Copyright © 1997 Mars Hill Review 8 (Summer 1997): 9-23.
In all of our hearts lies a longing for a Sacred Romance. It will not go away in spite of our efforts over the years to anesthetize or ignore its song, or attach it to a single person or endeavor. It is a Romance couched in mystery and set deeply within us. It cannot be categorized into propositional truths or fully known any more than studying the anatomy of a corpse would help us know the person who once inhabited it.
Philosophers call this Romance, this heart yearning set within us, the longing for transcendence—the desire to be part of something out of the ordinary that is good. Transcendence is what we experience in a small but powerful way when our city’s football team wins the big game against tremendous odds. The deepest part of our heart longs to be bound together in some heroic purpose with others of like mind and spirit.
Art, literature, and music have all portrayed and explored the Romance, or its loss, in myriad scenes, images, sounds, and characters that nonetheless speak to us out of the same story. The universality of the story is the reason Shakespeare’s plays, even though they speak to us from a pastoral setting in England across four hundred years of time, speak so eloquently and faithfully that they are still performed on stages from Tokyo to New York City.
Someone or something has romanced us from the beginning with creekside singers and pastel sunsets, with the austere majesty of snowcapped mountains and the poignant flames of autumn colors telling us of something—or someone—leaving, with a promise to return. These things can, in an unguarded moment, bring us to our knees with longing for this something or someone who is lost; someone or something only our heart recognizes. It is as if someone has left us with a haunting in our inner-heart stories that will not go away; nor will it allow itself to be captured and ordered. The Romance comes and goes as it wills. And so we are haunted by it.
If this poignant longing were the only deep experience of our soul, then we should not lose heart. Though we may not have satisfaction yet, we would search for it all our lives. There are enough hints and clues and "tantalizing glimpses" to keep us searching, our heart ever open and alive to the quest. But there is another message that comes to all of us in varying shades and intensities, even in our early years. It often seems to come out of nowhere and for no discernible reason that we can fathom. It is dark, powerful, and full of dread. I think of it as the Message of the Arrows.
There are only two things that pierce the human heart, wrote Simone Weil. One is beauty. The other is affliction. And while we wish there were only beauty in the world, each of us has known enough pain to raise serious doubts about the universe we live in. From very early in life we know another message, warning us that the Romance has an enemy.
The psalmist speaks of this enemy and tells us we need not fear it:
He [God] will save you from the fowler’s snareYet we cannot deny that the Arrows have struck us all, sometimes arriving in a hail of projectiles that blocked out the sun, and other times descending in more subtle flight that only let us know we were wounded years later, when the wound festered and broke.
And from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day. (Psalm 91:3-5)