Les disciples Pierre et Jean courant au sépulcre le matin de la Résurrection, Eugène Burnand (1850-1921)
Here's the brilliant originator of the term "svithe." I spoke in church on Palm Sunday; here's what I said.
There is in every person to a certain degree a pleasurable longing, a sweet homesickness, a nostalgia for something we cannot remember, identify, or articulate. In German, this longing is called Sehnsucht; in Portuguese, it is saudade. Certain music or art or the beauties of nature may evoke it. The lyrics of a beloved song from my youth go: “When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse, out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look but it was gone. I cannot put my finger on it now. The child is grown, the dream is gone."
I, myself feel saudade keenly and often quote scriptures that bring it to mind. In The Book of Mormon, Jacob writes, “The time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness...wherefore, we did mourn out our days.” (Jacob 7:26)
And Saint Paul, describing the nature of faith to the Hebrews, says, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.” (Hebrews 11:13-14)
C.S. Lewis, alluding to Paul’s epistle, wrote his description of Sehnsucht: “In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country...I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you...the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” (Lewis, The Weight of Glory)
What is this feeling, and what is it for?
It is nothing less than a homing instinct of sorts that will draw us to be reconciled to God, if we let it. Our Heavenly Father sends us messages through all the glory of His creations and the aesthetic achievements of mankind that this life is not all there is. Wordsworth famously wrote, “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home.” (Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations on Immortality”)
Our spirits existed long before they were housed in these miraculous physical bodies. They were born to Heavenly Parents and were loved and taught by them; the ideal pattern of mortal family life is an echo or a type of our pre-mortal existence. To mature fully, to inherit all our Parents have, we must become more like them, which is why this earth was created. So, in a sense, this small part of our eternal existence is like a boarding school or sleepaway camp. We’re here to learn things by our own experience, as opposed to the theoretical knowledge we gained before we came here.
In His plan, God gives us rules to follow that will benefit us and keep us safe. But He knew we would not follow them perfectly; making mistakes, in fact, is one of the key ways we learn and grow. However, in the flawless, ever-dynamic realm in which God lives, imperfection simply cannot abide.
And God wants His children back badly. So in his infinite and ardent love for us, God planned a way for our wrongs to be righted, for our pains to be healed, and for our shortcomings and frailties to be met and bridged. He told us all in a grand meeting in the pre-existence that someone would need to come to earth; live a sinless life; voluntarily take upon himself the pains, sins, and griefs of every single member of the human family; die; then through divine power take up his body again.
“Whom shall I send?” asked our Father.
“Here am I, send me,” replied our Oldest Brother, the Mighty One who would be known on earth as Jesus Christ. (cf. Abraham 3:27)
The prophet Lehi outlines the reconciliation process well: “There is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise. Wherefore, he is the firstfruits unto God, inasmuch as he shall make intercession for all the children of men; and they that believe in him shall be saved. And because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God....” (2 Nephi 2:8-10)
This intercession is brought about by the atonement Christ made for each of us. He began the atoning process by living a selfless, perfect life: teaching, healing, and loving. He continued it in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross of Calvary, and he perfected it on the morning we commemorate every Easter, by taking up his now glorified and immortal body from the tomb. Because of his infinite and divine sacrifice, we can return home.
The Lord tells Job that when he laid out the foundations of this plan of atonement, all the morning stars sang together, and the sons of God shouted for joy. (cf. Job 38:7) The knowledge of this plan is the gospel, which literally means “good news,” and when we receive this news in faith, we also feel like shouting for joy. In Proverbs 25:25, we read, “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.”
When you read a wonderful book or make a perfect brownie, or even notice a fantastic sale on chicken at the market, you want to share it with everyone around you. So it is with the joy of Christ. “O taste and see,” encourages the Psalmist (Psalm 34:8), and I echo his words.
The joy of Christ informs all our actions as believers. It is why we come together week after week to worship. We find strength in one another’s company, and as we renew our baptismal covenants through partaking of the Sacrament. The joy of Christ transforms prayer from obedient words to a tangible and undeniable connection to God. The joy of Christ is the catalyst that makes our duties feel like a dance.
And incredibly, it is the joy of Christ that gives our trials meaning. The Lord spoke to Joseph Smith as he languished in a filthy, cold prison, unjustly accused: “And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man [meaning Christ,] hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? Therefore, hold on thy way....Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever.” (Doctrine & Covenants 122:7-9)
The joy of Christ may sound too good to be true, but it is both the source and the fulfillment of our Sehnsucht, our saudade, our exquisite longing for home. When you notice such feelings within your heart, nourish them as you would a tender seed. They will grow and serve as a guide to eternal truth: of this, I am certain.
I close with the beautiful words of longing of one of my favorite hymns, written by Bernard of Clairvaux nearly a millennium ago and translated in the 19th century by Bernard Caswell:
Jesus, the very thought of Thee with sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see and in Thy presence rest.
Nor voice can sing, nor heart can claim, nor can the memory find
A sweeter sound than thy blessed name, O Savior of mankind.
O, Hope of every contrite heart, O Joy of all the meek,
To those who fall, how kind Thou art, how good to those who seek.
Jesus, our only joy be Thou, as Thou our prize wilt be;
Jesus, be Thou our glory now and through eternity.” (Hymns, #141)