I might start a series of posts on beautiful and moving foreign words that have no exact equivalent in the English language. There are times when you hear a word in a foreign language and it captures some sense, some feeling that no English word can quite touch. Something beautiful about that. So I might do that.
At any rate, today I write a post, at least, about a foreign word that has no exact equivalent in the English language. A German word. Fernweh.
Fernweh. To be homesick for a place you’ve never been.
That aching longing to find yourself, to find your place, somewhere else, somewhere far from wherever you are. The deep seated sense that you truly belong somewhere far away. The corresponding English terms ‘travel bug’ and ‘itchy feet’ don’t capture it. To be homesick for a place you’ve never been. To be farsick.
It’s a feeling I’ve known well. The reason I wanted to write about fernweh is that it taps into something that moves deep in my soul. I was never one to feel homesick but to feel farsick, to feel my place lies somewhere on the other side of the horizon, to yearn to find it there. Captivated by the breadth and wonder of the world and need to be in it. For a long time, on days off, I’d drive into the countryside, wanting to keep driving through the wild green hills and never stop. But I always felt like there was a rope tied around my waist that’d always pull me back. Whenever I went to the airport to drop off or pick someone up I’d feel this deep sadness because I wanted to hop on a plane and fly somewhere far away.
It was over a decade ago that I walked over the border from Egypt to Israel, caught a taxi to Eilat then hopped on a bus for a 4-5 hr trip to Jerusalem. 10 days in Israel but I didn’t know where I’d sleep that night, where the bus was meant to stop, or even that I hadn’t yet considered these things. My only plan was to spend the night in the Old City, which, finding my way down a dark and quiet Souq Khan el Zeit Street to a hostel tucked away within some medieval building, I did. The next 10 days were about delightfully getting lost within the winding lanes of the Old City, hopping between backpacker hostels, and further afield in Israel and Palestine. So much of the history of the world lives and breathes in that place. The possibilities for exploration and discovery were near endless within this little patch of the world alone, not to mention roads beyond. I saw in my heart’s eye Turkey and Europe and beyond. One morning I rose while still dark, made my instant espresso and climbed to the top of the 700 year old building where I was staying, one of the tallest in the old city, to see the sunrise and hear the muezzin calls competing with the church bells. It was the morning I nearly didn’t come home.
What is it, this feeling? It’s the like-oppositeness of homesickness. The person suffering homesickness and the one suffering from farsickness both yearn for the same thing: belonging. Their place. The homesick person, however, wants to find it in security, in what’s safe, familiar, known whereas the farsick person feels their place, their belonging, is always somewhere they’ve never yet been, in something they cannot name. Opened to the mystery, wonder and possibilities that the wider world holds, the heart is captivated. There’s something in our heart that loves security. But there’s also something that stirs us to abandon ourselves to mystery, adventure, and boundless horizons. That knows we’re made for that.
And yet I did come home. There were obvious reasons – limited funds, obligations, of course… but more. The knowledge that the thing I cannot name, the place I’ve never been… I wouldn’t find it out there. I mean I would… but then it’d slip from my grasp. Hold onto the horizon for (not very) long and it turns into the familiar and secure. The very nature of longing for the far off means I can never have it. Moby Dick’s Ishmael pontificates on this better than me. Hence, I quote:
Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those we left behind secure, were all the time before us.
Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then were there promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.
For Ishmael the world is an empty ocean that can’t hold the wonder we chase after. I know my heart is made for mystery, wonder and boundless horizons and yet I can’t find enough of those things in all this world. The wonders of nature, cultures and histories tantalise and awaken a deep stirring within me; they excite and lead me on in the pursuit. But I’m still yearning afterwards. Led ever on in endless chase or left behind. For Ishmael it’s ‘coz the mystery we seek is just a ‘demon phantom’ that’s in our hearts but that doesn’t exist in the real world and here I disagree. The tantalising magic of the far off is real. Anyone who’s experienced it knows that. Thing is it’s just a taste. It’s tantalising of my soulish tongue reveals but isn’t finally the thing I seek. What I really long for is heralded by, even I think is the source of but not finally in any of that.
I long for the infinite.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand… Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place..? Job 38
In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. Psalm 102
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. Psalm 73
In the Bible I read that the infinite my heart longs for, far from being a demon phantom leading nowhere, is real. My heart has this habit of wanting to reduce God to something less than the world; smaller, narrower, restrictive. But God is revealed as the Infinite Majestic, rich in mystery, wonder, grandeur – untamed, wild, boundless. Far from being a narrow concept within the world, the Infinite One has formed the world and set up its horizons, its height and depths; the one from whom the universe’s magic derives and to whom it points. It’s we, it’s me, who has insisted on the idea of God as tame, domesticated and mean-spirited and then been disappointed in him.
The Christian life is the call to find your place in abandoning yourself to the mystery, adventure and boundlessness of God. And here’s the paradox, and the difficulty of believing; I don’t leave aside all I know and search and journey to the ends of the earth to grasp the ungraspable. Instead it’s the Infinite God who has traversed the greatest distances to draw close to me, to us, in our ordinary ‘here and now’. And not only the ordinary but the downright low and humiliating. ‘Don’t you know me after all this time?’ Jesus says to his bewildered students in John 14. ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’. The next morning he was publicly tortured and executed on a cross to bring us to God. The cross reveals the Infinite One as inherently self giving, self emptying. The Infinite drawn close in the grubbiest that the ‘here and now’ has to offer.
With faltering, paltry steps I more and more come to understand that the mystery and wonder of the infinite is found in the ordinary here and now when I abandon myself to God in trust – learning to share in his self giving, self emptying. The thought of travel still stirs my heart – to wander and wonder in Paris, Italy, Germany; Iran, Turkey, India and on and on. And one day I might. I still enjoy tasting the richness of many cultures wherever I am. But the more I learn, step by step, to actually abandon myself to trust God in ways I’d kept myself from by my habit of escaping elsewhere – I find myself stepping into something not always thrilling, new or comfortable but something somehow joyful and inexplicably grand.