My wife and I have now had the chance to attend a couple of performances by the excellent Atlanta Symphony Orchestra where we listened to the rarely performed Symphony No. 5 by British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams. I have always enjoyed his music, but about halfway through each performance, I found myself wondering why I find it so gripping, soothing, and even a tad, well, unsettling. Throughout his music, there is a sense of unease with flashes of calm or peace or whatever you want to call it breaking through.
Vaughan Williams wrote with a sense of the ominous on the horizon. As a medic during the First World War, looking across the shredded French landscape, he surely considered that something so big was happening as to change the world forever. He struggled to reconcile something so heartbreaking with what was once pristine. This violent transition signaled the sad reality of loss.
These thoughts fueled his Symphony No. 3 also known as the Pastoral Symphony, which he completed after the war. Beset by trench warfare, Vaughan Williams produced one of the most memorable pieces of 20th century music: at turns slow and somber, haunting and full of melancholy, and yet containing moments of hope and even triumphalism. The piece aurally paints a picture of beauty slipping away never to be recovered. In so much of his music, one finds a sense of sadness. But even more than this is the constant feeling of universal longing. Longing for a place we once had or shared. Longing for a time unmarred by panic, whether made by humanity or nature. Longing toward restoration and wholeness.
One of the Bible’s most gripping descriptions of longing comes from Deuteronomy 28:32. With dramatic examples, Moses describes life as it might look apart from God, broken and marred. “Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and fail with longing for them all the day.” Here the Hebrew term translates “longing” (kaleh) to “failing with desire.”
What a vision for us today. We see a way of life we have enjoyed for a century, and we feel it slipping out of our hands. Falling stocks, a frozen housing market, retirement plans jettisoned, weddings and funerals conducted with no one in attendance. Not the life we were brought up to expect or for which most of us saved and looked toward. We long for what we thought was promised us. But right now, we look upon all of this with failing eyes.
The last weeks have been surreal. Videos of over-capacity emergency rooms. Government officials coming to grasp how to navigate an unseen enemy. Social distancing. “Stay-in-place” orders. Businesses closing. Death unfolding in real time. To be sure, we are not embroiled in a global military conflict. But we have lost our sense of normalcy, and we are grasping with how to cope with it.
The notion that we would long for something necessarily implies that we are not satisfied. C.S. Lewis is well-known for suggesting that our longings indicate that we are made for another place and time.(1) It is a natural state for our souls to long for something, and our earthly desires serve to alert us to a real, if eventual, fulfillment of what truly satisfies.
Research indicates that our longing for another time—our sense of nostalgia—is almost always triggered by our association with one thing: people.(2) Our nostalgia is not simply for and toward things; it is actually bound up in our desire to connect with others. A child’s birthday party when we were young. The sense of home we longed to know. Grandmother’s kitchen. All of these bear some meaning in and of themselves, but largely, the meaning they carry is overwhelmingly bound up with the association they have with people: friends, family, grandmother.
Understanding this, it’s not hard to imagine Vaughan Williams witnessing his friends and brothers-in-arms as they fell day after day. The music he would write was in fact a hymn in honor of those lost and whose friendship he would not enjoy again. As the world around him physically changed, he, too, changed inwardly at the hands of great personal, irreplaceable loss.
This Lenten season has been by far the strangest period of time in my lifetime. So strange not to be in church on Palm Sunday, anticipating the coming week. So odd to simply “go to church” online. So unsettling to feel like our neighborhood may be the next to be infiltrated by an unseen, airborne contagion.
Even so, one of the greatest things to witness over the past weeks has been the intentionality of others who cross this divide and restore some bit of normalcy, even doing things that may not have been considered normal just a few weeks ago: Neighbors applauding medical personnel and first responders returning home at night. Parents intentionally putting aside part of every day to take their children for a walk. World-class musicians around the globe broadcasting live concerts from their living rooms, sometimes with colleagues joining them from remote locations to deliver a piece of music that would normally require a concert ticket.
And of course, there are more. Hundreds if not thousands of small acts of restoration, many never seen publicly. Many shared to show that brokenness need not remain the status quo. And so restoration continues, that thing rising above mere nostalgia.
Author Michael Chabon recently explored why so much of his novels and other writings dealt with nostalgia. He concluded, “The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.” He continued: “[Nostalgia is] the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored […]. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.”(3)
I feel the ache. But I hope I also glimpse the momentary restoration and hear an answering voice.
The indwelling value of all human life—that distinctive quality that places the Judeo-Christian worldview on a different plane from others because it recognizes the inherent worth of each one of us—facilitates this vision. An individual bearing the indelible print of a creator and thus the unmistakable mark of priceless worth, drawn into relationship with others, out of brokenness and into wholeness: this is what our hearts long for and to what our souls aim. The useless cycle of hollow longing, which leads us to a nostalgia for a different place or a better time, is only broken when we re-orient to the value of others in our lives.
And what an incredible time to see this afresh. Today is Maundy Thursday, the day set apart to remember Christ’s own small acts of restoration and relationship in the midst of uncertainty. The day before Christ would be broken for the world on the cross, he washed the feet of his small group of friends. The day before Christ would suffer and die, he asked them to remember this last meal with him, to remember him. So here is Christ, answering our longing with relationship, and in doing so, demonstrating how to serve and love in ways that are restorative. But more than this, Christ enables restoration by showing us that a real and final restoration awaits us and that it ultimately comes through a person. In him, we lack nothing.
Lowe Finney is a member of the writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 137.
(2) Susan L. Holak and William J. Havlena, “Nostalgia: An Exploratory Study of Themes and Emotions in the Nostalgic Experience,” Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 19, Eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal (Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 1992), 380-387.
(3) Michael Chabon, “The True Meaning of Nostalgia,” The New Yorker, March 25, 2017.