It was like looking into a mirror that had no smudges and no water spots–a perfect reflection staring back at me.
I am almost finished with John O’ Donohue’s book Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Yearning to Belong, the book that I have used for my morning meditations for the past few months. Last week I sat down in my man chair with a cup of strong French-press coffee and opened to the short meditation titled, The Artist as Permanent Pilgrim. My eyes grew wider with each sentence. My jaw dropped. This was a personal letter to me. After years of trying to explain how I felt caught between two worlds O’ Donohue finally put words to the experience.
Here is a short excerpt that was especially powerful and right on:
“Every artist works from the huge belonging to the tradition, but yet does not repeat anything. The artist belongs in a strange way. He inhabits the tradition to such depth that he can feel it beat in his heart, but his tradition also makes him feel like a total stranger who can find for his longing no echo there. Out of the flow of this intimate foreignness something new begins to emerge.”
Wow, John, you really nailed how I have been feeling. This nagging longing and homelessness make sense now. I have spoken often of feeling caught between two worlds and described at times a sort of love/hate relationship with my Christian tradition. Good people in my tradition wonder why I keep searching outside the lines of our tradition. And good friends who don’t share my religious tradition wonder what keeps me coming back to it over and over again. O’ Donohue nails it when he says that the artist can feel the depth of the tradition beat in his heart and feel like a total stranger to the tradition at the same time.
Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s it!
I wonder if this is how Jesus felt when he said, “I came not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.” I wonder if he too was deeply in love with his Jewish tradition and identity and yet, at the same time, felt completely misunderstood and foreign to it also. I wonder if his longing for God represented both the deepest and best part of his tradition and represented how shallow his tradition could often be. I wonder if he felt like a Jewish son and an unknown stranger all at the same time.
O’ Donohue says that the artist becomes a permanent pilgrim because the longing never goes away until the work is complete. He writes,
“Each (artist) is haunted by some inner voice that will not permit any contentment until what is demanded is created. The artist cannot settle into the consensus of normal belonging.”
Damn! This guy really knows me. And any of you who have gotten to know me over the years probably recognize this as well. “What drives this guy?” “Will he ever settle down?” “I wish he would just learn to be content with something?” “Is nothing ever good enough for him?”
I am so thankful for O’ Donohue’s words. While I may never feel normal, his words normalized my experience. It makes sense why I continue to dive into the depths of my Christian tradition and feel unbelievably frustrated and disappointed in it at the same time. It makes sense that no matter how many times I go on pilgrimage and stretch a congregation a little more it is never enough. My title Alone: A 4,000 Mile Search for Belonging makes complete sense. Like an artist I have a vision in my head and a longing in my heart and there will be no sigh of relief until the final brushstroke is applied, the last chip of wood is carved out and the final coat of varnish is applied. This piece of art is a lifetime in the making.
O’ Donohue writes, “The artist is always faithful to longing, first.”
Truth be told this is my god. Even though I serve the church it is not the church that owns my soul. And even though I am fiercely, annoyingly independent it is not my ego that drives me. Rather it is this longing to hear the echo of an eternal presence and to feel an intimate belonging that transcends this world’s definitions. It is to listen for the sacred heartbeat of God and know that my heart too beats in rhythm.
O’ Donohue said it. The artist is one who lives the longing, worships the longing and follows the longing until the longing is satisfied by the sweet taste of eternity and the enjoyment of divine intimacy. This type of artist is a permanent pilgrim.
Will you travel with me?