BELONGING: Eternal Echoes, Prologue (Part 2) by John O’Donohue

Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong

Eternal Echoes, Prologue (Part 2) by John O’Donohue

From Eternal Echoes

Our world is suffused with beauty.  There are landscapes, oceans, paintings, and music whose beauty awakens in our hearts a sense of the eternal.  Yet nowhere do we feel so deeply encountered as we do in the presence of another human being.  There is something in another human presence that is equal to our longing and soul.  The human heart is a theater of longing.  One of our deepest longings is to find love and friendship.  In the Celtic tradition there was the beautiful notion of the Anam-Cara.  Anam is the Irish word for “soul” and Cara is the word for “friend.”  In the Anam-Cara friendship, you were joined in an ancient way with the friend of your soul.  This was a bond that neither space nor time could damage.  The friendship awakened an eternal echo in the hearts of the friends; they entered into a circle of intimate belonging with each other.  The Anam-Cara friendship afforded a spiritual space to all the other longings of the human heart.

There is a divine restlessness in the human heart.  Though our bodies maintain an outer stability and consistency, the heart is an eternal nomad.  No circle of belonging can ever contain all the longings of the human heart.  As Shakespeare said, we have “immortal longings.”  All human creativity issues from the urgency of longing.  Literally and physically, each of us is a child of longing – conceived in the passionate desire of our parents for each other.  All growth is the desire of the soul to refine and enlarge its presence.  The human body is a temple of sensuous spirit.  In every moment our senses reach out in longing to engage the world.  Movement, color, and shape engage the affections of the eye; tone, sound, and silence call continually to our hearing; touch, fragrance, and taste also bring us into intimacy with the world.  Our sensuous longing is inevitably immediate and passionate: the caress on the skin, the twilight that enthralls your seeing, Fauré’s Requiem which suffuses the depths of your hearing, the unexpected fragrance of a perfume, the icon of the face that you love.  As long as we live in the temple of the senses, longing will eternally call us.

In the inner world, thoughts are, as Meister Eckhart said “our inner senses.”  The eros of thought is the longing that voyages inwards to discover the secret landscapes of soul, mind, and memory.  Through our thoughts, we discover who we are and which presences inhabit our hearts.  Thought puts a face on experience and probes the mystery of things.  It looks below the surface and seeks the substance.  Everything humans have done on Earth is an expression of thought.  Without thinking none of it would have happened.  From the ancient monuments to modern architecture, from the cave paintings to email, from the Druids to modern ritual, human thought has continually incarnated human longing.  The world that we have fashioned with its history and culture expresses the diversity and complexity of human longing.  Work is human desire in action.

Many of the really powerful forces in contemporary culture work to seduce human longing along the pathways of false satisfaction.  When our longing becomes numbed, our sense of belonging becomes empty and cold; this intensifies the sense of isolation and distance that so many people now feel.  Consumerism is the worship of the god of quantity; advertising is its liturgy.  Advertising is schooling in false longing.  More and more the world of image claims our longing.  Image is mere surface veneer.  It is no wonder that there is such a crisis of belonging now since there is no homeland in this external world of image and product.  It is a famine field of the Spirit.  Despite all the energy and development that have taken place many areas in modern life are losing their nature and grace.

The restlessness in the human heart will never be finally stilled by any person, project, or place.  The longing is eternal.  This is what constantly qualifies and enlarges our circles of belonging.  There is a constant and vital tension between longing and belonging.  Without the shelter of belonging, our longings would lack direction, focus, and context; they would be aimless and haunted, constantly tugging the heart in a myriad of opposing directions.  Without belonging, our longing would be demented.  As memory gathers and anchors time, so does belonging shelter longing.  Belonging without longing would be empty and dead, a cold frame around emptiness.  One often notices this in relationships where the longing has died; they have become arrangements, and there is no longer any shared or vital presence.  When longing dies, creativity ceases.  The arduous task of being a human is to balance longing and belonging so that they work with and against each other to ensure that all the potential and gifts that sleep in the clay of the heart may be awakened and realized in this one life.  All our longing is but an eternal echo of the Divine Longing which has created us and sustains us here.  Sheltered within the embrace of that Great Belonging we can dare to let our longing lead us towards the mountain of transfiguration.

In Greek mythology, the theme of longing and belonging finds poignant expression in the story of Echo.  The nymph called Echo could only use her voice in repetition of another.  Echo was one of the many who fell in love with the beautiful Narcissus.  One day, she secretly follows Narcissus as he goes out hunting with friends, and although she longs to address him, she is unable to do so because she cannot speak first.  Her chance to speak comes when Narcissus loses his friends.  Alone and isolated, he calls and Echo seizes the opportunity to speak by repeating his words back to him.  But when Narcissus calls to his friends, “Let us come together here,” Echo misunderstands him and, rushing to embrace him, reveals herself.  Narcissus brutally rejects her and she is doomed to spend the rest of her life pining in demented longing for him.

Narcissus, of course, finally beholds his beauty in his reflection in a pool and falls in love with himself.  But this love is torture to him, for, falling in love with himself, he is caught in an unbearable contradiction.  In the figure of Narcissus, self and other collapse into one: he is both lover and beloved in one body.  Unable to endure the torment of such desperate love that is its own object and can, therefore, never possess itself, he breaks the circle by killing himself.  Echo is there at his death to repeat his desolate dying words.

In the subtle wisdom of Greek mythology it is no accident that Narcissus and Echo are paired.  It is as if she externalizes the fatal symmetry of Narcissus’s self-obsession and his life path, which is littered with those he has rejected.  The irony here is that he too will have to reject himself as well, with the same ferocity.  Trapped within a sealed circle of self-belonging, his longing for himself leads to self-annihilation.  He is unable to build any distance or otherness into his own self-love.  It tells us much about the nature of Echo that her fate is twinned with his.  She is totally vulnerable because she cannot speak first.  Her name and nature are one.  She longs for him and when he rejects her, she is doomed to a life of demented longing which reduces her to little more than a lonely, desperate voice.

A book is barely an object; it is a tender presence fashioned from words, the secret echoes of the mind.  This book attempts a poetic and speculative exploration of the creative tension between longing and belonging.  The text has a dual structure: a first layer of image, story, and reflection, and underlying this a more philosophical subtext which might invite a more personal journey of reflection.  The modest hope is that in a broken world full of such eerie silence, this little reflection might clear a space in the heart so that the eternal echoes of your embrace in the shelter of the invisible circle of belonging may become audible.  A true sense of belonging should allow us to become free and creative, and inhabit the silent depth within us.  Such belonging would be flexible, open, and challenging.  Unlike the loneliness of Echo, it should liberate us from the traps of falsity and obsession, and enable us to enter the circle of friendship at the heart of creation.  There is a resonant heart in the depth of silence.  When your true heart speaks, the echo will return to assure you that every moment of your presence happens in the shelter of the invisible circle.  These eternal echoes will transfigure your hunger to belong.

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