as Hutchmoot, we can relish the wondrous and beautiful together. Sure, beholders’ eyes have different perspectives. But we know what it ultimately means: we have hope. Hope for something even better, more beautiful, more breath-taking. For the sum of all our sub-creations is nothing compared to the new creation that God has promised.

This year’s Hutchmoot was precisely that. No one person’s experience of it will be like another’s—the range of break-out sessions ensures that. But I had an overwhelming sense of mutual support as we peered into the darkness, precisely because we could do it together and because our tears are safe. The read-through of Pete Peterson’s dramatization of Corrie ten Boom’s memoir The Hiding Place was a case in point. We longed for a world where Holocaust horrors could never occur, yet we could see the agonizing beauty of hard-won forgiveness, quite apart from the astonishing artistry involved in presenting the drama. It broke me utterly. But it couldn’t leave me hopeless.

At this and other points during the weekend, I saw God’s startling power to redeem in and through darkness. He can sustain us through pain. But he can turn the pain itself into a means of his grace. Just think about that for a moment. We might regard all kinds of things as divine means of grace: our friends in times of need and distress; a particular sermon that lifts our eyes or spirits; a bump in the road that jolts us awake just as we nod off at the wheel. Then, of course, there are the sacraments of baptism and communion which are the most traditionally understood means of grace. We rarely imagine that our sufferings might themselves function along such lines. But in God’s hands, they do, miraculously.

So those ephemeral flickers of the really real in the life after life all serve to make our yearning grow deeper and more intense.


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