BELONGING: Eternal Echoes, Prologue (Part 1) by John O’Donohue

Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong

Eternal Echoes, Prologue (Part 1) by John O’Donohue

From Eternal Echoes

I remember as a child discovering the echo of sound.  It was the first time that my father took me up the mountain to herd the cattle.  As we passed a limestone cliff, he called out to the cattle in the distance.  His call had barely ended when it was copied exactly and sent forth again by the stone.  It was a fascinating discovery.  I tried out my own voice and the echo returned faithfully every time.  It was as if the solid limestone mountains had secret hearing and voice.  Their natural stillness and silence suddenly broke forth in an exact mimic of the human voice, indicating that there is a resonant heart in the depths of silence; the stone responds in a symmetry of sound.  Hearing one’s echo out among the lonely mountains seems to suggest that one is not alone.  Landscape and nature know us and the returning echo seems to confirm that we belong here.  We live in a world that responds to our longing; it is a place where the echoes always return, even if sometimes slowly.  It is as if the dynamic symmetry of the echo comprised the radius of an invisible but powerful circle of belonging.

The hunger to belong is at the heart of our nature.  Cut off from others, we atrophy and turn in on ourselves.  The sense of belonging is the natural balance of our lives.  Mostly, we do not need to make an issue of belonging.  When we belong, we take it for granted.  There is some innocent childlike side to the human heart that is always deeply hurt when we are excluded.  Belonging suggests warmth, understanding, and embrace.  No one was created for isolation.  When we become isolated, we are prone to being damaged; our minds lose their flexibility and natural kindness; we become vulnerable to fear and negativity.  The sense of belonging keeps you in balance amidst the inner and outer immensities.  The ancient and eternal values of human life – truth, unity, goodness, justice, beauty, and love are all statements of true belonging; they are also the secret intention and dream of human longing.

Wherever there is distance, there is longing.  Yet there is some strange wisdom in the fact of distance.  It is interesting to remember that the light that sustains life here on Earth comes from elsewhere.  Light is the mother of life.  Yet the sun and the moon are not on the Earth; they bless us with light across the vast distances.  We are protected and blessed in our distance.  Were we nearer to the sun, the Earth would be consumed in its fire; it is the distance that makes the fire kind.  Nothing in creation is ever totally at home in itself.  Nothing is ultimately at one with itself.  Everything that is alive holds distance within itself.  This is especially true of the human self.  It is the deepest intimacy which is nevertheless infused with infinite distance.  There is some strange sense in which distance and closeness are sisters, the two sides of the one experience.  Distance awakens longing; closeness is belonging.  Yet they are always in a dynamic interflow with each other.  When we fix or locate them definitively, we injure our growth.  It is an interesting imaginative exercise to interchange them: to consider what is near as distant and to consider the distant as intimate.

Our hunger to belong is the longing to find a bridge across the distance from isolation to intimacy.  Every one longs for intimacy and dreams of a nest of belonging in which one is embraced, seen, and loved.  Something within each of us cries out for belonging.  We can have all the world has to offer in terms of status, achievement, and possessions.  Yet without a sense of belonging it all seems empty and pointless.  Like the tree that puts roots deep into the clay, each of us needs the anchor of belonging in order to bend with the storms and reach towards the light.  Like the ocean that returns each time to the same shore, a sense of belonging liberates us to trust fully the rhythm of loss and longing; it also shelters us from the loneliness of life.  Though we may not reflect too frequently on the vast infinity that surrounds us, something within us is always aware of it.  Such infinity can be anonymous and threatening; it makes us feel inconsequential and tiny.  Unknown to us this intensifies our hunger to belong.  The universe is too big for us; we long for a sure nest to shelter.  The sense of belonging also shelters us from the inner infinity which each of us secretly carries.  There is a huge abyss within every mind.  When we belong, we have an outside mooring to prevent us from falling into ourselves.

Each one of us journeys alone to this world and it is our nature to seek out belonging.  Each of us carries a unique world within our hearts.  Each soul is a different shape.  No one feels your life as you do; no one experiences things the way you do.  Your life is a totally unique story and only you really know it from within.  No one knows what your experience is like.  The experience of each of us is opaque and inaccessible to outsiders.  Yet no individual is sealed off or hermetically self-enclosed.  Though each soul is individual and unique, by its very nature the soul cannot cut itself off from the world.  The deepest nature of the soul is relationship.  Consequently, it is your soul that longs to belong; it is also your soul that makes all belonging possible.  No soul is private or merely mortal.  As well as being the vital principle of your individual life, your soul is also ancient and eternal and weaves you into the great tapestry of spirit that connects everything everywhere.  There is a lovely balance at the heart of our nature: each of us is utterly unique and yet we live in the most intimate kinship with everyone and everything else.  Belonging is not merely shelter from being separate and different.  Its more profound intention is the awakening of the Great Belonging which embraces everything.  Our hunger to belong is the desire to awaken this hidden affinity.  Then we know that we are not outsiders cut off from everything, but rather participants at the heart of creation.  Each of us brings something alive in the world that no one else can.  There is a profound necessity at the heart of individuality.  When your life awakens and you begin to sense the destiny that brought you here, you endeavor to live a life that is generous and worthy of the blessing and invitation that is always calling you.

In post-modern culture there is a deep hunger to belong.  An increasing majority of people feel isolated and marginalized.  Experience is haunted by fragmentation.  Many of the traditional shelters are in ruins.  Society is losing the art of fostering community.  Consumerism is now propelling life towards the lonely isolation of individualism.  Technology pretends to unite us, yet more often than not all it delivers are simulated images.  The “global village” has no roads or neighbors; it is a faceless limbo from which all individuality has been abstracted.  Politics seems devoid of the imagination that calls forth vision and ideals; it is becoming ever more synonymous with the functionalism of economic pragmatism.  Many of the keepers of the great religious traditions now seem to be frightened functionaries; in a more uniform culture, their management skills would be efficient and successful.  In a pluralistic and deeply fragmented culture, they seem unable to converse with the complexities and hungers of our longing.  From this perspective, it seems that we are in the midst of a huge crisis of belonging.  When the outer cultural shelters are in ruins, we need to explore and reawaken the depths of belonging in the human mind and soul; perhaps, the recognition of the depth of our hunger to belong may gradually assist us in awakening new and unexpected possibilities of community and friendship.

In a universe of absolute stillness, there would be no question about belonging.  Everything would be at one in the same eternal still life.  The sway of nature and the swerve of thought means that space and distance are alive with longing.  No thing can be itself completely without the other.  No one can be herself without the other sisters and brothers.  The one who dreamed the universe loved circles and created everything with such beautiful incompletion that we need the others to complete the circles of identity, belonging, and creativity.  Life is full of magnetic interims that call what is separate and different to become one, to enter into the art and presence of belonging.

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