I grew up in a faith tradition that sang acappella. Worship could arise in any place and any time: our voices were all we needed. We didn’t need advance planning. We didn’t even need songbooks, for the words were written on our hearts.
The songs of my childhood held such depth and resonance. There were four-part harmonies and four-part songs, echoes and counter melodies, descants and rounds. There were the “Greatest Commands” and the “Magnificat.” There was “Lord, Be There” and “Someday.”
There was singing in the stairwell after Sunday night church, where acoustics were the best. There was singing in the dirt at summer camp, amongst the bugs and under a canopy of stars.
No one could sing “On Zion’s Glorious Summit Stood” or “O Lord, Our Lord, How Excellent Thy Name,” like the Kansas camp counselors of my youth. And no one could sing the seven-fold amen of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” like the Arkansas camp counselors I later worked with.
The singing of my childhood was like none other. These days, however, I worship with an interdenominational fellowship that uses instruments. (And I love it.) But somehow when I’m there, the acappella tradition of my past seems distant indeed.
Distant, that is, until some friends invited us to share a meal with them this past spring. As part of their family tradition, they sing the Doxology before they eat. (They have an acappella heritage in their past too, though it’s different from mine.)
My husband and I joined in, adding extra parts. Upon hearing the beloved four-part harmony of my youth, I had a sudden longing to return to the days of old. To the days of unspeakably beautiful singing, to the days when God seemed so close and touchable, to the days of simple faith and abounding joy.
I yearned for those days. I longed to join my voice with others as we sang “Pierce My Ear” and “Unto Thee O Lord.” I wanted to hear the tight harmonies and the moving parts of “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “It Is Well.” I hungered for a time in my life when singing to God was all that really seemed to matter.
The desire I felt was so strong it almost knocked me over. It stayed with me all that week and on into the next. For a while it went with me everywhere I went. I missed the campy acappella music of my past so much that it hurt.
Sadly, I can’t go back to those places and those times. For one thing, I live in Asia and no longer attend the camps of my childhood. And for another, the singing of my religious heritage isn’t what it used to be. It’s incorporated more mainstream songs and morphed into something more modern. In the process, it’s lost some of the magic of its four-part harmonic past.
Which means all I’m really left with is a vague happiness at the thought of those memories and an ache for what once was. There’s actually a name for this feeling, but you can’t find it in the English language. Rather, it’s the Portuguese word saudade, which, according to Wikipedia, “describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.”
One of the better-known descriptions of saudade comes from A.F.G. Bell’s book In Portugal of 1912, where he explains it as “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.”
This is what saudade does: it links us to the past and infuses us with longing for the future. What we’re really longing for when we long for the innocence of our past is the fulfillment of our final future. What we’re really aching for when we ache for some long-lost era is the eternal not-yet when Eden will be restored and all will be redeemed.
Saudade can give us a proper longing for a better country, a true-north ache for our real home. Saudade can root us in the purity of our past, yes, but more importantly, it can point us to the future of our heavenly home.
So my question for you today is, what do you long for? How have you experienced saudade in your life? What is it that you can’t get back, can’t seem to recreate? What traditions from your past do you miss intolerably while living overseas? How do you cope with the missing pieces of your soul?