Monday, October 12, 2009


A couple weeks ago, I mentioned a concept that I was introduced to in Portugal called saudade (pronounced "saow-DAH-duh"). Of course, to be more authentic, you must say it with passionate angst, fists shaking defiantly in the air, tear-stained face raised to the sky, eyes closed. It forms the basis of fado music, characterized mostly by its mournful, minor-key, richly-ornamented style, typically sung by one person, accompanied by a classic guitar and a mandolin-like Portuguese guitar. It's something that's sung late at night in back-alley bars near the docks of Lisbon. This is not noisy snacks and beer music. This is music to be listened to with a tissue to dry your eyes, a piece of good crusty bread, and something old, dark, and red.

Saudade is often explained as an unrelenting, unfulfilled, and sometimes unidentifiable yearning...the agony of unrequited love, the mourning of a broken heart, the weary homesickness of a sailor far from home, that undefined longing we have for something better, something different, something other than what life is dishing out now.

So why all the brooding, you might ask? No, I'm not going through any particular crisis at the moment. I've just been listening to a CD of fado music I got in Portugal, and I like it, even though I don't understand much of it. The few places where Portuguese and Spanish intersect are on words like "heartbreak" and "tears" and "suffering" and "agony" and so forth. Cheerful stuff. But I think it's the music itself that breeds contemplation. It kind of scratches that universal itch we all have.

Saudade. I think it's an absolutely spectacular word, a must for the English lexicon. It reminds me of something I read in C.S. Lewis' Surprised by Joy. Lewis tells how as a child, he would sometimes experience these mysterious, elusive glimpses into something beautiful and other-worldly that were in sharp contrast to the dreariness of ordinary life, and provoked in him a sad longing that he had no idea how to fulfill.

I suspect that in one way or another, it's a universal human experience...grieving over that which is fundamentally broken and wrong about this world...and about our lives...and dreaming of something better.

I think one of the most compelling evidences for the reality of The Fall (that is, that there was an actual moment in time when corruption despoiled a perfect creation) is the fact that somewhere in the back of all of our minds, is the understanding that this is not how it should be. That things could have been better. Some distant human memory, embedded within the image of God in which He created us, knows this.

I think our culture often tries to naively pin hope on some kind of future Star-Trek Utopia, believing we'll evolve and finally get it right. Serious problems will be solved by our own ingenuity. Ha. Holodecks, replicators, and transporters (oh, my!). We'll cease our wars, eliminate poverty, stop crime, cure every illness, and all live free, healthy, productive, prosperous, happy lives. Sure, we can do that. Just look at our track record thus far.

That such hopeful concepts even exist is further evidence that deep down, we know that something is fatally wrong today, that something is horribly askew, regardless of what we believe the solution is.

And so we chase after those things that we think will quell our saudade. But saudade can never really be quelled; it can only be satisfied, and then only by the very object of its yearning. And most of us don't even know what that is, much less believe it's within our grasp. Even when the daydream comes true, when the sailor sails home to open arms, when the unrequited love is finally returned...the saudade still remains.

Blaise Pascal knew about it. He once wrote, "What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."

I must say (at the possible risk of ruffling some feathers) that I've always disliked those schmaltzy, waltzy major-key hymns whose message is some variation of "When we all get to heaven, what a wonderful place it will be." And any hymn that contains the line, "And now I am happy all the time" needs to be summarily dismissed from any hymnal intended for use on planet Earth.

When I was younger, the idea of pinning all our hopes on heaven--even though I believed it was a reality--seemed like kind of a trite source of comfort for the here and now. But as the reality of mortality looms ever larger, looking beyond this life and toward the next seems less and less like a cop-out. I think part of that is an increasing recognition that the true--and only--object of our saudade is God whom we find the culmination of all of our longings, desires, and yearnings. What an inconceivable, cruel torture that knowledge would be, if there was no hope of fulfillment.

That is one of the things that most saddens me about the Mormon culture in which I live. Mormonism's view of the afterlife seems so hollow to me. It does not really take a longing to be with Jesus all that seriously. The idea of being with Jesus Christ in eternity does exist in Mormonism, but it is anything but central; it pales in comparison to the real Mormon eternal goal of achieving godhood, with your family at your side. That's what's behind the modern Mormon motto of "Families are Forever!"

Now, I'm worthless to fix a leaky I really think I'd ever be qualified, much less would enjoy, being god of a whole bloody planet? But that's the Mormon goal. Being with the Lord, in the Mormon mindset, often seems like an afterthought, just a bit of gravy. But authentic Christianity recognizes that Jesus is not gravy; he is the entire banquet. And I find myself growing increasingly hungry.

But even so, we aren't filled. Not yet, anyway. Even if we know that our lives are placed in His hands, and we live with that certain hope of the "infinite abyss" finally being filled, we are still intimately familiar with saudade. Despite the glimpses we may experience today, we still slog forth in the broken world. Satisfaction is still yet to come.

Paul tells us we can rejoice in our saudade. The Psalmist promises that God will turn our saudade into dancing. So while we wait for the banquet, we'll put our saudade into song, remembering and celebrating that hope with dry bread and something old, dark, and red.

I think I can live with that. For a little while, anyway.

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