Editor’s Note: Due to an early morning link problem with the e-mail sent Thursday, we are resending Katie Kressar’s post Friday, July 23rd as well. In addition, the Christ Animating Learning Blog will take a one week vacation next week. We will return on August 2nd. Thanks, PLG
Like many academics, I’m a small-town kid who “made good”—who “got out” after high school. After attending my state college, I moved first to Boston and then to Seattle, becoming a cosmopolitan who (I flattered myself) had a broader frame of reference and a more “plugged in” sensibility than my childhood peers.
Also like some academics (though probably a lot fewer), I visit my birthplace every summer for several weeks, connecting with family members and revisiting old haunts.
This summer, as I sat on my parents’ back porch in the sweltering July heat, I considered how many people in history had preceded me in this transition between worlds: North African generals, Mandarin officials, Northumbrian scholars. And I thought about how, in times of high civilization, the human race always seems divided between rival ideas of “home.”
As historians have long recognized, civilizations depend on the cultivation of a skilled, itinerant class of bureaucrats and intellectuals in order to survive. This class is the “glue” holding empires together. With their similar modes of dress, their shared vocabularies, and their uniform cultural reference points, these cosmopolitans can move from place to place (university to university, palace to palace) without disrupting the civic flow. They are interchangeable cogs in the imperial machine, no matter their milieux. Neither Tang Dynasty China nor ancient Rome could have functioned without them.
And these itinerant intellectuals of course, must have a specialized idea of “home.” For them (and perhaps for me), “home” can no longer be a place: it must be a package of acquired symbols. It must be dress and words and thought and etiquette and finely-honed ideals – and the style or atmosphere that arises from their combination. For history’s cosmopolitans, wherever these symbols have taken hold – in classrooms, courts or bohemian cafes – home has been found.
For everyone else, though (the vast majority, in their billions through history) “home” IS a place. It is a specific plot of land and its qualities. Where I am from, in the southern Midwest, “home” is red-brown earth, fibrous grass, summer thunderstorms, and muddy streams. It is rows of corn undulating over low hills and the sound of crickets at twilight. It is fireflies lolling in dense, moist air.
And what of the dwelling place – where one lays one’s head? For cosmopolitans, this might be a succession of elegant condos in cities with escalating costs of living and ever-more-refined entertainments.
But for everyone else this might be an old house, perhaps handed down for generations, encrusted with tchotchkes and keepsakes, a little bit shabby and worn. It might even bear a plaque on its door, faded but somehow proud, reading in florid letters: “welcome to our home.”
These are the two kinds of home we choose between today, and our plight is not a new one. These two kinds of home are embedded in the human condition. That’s why, perhaps, they’ve been exploited by politicians to secure constituents’ fealty – especially in the globalized, ultra-violent twentieth century. The cosmopolitan, if he becomes too unmoored, can become something like a Maoist cultural revolutionary. The loyal small-towner, if she becomes too insular, can become a bigot of “blood and soil.”
But there is a different way to think of “home.” Christians speak of heaven as their home, although more often than not, it’s hard to know what they mean by it. Usually, these “heavens” resemble one’s earthly home: the sleek, urban condo or the rustic, rural farmhouse. This might not seem so at first; the pictured paradise may be abstracted enough from its source to seem, briefly, “original.” But the roots always show. Our imaginations cannot create ex nihilo.
Some philosophers, however, posit a different type of “home.” Indeed, they style it a “transcendental.” Along with the good, the true, and the beautiful, this “home” is self-evident when encountered, even if it cannot be described or expressed. It is bigger than, and anterior to, all of our human conceptions. It is a ground from which other things proceed, and not a point that can be rationally approached.
What is this “home”? It is broader and deeper than consciously-held ideals or even familiar landscapes. It is a sense of embrace you feel just upon waking, perhaps – an embrace by something that knows you better than your mother did, or than you know yourself.
Or maybe it’s the thrill you feel when alone, sometimes – particularly in nature, among wild murmurs and rustling leaves. At such moments you think, “What is that? What calls?” And then you think, “Oh yes…” And then your eyes open wide. And then it’s gone.
Before we are mind or flesh we are spirit, and all spirit comes from, and is sustained in, the One. He is our home.
And He demands to be our home. He will not be overshadowed by anything else. Not by parents or children. Not by talents or passions. Not by sunsets or waterfalls. Not by sublime artistic beauties, or crystalline logic, or scientific wonders. Not even by the sick, oppressed and poor, whom we might congratulate ourselves for defending in our calculated pursuit of righteousness.
All of these are but shadows of Him, our Home, and their purpose is to lead our hearts like arrows to the true mark.
I am torn between earthly homes, and each one judges the other. The denizens of each (well, some of them) live parallel lives of mutual distrust, squinting at each other across an unbridgeable conceptual divide.
But whether they know it or not, their Parent is the same, and they lay together in His dappled bower, infants in cribs of the same soft moss, squalling under waving leaves.
At length He will come and rouse us, bidding us to roam and willingly return. Then we will see how all homes are in His heart, different yet the same in secret ways.
And raptly we will sit before a Heart that is a Hearth, containing all sap of earthy pleasance and all truth like climbing flame.
Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful reflections on home.
For more on this theme, see “Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement”,
a book that Brian Walsh and I wrote (Eerdmans, 2008) on precisely the issues you discuss.
You had me at hello.
I’m a small-town Iowa boy who has lived in the Twin Cities for almost thirty years now. I still get homesick for the Loess Hills where I raised, even though I’m fast approaching sixty. Thankfully, I was able to revisit my old stomping grounds last month.
I would change just one word in your essay, the title. I suggest HOMESICKNESS.
This is beautiful, Katie.
Having now returned “home” after 30 years of being a cosmopolitan, I’m sitting tonight listening to crickets in the sweltering humidity of the Midwest, and hoping a thunderstorm moves through. Even here I’m aware that there is another home I still long for – a place that sometimes feels like the edges of a forgotten dream, and other times is so tangible I can nearly smell and taste it. I appreciate you putting this into words for me.
Ms.Kresser. I rarely read the CSR, but am happy to come across your very sensitively written essay. It provoked an event that I will attempt to share; forgive me if this is over long. A little over 8 years ago, I lost my wife to cancer. we had been married for over 30 years and I was rolling through some very strong emotions. One afternoon, some weeks after, I was sitting in the front room, facing the front double doors. The afternoon light was filtering through the shed glass and falling life luminous leaves onto the tile floor. In an instant I grasped to my bones that I would never see her walk through those doors again and immediately began weeping….hard. I had one thought only in my head: “Kathi come home, I want you to come home!”
with my eyes clenched shut, I repeated this 3 or 4 times with all of my might. Evidently, my intensity caused me to travel somewhere (out? in? up?) because I encountered some kind of interior barrier that gave me a mild physical jolt; soft but unyielding. At that moment, two things happened almost simultaneously. first, my eyes popped open and then I heard Kathi’s voice (from right/rear) say: “But I am home”. It was without a doubt her voice; slightly bemused and dispassionate. In dead silence, I listened REAL HARD for another minute, hoping something else would come; but no dice. That was it. Apparently, my request/demand had gotten through and she was….perplexed? I guess from her perspective, it was a nonsense question. My intense neediness met her complete belonging and bounced off. I never had that thought again. I thought that your reflection on the home-to-come rang true. Thanks.
Duncan, Thank you for this (beautifully written) account of your experience. I am profoundly moved by it. It is the right time to use the word “awesome.” Katie Kresser’s piece is great and set me up for your entry. Thank you.