Only Those Who Know the Longing by George Merrill


Enthusiasts of Tchaikovsky’s haunting melodies will be familiar with his classic, “None but the Lonely Heart.” The title, however, comes from a poem Goethe wrote. The German reads, “Nur wer die sehnsuch kennt,” which translates literally, “Only those who know the longing.” I strongly suspect we’ve all felt this longing, but didn’t know what to make of it. The feeling is unlike anything else.

Have you ever felt such a longing, a persistent and inexplicable yearning that seems to have no clear origin?

I’ve experienced it as a mood that comes and goes and feels like a deep huger for something I cannot quite put my finger on. Then, I see or hear of a particular happening that’s filled with grace and beauty and I’m suddenly moved to tears – not tears of sorrow or sadness, but the tears that release a latent joy that has been hidden from me deep down within my own heart. Yes, you say to myself, that’s it, that’s what sates this hunger of mine, something innately good and filled with love and grace.

This past year capped one of the darker eras in our national life. Over the last several years, hate and ugliness seemed to be insidiously growing like a malignant tumor in our national and world body. It was slowly disfiguring many of our treasured ideals. One ideal suffering disfigurement was that it made no difference anymore how anyone played the game, but only that they won it. Losers didn’t matter. They were non-persons. We stood by and watched, as our values were regularly devalued.

The year culminated in an atmosphere characterized by mean-spiritedness and flagrant amorality. But out of the crucible of the most unimaginable suffering in these last few years, there arose periodic intimations of that sublime beauty. We are finding that noble and grace-filled spark that burns in the human spirit – the image of God – still glows. Even in these troubled years we saw the evidence with our own eyes how love can conquer hate. In two instances the glow manifested itself in the suffering of the African American community in Charlottesville, North Carolina and the Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In June of 2015, Dylann Roof entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine parishioners were engaged in a Bible study – he shot them. That’s the ugly and hateful piece of the story. There’s another story. It’s different. During Roof’s bond hearing, several family members of the victims who attended said that they forgave him. The transformational quality of grace and goodness are perhaps one of the oldest miracles of our species. How do they do it, I wonder; would I be strong enough if I were in their circumstances?

Like butterflies these moments of deeper spiritual manifestations suddenly appear. Their beauty stuns us. Such moments are fragile and soon they are gone and forgotten. But like the butterflies’ wings, as fragile as they seem, will transport them across continents. I want such moments of grace to remain, to bring a continuing joy and hope into my life. The experience of grace and goodness is often transient, but it leaves in the corridors of memory something grand and noble, the knowing of something essentially good. Having once beheld it and felt its benign power, I want it to hold onto it always; I want all of us to have it – always.

Ten years ago, ten Amish schoolchildren were shot while in their one room schoolhouse. In the midst of their grief the Amish community did not blame, point fingers, and get lawyers – they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family. They visited the killer’s family to console them.

Again the power of grace and moral beauty to heal and reconcile is an awesome phenomenon to behold. It’s miraculous. How does goodness survive in the fetid fields of violence in which we grow? How can flowers bloom in an arid desert? They find a way and therein rests our hope.

I see little evidence that the antagonistic climate that has seized the country since the election will change that much. It places the burden on people of good will – on those who know the longing – to cultivate, in the small worlds in which each of us lives and has influence, the spirit of grace and goodness. ‘Walk in the light that you have,’ the old inspirational message urges us. That light is all that guides us when all other lights are extinguished.

Some hostilities and divisions remain so intractable as to seem irreconcilable. None more so than the Israeli – Palestinian conflict that only recently has reemerged to threaten the world.

There’s a story I once read about a handful of Israeli mothers that for a while, sated that longing in my heart. It’s a soul story, something essentially good and grace-filled. I think these women knew the longing.

At a checkpoint in Israel, Israeli guards were posted to monitor entering and exiting Palestinians. The tension for the soldiers was as stressful as it was for Palestinian citizens. This led some guards to treat Palestinians aggressively that in turn led the Palestinians to feel hostile and more victimized.

A group of women – Israeli mothers – banded together to undertake the task of monitoring the behavior of the guards, a few of whom were the mothers of the soldiers. When the guards gave evidence of not treating the Palestinians with basic courtesy, the particular mother assigned to monitor the guard would scold him. The legendary power of Jewish mothers to intimidate their sons became a profoundly humane, even a divine gesture, which maintained the integrity of the guards while securing a measure of dignity for entering and exiting Palestinians. It allowed neighbors to at least pass by one another without causing rancor.

No, the gesture didn’t resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. It helped the few whose live it touched to walk in the light. They knew about the longing.
Heed the longing when it comes. Listen to its music. It has messages for us.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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