On Longing: Beauty and the Beasts

A Sermon by

The Rev. Barbara Mraz

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St Paul, Minnesota

November 18, 2012



I Samuel 1:4-20; I Samuel 2:1-10

I was born not long after the end of World War II and maybe that’s why I have an irresistible longing for this time period – the late ‘40’s –the movies, the clothes, the hair, the music.

Last night there was a PBS special on the Big Bands – Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and the soloists that launched their careers with these groups—Helen O’Connell, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett.  I became sadder and sadder as I watched, aching for the glamour, the relative innocence, the fascination of all those people in uniform, all so beautiful and uncomplicated and romantic that it hurt.  It was a difficult era in many ways, but you’d never know from the music: “Night and Day,” “You’ll Never Know,” “It’s Magic,” “I’ll Be Seeing You.” What is missing in my own life that I idealize and so yearn for a time I never experienced?

What have you longed for so much that it hurt?

Was it longing for a great love?  A relationship? For a singular, golden opportunity to prove yourself because you knew you could do it? For relief from the pain?  For healing? For someone who had left you through death or abandonment?

Longing is yearning, desire, hunger of the most intense sort.  The very word suggests elongating our physical reach towards what we want so desperately.

Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is about Hannah, and more than anything, Hannah longed for a child.  She begs God, she bargains, she promises, she waits, year after year.  Finally, she is so depressed she can’t eat and she can’t stop crying.

Her husband Elkannah loves Hannah; she is the favorite of his two wives.  He is worried about her and asks, “Hannah, why do you weep?  Why do you not eat?  Why is your heart sad?  Am I not more to you than ten sons?”  We can all form our own conclusions about Elkannah based on that question…..

Eli, the high priest, observes Hannah praying silently in the temple, mouthing the words; he thinks she is intoxicated and tells her she is a drunken embarrassment.  She explains, he blesses her, she goes home, and we read, “The Lord remembered her.”  A year later, she bears a son and names him Samuel.  He becomes a great leader of the Jewish people.

It is unusual that today’s psalm is not really a psalm, but is from the book of Samuel.  It is Hannah’s “Magnificat” – her song of praise to God that echoes the song of Mary.  An appropriate psalm of Thanksgiving for this week, with the foreshadowing of Advent as well.

Longing seems to be programmed into us.  Even when our hunger for material things, money, and relationships is satisfied, we are not.  We long for things we cannot even name, for answers to questions we don’t know how to ask, for peace or fulfillment or for some emptiness to be filled.  In 1650, Blaise Pascal wrote that there is a “God-shaped vacuum” in every human heart.

Today I’d like to look at the nature of longing, and what it tells us about ourselves and about God. Why is longing programmed into each one of us?

We long for home and get “homesick” when we are way too long; we long for family –  for those present or those no longer with us. We yearn for friends, partners or soul mates. We are programmed for connection.  But not with just anyone.  How do friendships come about?  What instigates the connection we feel with some people and not with others?

Irish poet John O’Donohue says that a friendship is created, not because of an act of will or intention, but by an act of recognition.  In his book, Anam Cara, he writes, “It could be a meeting on the street, or a party or a lecture, or just a simple, banal introduction, then suddenly there is a flash of recognition and the embers of kinship glow. There is an awakening between you, a sense of ancient knowing.”  That explanation fascinates me.

This longing for the other echoes a longing for the divine that is built into us all.  And yet Scripture tells us that the best way we can find God and satisfy this longing is to reach out to each other, Mother Theresa of Calcutta advised, “The good you do today will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.  Give the world the best you have and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.  In the final analysis, it’s between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.”  Isn’t that an interesting way to look at this?

Our longing is also revealed in our attraction to beauty.  There are few things that can bring a group of human beings to silence and reverence than the sight of something incredibly beautiful: The Grand Canyon, a rose garden in June; a truly gorgeous human being (fill in the blank); a solo violin bringing you close to tears.

Beauty is more than pretty things.  There is a whole theology that says God is most revealed in beauty, and that beauty is how  God heals his broken children.  Indeed, why, when black and white would have worked out fine, are there hundreds of colors?  Do we really need smell—yes, the applesauce cooking on the stove is nice, and the turkey in the oven is homey and the scent of lilies of the valley is pleasing –  but do human beings need smell the same way many animals do.

Our Biblical ancestors got along fine with harps and lutes and tambourines – we don’t really need an orchestra or a band or a choir.  Yet we are given colors and smell and roses and symphonies and ice cream and so much more.  What an artist God is!  Our pull toward beauty reflects our longing for this God.

“The Shawshank Redemption” is a movie about Andy Dufrense (played by Tim Robbins), a banker convicted of a major, white-collar crime and sent to Shawshank prison, a very rough place.  Red, a long-time inmate played by Morgan Freeman, befriends him here. The two form a friendship, partly by trying to maintain their decency in the harsh surroundings.

Andy starts doing tax returns for the inmates—and the guards and the warden, and becomes the prison librarian; he is entrusted with more and more access to prison facilities.  One day he finds himself alone in the library and notices a pile of record albums.  He thumbs through them, selects one, and then finds the door open to the room that houses the P.A system that plays announcements throughout the prison.  He has selected a song from an album of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” – Duetta Sol Aria – maybe not the best choice for this crowd.  He puts the record on  a record player, connct the P.A. and turns up the volume to the max, and the opera reaches every corner of Shawshank: the yard, the cells, the infirmary, the guards’ quarters, even the warden.  The effect of this music is to completely silence everyone.  There is no laughter, no questions, no protests,no wisecracks. Red (Morgan Freeman) says:

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know.  I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it.  I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was as if some beautiful bird had flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

It’s not only beauty that satisfies our longing – at least for the moment – I want to talk about one other thing as well.

Many of us treat our pets like children, and flock to uTube videos of dogs playing pianos and existential, brooding, talking cats.  But few of us have looked into the eyes of a beloved pet and not experienced a profound connection, perhaps even sensing a soul of some kind there.  It’s a privilege to have a relationship with another species.

A recent article by Diane Ackerman in the New York Times says this: “Americans seemed obsessed by animals. At the zoo, millions of adults talk un-self-consciously with the animals, maybe to be alone with their thoughts or because they can’t find a companion for the trip. For some it may be a way to socialize, identify, and empathize with other beings. What a lonely species we are, searching for signals of life from other galaxies, adopting companion animals, visiting parks and zoos to commune with other beasts. In the process, we discover a shared identity”

And some times there is a particular moment when we receive a tantalizing vision of the way things could be – of how God intended them.

A Presbyterian clergyman writes about a particular time at Sea World in Orlando, Florida.  It was a gorgeous day with sunlight on the shimmering water and a cloudless sky.  He says, ”The way the show began was that at a given signal they released into the pool five or six killer whales, as we call them, and no creatures under heaven could have looked less killerlike as they went joyfully racing around and around in circles. What with the dazzle of sun and sky, the beautiful young people in bathing suits on the platform, the soft southern air and the crowd around us watching the performance with delight matched only by what seemed like the delight of the performing whales, it was as if the whole creation—men and women and beasts and sun and water and sky and, for all I know, God himself was caught up in one great jubilant dance of unimaginable beauty.  For a few minutes we were seeing Eden. We were seeing why it was that the morning stars sang together and all the children of God shouted for joy when the world was first made.  We have God’s joy in our blood.”

A single moment when the worlds opens up, a moment of recognition that begins a friendship, a glimpse of beauty that shakes our soul, a deeply- felt connection to another species — these are places where our longing takes us and maybe that it is why God put it there.

But we aren’t programmed to live there all the time, but instead to be profoundly grateful for those sweet moments. And to realize that just possibly God also longs for you –and that may be why you may have found your way here today.



Source: Longing for Home by Frederick Buechener

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