I remember standing on the shore of Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coast on top of the other-worldly rock formations known as the Giant’s Causeway, almost half-believing the tales of the giant Finn MacCool1 building a bridge to Scotland to fight another giant. I climbed the long, snaking trail up the cliff face, paced the uneven Shepherd’s Steps and onto the flat summit overlooking the piercing rays of the setting sun as it fell behind the rippling sea. Sheep grazed on a flat grassy mesa nearby and, as I felt the salt wind almost lift me off the ground, I found myself on my knees, with tears in my eyes, heart aching with the terrible beauty of it all.
I had never felt more alive, more present and here . . . and never longed more for a life somewhere else.
The Germans have a word for when such experiences drain our vocabularies: sehnsucht.2 Formed from sehnen (“to long”) and Sucht (“lingering illness; anxiety; or addiction”), it’s a quasi-mystical term intended to convey an ambiguous and deep emotional state for which human language truly has no adequate expression. It is unspeakable desire: the foretaste of that for which we most ardently long and the light by which we see all as worthy of longing in the first place. It’s the memory with which we look back on past people and events and cry mingled tears of joy and grief – and the hungering desire to feel both at their full strength.
C.S. Lewis was deeply affected by this idea, which he called his “inconsolable longing for we know not what,” that “unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier.” In the Afterword to The Pilgrim’s Regress, he spirals out long explanations trying to get at the fringes of this haunting hunger that’s followed him as long as he could remember:
Though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. Other desires are felt as pleasures only if satisfaction is expected in the near future: hunger is pleasant only while we know (or believe) that we are soon going to eat. But this desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world, by those who have once felt it. This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth. . . . This sounds complicated, but it is simple when we live it.3
The Giant’s Causeway was neither my first nor last encounter with sehnsucht, though it was certainly one of the most potent. That trip to Northern Ireland (as I remember it, anyway) was punctuated by several moments of this beleaguered joy, these brief glimpses into another reality. In the wet, rolling greens bordered by hedges and fences of stone, in the narrow cobbled streets overhung with pub signs, and in the cathedrals dotting the landscape (each claiming to have some connection to St. Patrick), it was truly the first time I’d felt a deep sense of “Thisness” about a place – the first time I’d felt my feet rooted into the soil on which they stood. I felt inches away from Divinity, as though all that need be done was to reach my hand out into the dark and I would feel the warm grip of the Unnameable. No wonder it was the Celts who described such places where the veil between this world and the next seemed especially permeable “thin places” – their land is full of them.
My life has been one long chase after sehnsucht. Running from moment to moment, experience to experience, hoping each one would unlock what I sought, hoping to find that thin place in which I could dwell forever in bliss. Yet like Lewis, who sought what he varyingly called “joy,” “nostalgia,” and “romanticism,” I have contemplated each of these experiences deeply enough to discover they cheated me of their promise.
Yet the desire remains.
And for Lewis, that was enough: the hunger itself was the proof that the proper food existed . . . somewhere. Or, as he put into the mouth of Jewel the unicorn: “ ‘I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!’ ”4
But am I willing to commit myself to such a path, to believing in Something I cannot objectively prove? If I’m honest, I know nothing certain about the Object of my Desire, neither that it exists nor that it would sate my hunger. Am I to choose live this life of joyous, radical unfulfillment – of “everyday unhappiness?”5
And what does attending church have to do with this desire? Why, as the title asks, do I stay?
Again, it comes back to potential. Though many would disagree with me, I continue to find in the stories of the Christian tradition and in the worship of the Christian community, the potential for moments of sehnsucht. Not that it happens every week, or even very often, but I can’t help the fact that these stories have shaped my imagination, are the filter through which I encounter life, including those thin-veil moments that break my heart with inconsolable desire.
My story is about a dawning awareness that my attempts to discover the goal of my soul’s great hunger have led me into the depths of failure and fear, but then back out into light and freedom. About how, despite my best efforts, I still find myself in the community of those who have found a similar freedom amongst the musty pages of the Bible.
My story is in so many ways about learning to receive the aching feeling in my chest with thankfulness, to find enjoyment in the longing itself; it is about learning to remember the moments when I have looked upon my outstretched palms and, with surprise, through the distantly-echoing swells of waves and the fleeting scent of salt air, find Divinity resting there.
1. Yes, that’s actually this Irish giant’s name and yes, McDonald’s really missed the mark by not making that the name of their Shamrock Shake.↩
2. Pronounced zān-zo͝oKHt↩
3. Lewis, C.S., The Pilgrim’s Regress, Afterward to 3rd ed.↩
4. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle. Lewis, C.S.↩
5. Cf. the work of Pete Rollins↩