The Holy Longing
poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Tell a wise person, or else keep silent, 
because the mass man will mock it right away. 
I praise what is truly alive, 
what longs to be burned to death.

In the calm water of the love-nights, 
where you were begotten, 
where you have begotten, 
a strange feeling comes over you, 
when you see the silent candle burning.

Now you are no longer caught 
in the obsession with darkness,
 and a desire for higher love-making sweeps you upward. 
Distance does not make you falter.

Now, arriving in magic, flying, 
and finally, insane for the light, 
you are the butterfly and you are gone.

And so long as you haven't experienced this: 
to die and so to grow, 
you are only a troubled guest 
on the dark earth.

Translated from the German by Robert Bly

#zen #zenthoughtoftheday

I love Goethe. He wrote so often of “magic”. The magic I believe in, not the magical thinking of gods and supernatural beings controlling and contorting our little lives, but real magic, is the profoundly powerful belief in oneself.

I started learning German about 9 months ago and Goethe was part of the reason. Well, actually, Pablo Neruda is the reason before Goethe. I read Pablo Neruda’s Oda de la Luna in Spanish and decided to start reading his poetry in Spanish to see if I got as much or more out of it. I’m not fully fluent in Spanish but I found a bilingual book of all his odes, so if I was missing a word I could flip the page and read it in English. This made me think about the other things I’ve read that were translations. Goethe immediately came to mind because of the way he philosophizes about life.

Anyway, I decided I wanted to try to read Goethe in German therefore I had to start learning German. I haven’t had anyone to chat with so my sentence structure is terrible. I can speak like a German toddler. Haha. Luckily for me, German and English are closely related enough that the last verse is especially easy to translate:

Und solang du das nich hast,
Dieses: Stirb und werde!
Bist du nur ein trรผber Gast
Auf der dunklen Erde.

Werde doesn’t translate directly in English. The word itself is “will”, but in the context with death it is “become” and from there we get “to grow”. I really kind of like it better like this:

And so long as you have not
This: to die and become,
Are you just a dull guest
On a dark earth.

I think dull is more befitting the character he is speaking of, the opposite of the butterfly seeking the light. When we don’t have the insight or opportunity to self actualize, to die to our old selves and become more our truer selves, our inner vision adapts to the dullness of existence, just as our eyes naturally acclimate to darkness. And, just as night turns into day turns into night, our growth and self actualization comes in cycles. We grow and get acclimated to who we are becoming, then something happens that is an opportunity to grow, but we have to seize the opportunity, or else begin to settle into dullness and darkness.

The Holy Longing then is the longing to become oneself, to evolve into Neitzche’s ubermenchen, to reach the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, to self actualize. We must seek to burn away the dullness, to always go toward the light.