I’m preparing for a retreat I’ll be leading in Scotland next month, and so I’m reading a book called Island Spirituality: Spiritual Values of Lewis and Harris by Alastair McIntosh. In the book, he tells of a conversation he had with a Free Church (Presbyterian) pastor named Rev. Calum MacDonald.
We sat down over a cup of tea in their living room. Calum was in his rough and ready working clothes as the croft runs by the church. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, he said: ‘The old people of the island often say that there is only one quality in the human heart that the Devil cannot counterfeit.’
I looked at him with eyebrows raised. ‘The Devil?’
‘Yes. I’ve heard it several times. The old people in this community would say that there’s only one thing he cannot fake.’
‘And what is that?’
‘We call it in the Gaelic, the miann. M-i-a-n-n.’
“Mee-an,” I said, trying to get his pronunciation, always embarrassed at my lack of Gaelic. ‘And what does that mean?’
‘You could translate it as ardent desire,’ he said. ‘Specifically, the ardent desire for God.
‘The one thing in the human heart that the Devil cannot counterfeit is the ardent desire for God.’
Now, whether you think the devil is real or is merely a mythical symbol for the reality of evil, is beside the point. Let’s just take some time and get to know this delicious Gaelic word, miann.
The tagline for my book Answering the Contemplative Call is: “In every heart there is a place of infinite longing.” I could just as easily have written “In every heart there is infinite miann.” This also calls to mind the famous quote from Saint Augustine: “You have created us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”
The “God-shaped hole” in our hearts is where our miann resides. It is the longing, the desire, the eros for God. Many people ignore this longing, or perhaps have invested so much energy into their desire for money, sex, power, fame, approval, or whatever, that they have all but forgotten about the God-shaped hole in their hearts.
But I believe it is always there.
In fact, I believe the miann in our hearts is evidence for how much God longs for us. Our longing for God is a grace — a gift from God; a gift that is meant to be the mirror-image of God’s longing for us.
As I wrote in Answering the Contemplative Call:
The longing we sense for God is a gift given to us by God, out of God’s longing for us. God desires us and gives us sehnsucht as a way of calling to us. Our yearning for God is a mirror image of God’s yearning for us. But we are the mirror—the yearning starts with God and arises within us as a response.
Sehnsucht is a German word for longing; C. S. Lewis uses it to describe a kind of poignant longing that seems almost painful — and yet it would be unimaginable not to have this longing. It would be more painful to be devoid of this longing, than to experience it even if it seems unfulfilled.
So is miann the same things as sehnsucht? Since I am not fluent either in German or in Gaelic, I can’t really say. For what its worth, Google translate renders miann as “a desire” and sehnsucht as “nostalgia” (but if offers alternative translations: longing, yearning, desire, hankering).
What I find particularly interesting about the passage quoted from Alastair McIntosh is this notion that the devil cannot counterfeit miann. To put that in less mythical language, miann — the ardent desire for God — cannot be faked. It can only arise out of the heart of authenticity.
Miann brings us home to who we truly are. Creatures of love and longing, created to desire the loving God who desires us.
I don’t know about you, but I find this thought to be nothing less than beautiful.