Naming the Missing Pieces of Our Souls

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?


  1. Kim November 29, 2015

    Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth. Anything from a picture to a smell to a song can bring back such a flood of memories, and we’re left feeling the emotions that are attached to that memory. Sara Grove’s song, “Painting Pictures of Egypt” beautifully portrays this idea of saudade I think. It’s a song that has meant a lot to me since I first heard, shortly before moving overseas. The whole song is eloquent, but the chorus stands out because it so aptly describes how God has changed me:
    I’ve been painting pictures of Egytp, leaving out what it lacks.
    The future feels so hard and I want to go back.
    But the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I learned
    Those roads were closed off to me while my back was turned.
    The line I bolded comes back to me again and again. There’s no going back to the way things were before. You can go back, but it will be changed, just as you have changed.


    1. Elizabeth November 29, 2015

      YESSSSSSS. This song is perfect, Kim! I just looked it up. Wow. Now it will be stuck in my head all week, and that’s not a bad thing. 🙂 I may have to share it with others myself.

      You’re right, that IS saudade. Every word. And that voice, oooh, it’s haunting.

      You can’t go back. You will be changed, the place will be changed, the people will be changed. I love the line you bolded. It’s so true.

      Thank you so much for sharing this song!!

    2. Kelly November 30, 2015

      I immediately thought of that song too! Her latest album, floodplain, is incredible too!!!

      1. Elizabeth November 30, 2015

        Will have to look into that one Kelly! The only thing I knew about Sara Groves before this was that she worked on “Scribbling in the Sand” with Michael Card years ago, and that I loved that recording. But now it would seem I’ve been missing out on one of the Church’s great treasures!

  2. Lydia November 30, 2015

    In my struggles with day to day life now, it’s easy to look back and wish for different points in my life – points when what I feel is lacking now felt full. In my late twenties I lived in a house with five other women. At the time, we all were wishing for the next step – a husband, a more fulfilling career, something more. I’m now married and living in a small Eastern European village, where a few of my dreams have come true. I’m about to have our first child, something I’ve looked forward to as long as I can remember. I can see God at work in our village, which hasn’t had a church in at least 70 years. I know I should be excited about life, but I feel very isolated here and it’s hard to connect with people back in my home area. The pictures I paint are of a big house full of laughter and friendship, where you didn’t have to go very far to find someone to listen and encourage you. All the girls have moved on from the house at this point, some to marriage, others to further studies or pursuing their goals, but we all have that feeling of saudade for that special time. It was a time we all knew was a stepping stone, never meant to last a lifetime. It’s easy to whitewash it and forget the problems we had then or that what I wished for then is the life I have now, because the thing I treasure about it is the thing I’m longing for now.

    1. Elizabeth November 30, 2015

      Thank you for sharing this beautiful, poignant picture, Lydia. I love that you all have the same feeling of saudade for that time. Those are beautiful, shared memories you will always have with you. (And of course you’re right, it’s also easy to whitewash the past.)

      Still, it sounds like it was a wonderful, growing time of fellowship, and now you’re longing for closer access to that kind of fellowship. I am so sorry for the aches in your heart regarding friendships. So very sorry. That longing is real. God put a desire for friendship and fellowship and understanding inside our hearts, and so the lack of it is going to sting ever so painfully.

      Perhaps we, here at Velvet Ashes, can provide a shadow of what you had before. Please know we want to. And perhaps this season of Advent, of waiting, of anticipation, of aching and longing, is meant just for you this year. May the longings of your heart inform your soul; may you sit with the longings a while and see what God is saying to you in them, even if it be with tears.

      And in the meantime, just know that I, along with all your Velvet Ashes sisters, have laments and unfulfilled longings too, different from yours, perhaps, but painful nonetheless. May the knowledge of that shared longing comfort you somehow in these dark days leading up to Christmas, and may you welcome your own child with great joy.

      There’s so little my words can do for you, but please know I’m with you in spirit, Lydia, and I’m so sorry for these hurts. God be with you in this season.

  3. Maggie Van Slooten November 30, 2015

    Thank you Elizabeth for Saudade. In the past, my family moved a lot and its kind of a blur, but we would always go back to the same summer camp in South Jersey. That’s what I look back to with fondness. Since then I’ve more or less been falling forward and now serve in a closed country of SE Asia. I think my greatest longing is for the future, in the Father’s arms where there’s no need to explain myself and all the twists and turns in my life because He knows all about it. So I guess I have saudade for Heaven. To cope with the missing pieces in my soul, I just want to carry a torch so that others will see the way and follow to the wide open arms of the Father.

    1. Elizabeth November 30, 2015

      I love this — “longing for the future in the Father’s arms where there’s no need to explain myself and all the twists and turns in my life because He knows all about it.” I SO get this Maggie!! As a global nomad I love meeting new people, but I tire of having to explain myself all over again, all the time.

      I LOVE the story of you always going back to the same summer camp, how it provided stability and a sense of Home for you. I feel the same way about my grandparents’ home, which is now long sold. For years, even when my family moved around a lot, that was home base.

      I love how God sometimes smiles down on us with these snatches of Home, even while we move all around. It’s just like Him, to give us these tastes of heaven. Saudade is funny that way — it makes us look backward and forward at the same time.

      Thank you for sharing your story, and may the Father strengthen your arms as you carry your torch.

  4. Caitriana November 30, 2015

    Reading your post reminded me immediately of the church tradition I grew up in in Scotland, where we sang psalms, unaccompanied. It’s something I miss, living in Asia. I love the hymns and songs we sing both in international gatherings and in the local church, but I still have a deep-down longing for those psalms. I know the thought of unaccompanied psalm-singing sounds weird to most people, but there’s food and drink in singing those words that I don’t get from lots of other songs. Someone who didn’t grow up in that tradition might not “get” the same thing from it – and there are plenty of other songs out there full of rich theological truth – but for me, psalm-singing speaks to the heart in a unique way. Especially Gaelic psalm-singing, where it sounds like the waves of the sea rising and falling, washing the soul in truth from the Word. That, for me, is saudade.

    1. Elizabeth November 30, 2015

      It doesn’t sound weird at all — straight up Psalms are food and drink, especially when no instruments are present to blur out any of their meaning. So I totally get you! And I wish I knew what the Gaelic psalm singing sounds like — “the waves of the sea rising and falling, washing the soul in truth from the Word.” Wow. That sounds amazing.

      The Psalms are ancient — people have been singing them for thousands of years — but I suspect we will be singing them in heaven too, so perhaps this is another one of those examples where saudade points both forward and backward, but most of all, points toward Home.

      Thank you for sharing your story, Caitriana. I love it.

  5. Julie November 30, 2015

    I think music has a particular power to bring back memories, both good and bad! A heritage of great music is powerful, and a heritage of poor music is hurtful. I am thankful for the wonderful Scripture that was embedded in my brain through songs I learned in my childhood, and less grateful for some of the poor music choices I made during my teen years, since I still remember those songs as well. It always amazes me how music can bring back memories!

    1. Elizabeth November 30, 2015

      So true Julie — music is a powerful way of evoking memories. Powerful. And the music itself, as you mentioned, can carry either helpful or harmful lyrics. I’m glad the songs of your childhood were of the fruitful, sturdy, grounding type and that you can still go back to them 🙂

  6. Mallory December 1, 2015

    Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth! I just finished reading Marilyn R. Gardner’s book called Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging. It was the first time I had heard of saudade, and it resonated with me so much, just as your post did. Even though the longings are still present, I think it helps to give the feelings a word, even if it’s not in English. Thanks again!

    1. Elizabeth December 1, 2015

      Yes! Identifying the feelings helps so much. And I first heard of saudade from Marilyn, too. I cried buckets reading her book. It evokes such powerful, universal feelings.

  7. Melanie December 1, 2015

    Great post!  I visited a place yesterday that was spiritually formative to me a few years ago.  Since almost none of the same people still live there, I certainly had some saudade moments.

    When we share Eucharist, we stand in a conflation of past, present, and future that can give us hope:  we remember Christ’s last supper, we share fellowship in the present with other believers, and we yearn for that Great Banquet in the future when there will be no more tears.  For me, the Eucharist is an outward expression of the “already, but not yet” of God’s Kingdom :).

    1. Elizabeth December 1, 2015

      So many things to love about this comment, Melanie, where do I even begin?? I love Eucharist. I grew up in a faith tradition that took communion every Sunday, and I love that we did that (I miss it now). I love the way you describe Eucharist here, as something in the past, present and future. Just love it. I know I’ve contemplated these three things separately before, but never intersected them as you do here. I long for the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Long for it. And I just love how Eucharist is for EVERYONE. Everyone is welcome at the Table, everyone, even the ones who’ve been rejected elsewhere.

      “When we share Eucharist, we stand in a conflation of past, present, and future that can give us hope:  we remember Christ’s last supper, we share fellowship in the present with other believers, and we yearn for that Great Banquet in the future when there will be no more tears.” I’m going to take this statement of yours with me. I’m going to put it in my pocket and take it out and look at it on an as-needed basis.

      And I love how you pull in already/not yet theology. It’s some of my favorite theology. It helps me limp along through life, helps explain the still-brokenness and gives me hope for the future. As soon as I learned about the “already-not-yet,” I recognized it as one of the missing pieces of my soul. Thank you for tying it all together here.

      1. Melanie December 1, 2015

        So glad to hear you grew up in a tradition that took communion every Sunday.  I grew up taking it only once per month, but now attend a community where we partake weekly.  The older I get, the more central the sacraments have become to my theology.  I find such hope and power and unity in them :).  And yes, I love how communion is the great equalizer–we are ALL welcome to the table.

        I look forward to hearing how these thoughts bear fruit for you in the coming weeks and months, and in general, I’m grateful for your posts and insight! 🙂

  8. Mary Gemmill December 2, 2015

    Oh how I LOVED this post ! I have worked in a High School for 8 years which has a huge tradition for accapella, and in fact quartets from school have won the world champs…so I too LOVE such harmonies.

    I  think what you are describing is this indescribable LONGING we have for our heart’s true HOME.

    If you are interested, this article describes this feeling beautifully:
    What We Do With Sehnsucht
     [H]e has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
    Ecclesiastes 3:11

    Sehnsucht (ZEN-sookt) — From the German. A practically indescribable longing, craving, or yearning.


    1. Elizabeth December 2, 2015

      I love the word sehnsucht too! I first heard it in Tim Keller’s Prodigal God book. It’s a great description for these feelings too.

      And fun that we share a love of harmony 🙂

    2. Elizabeth December 2, 2015

      Been thinking about this word more, and it’s exactly right — a longing that’s indescribable in words. We are all of us homesick for heaven.

  9. Anna December 2, 2015

    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.”

    I love that description.  I’m feeling that way for our Christmas (and other holiday celebrations) in Congo.

    1. Elizabeth December 2, 2015

      YES — I’m feeling that too, for our host country. Trying to be present in the now, in what will probably be our last Christmas in the States for many years. Praying the same for you.

    2. Elizabeth December 2, 2015

      Anna — just read more of your story in the ALO comments. I didn’t realize some of those things had happened. The saudade you’re feeling must be extra intense right now, and I just wanted to acknowledge it. Waiting and not knowing are so hard. You alluded to it before in comments here, but I have a fuller picture now, and I just want to say, so sorry for everything you’re missing right now, and for everything you’re grieving right now. Glad you’re taking this time, and glad that so many people have been supportive. Praying for and thinking of you right now. Sending love.

      1. Anna December 3, 2015

        Thank you. 🙂

  10. CJ December 2, 2015

    This post really resonated with me. I am a deep lover of tradition, routine, structure, and stability. I carry many childhood traditions with me and try to maintain them on the field as a means of still feeling connected with my family and roots. (I feel like they are really helpful to me as a single.) I have especially done this with Thanksgiving, which my family used to always host. The day was always full of tradition, and I have shared as many traditions as possible while hosting Thanksgiving for friends in my country of service. It is one of the most difficult, nostalgic days for me. This year, I’m in the States and had the first Thanksgiving with my family for the first time in some 7 years (maybe more?). And it was horrible. We didn’t host it, which meant we didn’t do our traditions. There was tension in the air, other family members who I expected to see weren’t there, and I missed my Grammy (who passed away 14 years ago) more than ever. It was so hard. I came to realize that what I’ve been doing to maintain Thanksgiving abroad has actually been really wonderful and special. And while I hate change and disappearing traditions (and my parents starting to put white lights on the tree instead of colored), I realized the other day as I was journaling about all this that I need to stop comparing and wishing and just be grateful. I need to be grateful for what was and savor what is. Each moment is a gift, and I want to receive it all with open hands, not a whiny attitude. I can miss the old times I hold so dearly and lament the losses for what they are. But, I know I need to press on one day at a time and keep my eyes on Jesus. Thank you again for this post!

    1. Elizabeth December 3, 2015

      CJ, I think it’s beautiful the way you’ve preserved your family traditions overseas, how you’ve kept them alive in such a meaningful way. I’m so glad you now have those memories to draw from as, unfortunately, last week’s Thanksgiving derailed so badly for you, and I hope you can continue to do that in years to come.

      I totally get lamenting those “small” things like changing lights — it’s because they mean so much to our little-girl souls — and I’m so sorry about your Grammy. It doesn’t matter how many years go by, the ache to see people doesn’t stop. It’s almost as if your grief has to catch up now, because you’ve missed 7 (or more) Thanksgivings here. I’m sorry for the other disappointments this year too — the tension, the missing people, the lack of traditions.

      You say you realized while you were journaling that you “need to be grateful for what was.” I so get this. I had this exact experience earlier this year when my Grandma died, and I was overseas and couldn’t get back for the funeral with the rest of my enormous family. I journaled all my sadness out, and when I was done I had this great sense of thankfulness for being given the gifts I HAD been given as a child. So I’m celebrating along with you that you have those memories and also that you’re able to be thankful for them.

      “I can miss the old times I hold so dearly and lament the losses for what they are.” Yes, yes you can — as do I. ” But, I know I need to press on one day at a time and keep my eyes on Jesus.” Yes, yes you can — and so will I. We can walk forward in this saudade together. Thank you for sharing your journey here. These things are hard, and I appreciate you sharing your heart.

      1. CJ December 3, 2015

        Thank you so much for these encouraging words!

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