Tuesday, 22 August 2017

On Being Home


During the last four years, while I was studying Liberal Arts at Thomas Aquinas College, my family in Northern California lived in four different houses - in fact, they lived in all four of these houses within the space of one summer, after my Sophomore year. After I moved out of the first house to go to college, the whole family moved into a rental home, which was considerably smaller but quite comfortable. Less than a month into that home - right around the fourth of July, when I was visiting friends in San Diego - the family came back from church one Sunday to find that the new rental home was on fire. Fortunately, the fire was suppressed before it damaged any of our most precious possessions (I was very relieved that it did not touch our very large family library), but we could not live there anymore. Quickly, we moved most of our things into storage, and had to crash in my grandmother's house in town. The subsequent weeks were chaos: a large family, imposing upon Nana's hospitality and infiltrating her house of many years - it proved to be quite cramped and unmanageable for everybody. But it helped us all to realize that we - including Nana - needed to move together into a larger, more convenient place. This happened towards the end of August. All this during one summer in the middle of my college years away from home. 

I am now finished with college, and back home after the summer, taking a kind of sabbath rest before I plunge into the strange world of graduate school. This version of home is, for some reason, particularly beautiful to me. We live at the border of town, where it starts to get a little more rural. Our house is in a cul-de-sac, in a small neighborhood of houses that look more or less the same, but each very beautiful with its own individualized landscaping to make it unique. And the landscaping is elegant and simple. There are green and growing things everywhere. Though we aren't strictly on farmland, we have a large backyard with enough room to grow some vegetables and fruit trees. Inside there is a lovely library and reading room. I love to spend most of my time there, or on the front porch, with a book, a pipe, and a glass of something. Every time I come home the experience is one of quiet simplicity and contemplation. This life is in many ways the life I imagine for myself once I have finished going to school and settled down with a family in a place of my own.

I realized the other day that this will be my first time at this home for anything more than three weeks: minus a few days away, I will be here for barely more than a month, after which I will head to Europe for two years. Granted, it isn't that much longer than three weeks, but it's the longest I shall have ever lived in this house. Somehow that realization has struck me with a particular force. This place, my home, the home of my family for these two years, is still something rather new to me after the events of that fateful summer; and yet I appreciate now more than ever the fact that it is my home. The longest, thus far, that I shall have ever been in this home is little more than a month, and I am about to go far away to a strange land for at least two years. 

I have also been struck, during my time in college, how strangely out of place I have felt for the last four years, even as I felt so much that I had rooted my identity in TAC's rich soils. Intellectually, there is much about my alma mater that is like home to me, and I am sure I will always feel that way when I go back to visit it. But I always felt a deeper sense in which it was not mine, though for a while I could never quite put my finger on precisely what that sense was. But now I suspect it was the feeling of transition, the deep awareness that college was only a step towards being finally settled and at home: I simply wasn't yet where I would end up one day... As my time at college progressed, this feeling became almost unbearable, and in the last months I felt myself sinking into a kind of depression and spiritual fatigue, notwithstanding the many good and beautiful things - and people - that were still in my life.  

When I'm home, I love to think.
When I think, I love to smoke.
Now that I am home, I am reflectively reliving the peace of my childhood - a peace of which I was not then aware, but which I can see now in my young siblings, who do not really feel, as I have, that urgent need of moving forward with their lives, because they can simply rest in the fixity and settlement of their circumstances. They are already home. And I can, in my own way, more consciously relive that childlike sense of peace during my interim month at home. Of course, being older, that experience is deeper for me than it is for my younger siblings, as I love to devote my time less to childish play than to leisurely reflection and contemplation; but the fundamental feeling of peace is the same. That nagging dissastisfaction and urgency which I felt at school was also, perhaps more profoundly, a painful sense of nostalgia for my childhood.

But I wonder at how well and long this childlike peace can last, in this life; the peace of being in a home that is, so to speak, one's contemplative playground. As we grow older, and less childlike, we begin to sense more deeply the urgency and neediness that is ingrained in our fallen natures. We begin to be nostalgic for the apparently settled and homelike quality of our childhood. I said above that the dissatisfaction I felt in college was due to a feeling of transition, a feeling that I needed to move forward and find a final resting place, a home; I was anxious for the future, I desperately wanted to find my home, where I could settle down in peace and finally be "where I was supposed to be." But how much can we really experience this feeling, as long as we live in this transitory world? All of this life is a mere transition; can I really hope to escape that feeling of having to constantly look forward? Barring death itself, can I ever cross the border between the land of my sojourn and the land that is my home? Many discussions with my father, and much observation of various families and communities in my experience, has led me to question how much one may realistically hope for a home on this earth. There will always be that feeling, in whatever degree, of transition, of waiting, of "not yet." Even as I enjoy the feeling of home for this short month, it is still only a month; I am moving on; I probably always will be. Did I deceive myself in thinking that, by escaping from college, I would be coming closer to the home, the settlement, that I hoped one day to make for myself? That I could definitively find a place to call my home before I pass from this ever transitory life? That I could ever, in this life, escape that nagging, tormenting feeling of transition, of not being where I was supposed to be, of intense nostalgia?

Indeed, the very transitiveness of our earthly home is all the more obvious to me in light of the events of summer in the year 2015, when my own family was like a tribe of wandering nomads for a few months; when it seemed that no home that they sought to inhabit in that time could be sustained. Their home was consumed by fire; they could not stay there. The Book of Revelation gives a terrible description of the destruction of the earth (which takes seven days - the undoing of Creation), beginning with a hail of fire from heaven, when the first angel blows his awful horn (8:7). We are obliged to feel the earth passing away beneath our feet; we are obliged to fear the day that this earth will burn away; we are obliged to long for a home that we will not find here; we are obliged to look ahead - not with anxiety, but with hope; we are obliged to feel the pain of nostalgia that cannot be quenched except by our crossing the threshold of death into the home that is the promised land, the House of God.
"And now the seven angels with the seven trumpets made ready to sound them. When the first sounded, there was a storm of hail and fire, mingled with blood, that fell on the earth, burning up a third part of earth, burning up a third of the trees, burning up all the green grass on it. " -- Revelation, 8:6-7


  1. "In my Father's house there are many mansions. If not, I would have told you: because I go to prepare a place for you."
    In our time on this earth, we are given a taste of Heaven, in our homes and in our families and in our dearest friends and pastimes.
    I always think of nostalgia as something longed for in the future, since we sometimes long for things we have never had.
    God bless you and keep you the next two years away from 'Home'.

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  3. I love this post, and I think it's a good description of a kind of coming of age that most people experience. I can't help but wonder though, isn't there a way in which the Christian can cultivate a sense of contentment? I think it's possible both to feel pull towards heaven and to have faith that God is having you live (not just go through, but LIVE) the life you have now because it is good, and so be content? This content is always qualified for the Christian in a way, but I don't think that should detract from wholeheartedly acknowledging the good of where we are, because it is where God wants us to be. It's cliche, but more importantly, it's completely true, given that all things are ordered by God's Divine Law.

    Most of us are not going to receive an ecstatic vision in this life, such as Catherine of Siena received, and which makes all earthly goods appear in all their nothingness compared to the infinite goodness that is God. So it seems important to acknowledge that as men, it is natural for us to love earthly things, and it is through these lower loves that God teaches us about His love. This is all to say that I wonder if a further step on this journey is to acknowledge the sense of nostalgia, and surrender it.

    Any surrender, or sacrifice, is more perfect if it is given without any grudge or sadness in the gift. What if we could offer the beautiful moments that we experience in our homes and relationships to God AS beautiful things and not passing over them to reflect, perhaps too soon, on the next step.

    Mother Teresa's life seems to be a beautiful example of this. Her mission was possible because of her great love for each person she encountered. Charity is not impersonal; God knows and is present to and loves each creature in the most intimate way - at the heart of their very being. This being is not impersonal, even though our understanding of it may be. It is what makes us to be what we are, in every way, and that encompasses every contingent, passing, beautiful, wistful thing.