“We shall be haunted by a nostalgia for divine things, by a homesickness for God which is not eased in this world even by the presence of God.”
– Caryll Houselander
I’m certain I’m not alone in this. In feeling this feeling, this ache, that seems to always intensify when October comes. It has many names; orenda, sehnsucht, weltschmerz, hiraeth, šākan. It’s a simultaneous dissatisfaction with the world and a soul deep attraction to the signs and wonders contained within it. It’s that numinous pull at the human heart towards something beyond ourselves, beyond the rim of the world. It first swelled up in me and came brimming over in unexplainable tears probably around the 5th grade. It was more than those back to school September blues. This pang was stretching into winter. It left my heart feeling hollow.
I’d feel it haunt me sometimes as I’d speed past the blueberry fields on my paper route, or walk about the rust-red cranberry bogs that surrounded our little town growing up. It was smoldering in Springsteen’s music, in mournful songs like “Valentine’s Day” and “Downbound Train.” The writer Walker Percy once wrote that when we’re ten years old, this longing stirs, and it never goes away.
Author James K.A. Smith says “The way to your heart is through your body.” I felt that truth in my bones. Those melancholic streams leaked into my heart through the sound of a cold October rain washing over leathered leaves, and in the ghost rattle of branches in November. I’d look up and see them yawning, scraping at the grey autumn sky and I’d feel that existential weight. Even as I write this a whisper of the feeling returns, and maybe you, as you’re reading, are feeling it too. The comedian Louis CK refers to it as that “empty forever empty,” courageously naming it on a late night episode of Conan O’Brien. “You know what I’m talking’ about?” he said, leaning towards Conan. “I know what you’re talking about,” replied the fellow comedian, suddenly serious. And the 11,881,932 views on YouTube testify to an even wider recognition of this haunting of our hearts. We are all, it would seem in the words of the late Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, “an incarnate why.” We are a walking thirst. An embodied ache.
Now I’m not a fan of horror stories, scary movies, or the like. I remember hating having to read Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” in high school and the “Fall of the House of Usher.” But I do know what all the creepy masks are attempting to mask. What is Halloween, in the secular sense, but the cultural naming and claiming of this hollow in our hearts? It’s the stone over the tomb. It’s the creaking door opening into abysmal darkness, to the long hallway that keeps stretching further away from us even as we timidly step closer. And we step into it simply because we truly are this “incarnate why.” Though we shout to the actors on the movie screens “Don’t open it! Don’t go down there!” still, in this ache, we secretly want to know. Is there something there? What is it?
The author C.S. Lewis travelled the dark road of atheism for years. I say dark for this system of unbelief because it’s the self-willed shutting off of any transcendent light that might illuminate this dark passageway of our existential angst. Atheism refuses to look for any teleological dimension to life, any inherent meaning. But Lewis felt the haunting still.
“It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry, ‘It’s alive!’ And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back – I would have done so myself if I could – and proceed no further with Christianity.”
– C.S. Lewis, Miracles
Thankfully he did step onto that road that “goes ever on and on,” and followed it bravely until he came to terms with the haunting of his heart. Curiously, it happened too on an autumn day, walking the trails at the university with his Catholic friend, J.R.R. Tolkien. As they felt that October chill, and those same leathered brown leaves swirled about their feet, they discussed mythology, a favorite study for them both. Tolkien told his friend these fables they both loved were not lies “though breathed through silver” as Lewis claimed. They were whispers, allusions, hauntings if you will, of a great Spirit at work in the world. The ancient stories held a glimmer of truth, and that truth is, this Spirit is real. Just as real as that initial fear that comes when we realize we are not alone in a darkened room. This talk with Tolkien was the beginning of the end of Lewis’s atheism.
He later wrote, “An ‘impersonal God’ – well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness inside our own heads – better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power that we can tap – best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband – that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God’!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that!” (C.S. Lewis, Miracles)
Now back to our hearts. What should our posture be as we enter into these hollow and hallowed places within us? Let’s recall the way to the heart is in fact through the body, through the senses, and God so designed the world to come to us that way. In making us body-persons He is using all of these things to speak to us, to teach us, to love us and to draw us to him. With prayer and discernment of spirits, we must feel it all, even as Christ did, and we can long with him for the Father in those dark vigils on mountain tops and olive groves and craggy hills. Even in our moments of real absence – in October frosts, November chills, and the early dark of December, of stripped trees and wood burning fragrantly down to embers and ash – we can still abide in the Real Presence.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,” Book of Hours
Bill Donaghy has spoken internationally on faith and the New Evangelization since 1999. Through his work with the Pontifical Mission Societies, Bill gave hundreds of talks on the spirituality of mission to young people throughout the greater Philadelphia area and beyond, creating a teaching and speaking ministry known as MissionMoment.org. He holds an Associates Degree in Visual Arts, a Bachelors in Philosophy and a Masters in Systematic Theology. In addition to his full-time work for the Theology of the Body Institute, Bill teaches at Immaculata University. He and his wife, Rebecca, live outside of Philadelphia, PA with their four children.