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Immortal Longings

Immortal Longings

Wednesday January 9

The Very Rev Dr James Simpson reflects on the hidden God moments

In Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra says before she dies: “Give me my robe, put on my crown. I have immortal longings in me.”

I find that last phrase quite haunting. William James, the former distinguished professor of psychology at Harvard University once likened these immortal longings to an experience he sometimes had—that of a tune that was there in the back of his mind, but which he could never quite identify, or get rid of. “It is most indefinite to be sure and rather faint. And yet I know that if it should cease, there would be a great hush, a great void in my life.”

Some time ago I came across a song written in the 1980s when Russia was still not just communist, but to a marked degree atheistic. It was a song written and sung by a young Soviet metal band called ‘Black Coffee’. Listen to the words, “See the wooden churches of Russia, feel their warped and ancient walls. Come close and ask them about life. In these timbers beats a heart, lives a faith. Hush, hear the heart-beat.”

Even under the frozen ice-cap of Soviet denial, the immortal longings stirred. Full barns may satisfy cattle but not people. We have hungers which food, drink and political doctrines cannot ultimately satisfy. The Psalmist expressed it thus: “As a deer longs for a stream of cool water, so I long for you O God.”

Though the temptation is strong simply to live from moment to moment, year to year, achievement to achievement, and perhaps relationship to relationship, sometimes when alone, or when some sudden crisis or happening forces us to take stock, immortal longings surface. We experience moments when like Jacob in the Old Testament we cry out: “God was in this place and we knew it not”, moments when as Silas Marner said, “There’s dealings with us.” The playwright John Updike spoke of how though he had never had a Damascus Road experience, he had ‘heard whispers from the wings of the stage’.

A former teacher of mine, Dr McAfee Brown, told of once teaching philosophy and religious studies for a year in a French university. In one class there were a few practising Catholics, a few lapsed Catholics, a fair number of Protestants, mostly lapsed, and a group of what he called ‘happy pagans’. At least they were happy until one day during a field trip, one of the group was killed in a road accident.

That night Dr Brown conducted an informal memorial service. Given the great variety of outlooks present, he bent over backwards to avoid being sectarian. He felt the service went reasonably well. But at its conclusion one of the students went to her room and returned with a guitar. To Dr Brown’s surprise she started playing “Amazing Grace”. To his even greater surprise, the lapsed Catholics and Protestants and the not-so-happy pagans, all joined in.

Somehow the words of that very sectarian and specifically Christian hymn filled a vacuum in these young people's lives. On the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire that same hymn, sung by a Gospel choir, ministered to the immortal longings of those with tear-stained eyes at the service of remembrance.

I believe we ought to take special note of those moments when our immortal longings surface, when tears come to our eyes, whether they be tears of joy or sorrow, tears of repentance or tears of admiration. For these are often god-moments.

This article first appeared in January's Life and Work. Download a single copy from £1.99, subscribe from £12.