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Image: Fra Perez

Eternity in Our Heart

How Art Makes Us Long for Home

As a child and young adult, I thought that I was homesick for beauty itself. Like many artists, I was aware of a sort of insatiable hunger in me for the beautiful at an early age. I grew up in northwest Iowa, near a place called the Loess Hills, named for its glacially deposited bluffs of humus-rich yellow soil. The sunsets in those bluffs brought about some of my first experiences of transient beauty, too rich to savor all at once, a feast that disappears before it can be finished.

The view of the stars from the farm of my childhood tore a cavernous maw of longing in my heart. It is a gift I am still learning to receive. On a clear night in winter on the farm, where there is little light pollution, the cosmic dust of the milky way is visible in a sweeping band of hazy half-light across the black bowl of the heavens, inlaid with its innumerable stars. I’ve traveled to China and across Europe and seen many beautiful places, but there has been no place quite like that rural Iowa sky on a winter night to break down the door of my heart and let the longing pour out like a raging sea. I was being called home by the beauty of nature long before I set out into the world, but I know now that home in its deepest sense was never truly found in Northwest Iowa.

Sehnsucht is a German word for a particular kind of longing that I have heard described as a homesickness for a place you’ve never been. You may ask, but how could we be homesick if we haven ’t been there? This is a good question, and it’s also part of the secret. We have been there, in some sort of shared collective memory passed through genealogy, wisdom, and creativity. We all know that things are not as they should be, and one of the greatest thrusts behind human progress comes from a desire to fix these things and reach a sort of perfect world. For all of human history we’ve struggled to agree on how to get there, though all of us partake, at least at some point, in the illusion that we can fix it on our own terms.

When we experience Sehnsucht, we get some sort of a glimpse behind the doorway to that secret home and how it will feel to get there—to the place of perfection and beauty. This glimpse is pleasurable, but the sensation is bittersweet. It doesn ’t last, and the emptiness on the other end of the feeling can be profound. We are prone to think the memory or discovery of our truest self can be unburied somewhere from a childhood memory or in an experience of beauty, but those things are just vehicles for the longing, as C.S. Lewis so beautifully expressed in The Weight of Glory.

The doors of the deep places in me were opened by art at a young age too. I cultivated a love for classical music as a middle schooler at a time when I was first vulnerable to the acute sensation of depression. When in the dark of my room, unsure of how to cope with the unbearable weight of existence, I slipped my headphones over my ears to let Tchaikovsky and Beethoven do their work on my soul. Deprived of visual stimuli, I would lay there in the dark, neurons firing and alive with harmony. The images would come to me unbidden then, and I began to paint to explore them around the same time. The invisible beauty and plumbless depths of classical music became a fixture in my life, giving me purpose, stimulation, and escape. The life-altering discoveries of particular works of music came to me regularly and come to me still, over twenty years later. Many of my most intense spiritual experiences have come through the unseen power of music.

One of my favorite composers is the German Romantic composer Johannes Brahms. The first time I sang the Brahms setting of Friedrich Schiller ’s poem “Nänie”, I was fourteen. In sotto voce, I sang the words, “Even beauty must perish, and all the perfect must die,” and Brahms ’ harmonic language made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up during every rehearsal. I lacked the experience to comprehend Schiller’s poetry then, but the music conveyed its truth to me on a neurological level. I spent five hours or more a week singing in choir from the time I was twelve until I turned twenty-five. I’ve felt Sehnsucht in that space a remarkable amount of times, in the work of composers from every musical era. Making music in a choir is unique in its glory. God’s breath, His ruach, collectively enters the lungs of immortal souls, and what is exhaled is glorious worship.

The world of orchestral music, where harmonic color can express truth without the help of words, was a revelation for me in high school. In “Fantasia on a Theme” by Thomas Tallis, English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams took a setting of Psalm 2 and expanded it into an aural cathedral for the mind and spirit. I will never forget my first experience of the work at age seventeen—I felt like I had been struck by lightning—every nerve raw, all my emotions converted to tears. To this day, I have encountered the Holy Spirit innumerable times through those particular colors and chords, witnessing glimpses of truth and beauty even before I had a framework for understanding that I was hearing the echoes of God’s beauty.

I chased Sehnsucht in the unseen to study the Renaissance for a semester in Italy, all the way through a graduate degree in classical music, and through the confusion of becoming a young adult in a sea of ideologies and insecurities. I did not grow up with a deep theological understanding of the world, or with a perception of a God who cultivates a longing in us that will not be satisfied with any artifact of the world. I didn't meet this God until I was twenty-five or so, the fruit of a season where my patient friend Laura took the time to untangle my doubts and fears about faith with me in friendship. In her witness, one of the most compelling arguments I heard on the path to seeing the God-in-flesh, the one who satisfies all debts and longings, was that this Sehnsucht was created by God and could finally be satisfied in Jesus. This was a kind of hope I had never come across.

Image: Davide Gazzotti

You see, even as a teenager, I learned the sunsets would not last on the Loess Hills. I spent my allowance trying to capture them on film. Roll after roll shot and submitted to the lab, I was always alight with anticipation when I picked up my film. But all that was left, as beautiful as the shot might have come out, was a shadow of what the experience had been. Vanity of vanities! I could never really grasp the beauty. Such is the fleeting nature of art-making too. I could finish a painting but the vision had only been translated in part. I could perform a song cycle, but the experience was transient and there was always silence on the other end of the performance, long after the audience left. For here we have no continuing city. After all of these experiences, the door to the longing still stood lonely and open, waiting for a permanent resident in the mansion of my soul. The art itself had become unsatisfying, even bitter at times, because it couldn't deliver what it seemed to promise.

There is a reason that C.S. Lewis calls the sensation of Sehnsucht “an inconsolable secret.” It is inconsolable, except perhaps on the other side of what Shakespeare’s Macbeth calls this bank and shoal of time. The scriptures say that when we die, we’ll be united with eternity himself, reconciled to the beauty and home we so long for through the cross of Christ, or we will be left wandering, eternally homesick. We either embrace or reject the notion that what we do and believe here, on this bank and shoal of time, matters. This place is not eternity, and neither is the art we produce under the sun. Mortal life exists in the shallows, and God’s eternity flows all around this shoal, from beginning to end. What we do on the shoal determines which current catches us in the ocean of eternity.

Beauty is cruel if all it does is tear us open and lay us bare, leaving us vulnerable to the changing tides of the world, thirsty and drowning. When I began to realize what Sehnsucht really was, it was like watching my entire life come into focus. Everything suddenly made sense. The idea that the greatest symphony, painting, work of literature or poetry, or fearsome display of nature are all artifacts whose beauty only marginally reflect the true nature and person of the triune God is one that is profound in its truth. All the beautiful artifacts of the world will not outlast the immortal human soul, or the God whose image we bear. All my longing to know and understand art pales in comparison to my desire to know and understand the God of my longing through His word.

In the same way that Schiller’s words, “Even beauty must perish,” are immortalized in my aural memory through the music of Brahms, so are the words of Isaiah 40:6-8. “All flesh is as grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades… but the word of God will stand forevermore.” Meditation on the word of God pushes that door in me a little more open each time I partake, and the feast it promises is everlasting. When this meditation is amplified by art, my experience of God is only more intense.

For now, I can reasonably expect the experience of Sehnsucht as a part of creaturely life, walking upon a shoal, forward, forward, from birth toward death. We occasionally step into one of those grooves where the current has carved a shape, like the Sehnsucht carves a landscape in us. The current is not imaginary, although we cannot see it. We feel the pull, though we don't always notice the slow shaping. The landscape of the human heart is constantly being formed by our senses, habits, and our nursing of secret desire. We may resist or lean into the current, and even get swept away in it for a time.

In Ecclesiastes 3:11, Qoheleth says that God has “put eternity into man ’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” This is a gift, this longing, and so too is the inability to discover the perfect fulfillment of it here on earth. This gift is from a God who wants not to confound us with riddles, but who wishes to draw us to Him. He has embedded the secret of Sehnsucht within us to carve out a space for Himself, and then He reveals Himself to us through His word and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, carving the channels in our heart ever deeper. He gives us Himself, the only fulfillment of Sehnsucht, in a relational way, in a way that grows with time and intimacy. This intimacy culminates in an everlasting marriage in the eternal depths of God’s beauty and love, where no veil will separate us from Him. Instead of standing in the shallows of His beauty, we will be soaked in the depths of it forever, home at last.

Kelly Kruse
Writer & Artist

Kelly is the curator of The Four Chapter Gallery

Ekstasis is a publication and community that seeks to revive the Christian imagination by publishing work that slants toward the triumphant and glorious aspects of life in Christ, framed through the arts and literature.

Ekstasis aims to be a kind of digital cathedral, where we can have sanctuary from the noise, and find a place that captures our attention through loving art and luminous words.

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