Home Behind Home

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A home is not the same as a house. You can live or stay in a house and it is not a home. You can possibly live in a house many years and yet it never becomes a home. Home, the ancient expression goes, is where the heart is. While that might have become rather twee, the subject of greeting cards with sickly illustrations, as with many clichés, it contains an essential truth.

Think, for a moment, of your own home, what you really call home. Perhaps it is somewhere you left many years ago but deep-down long to return to. Maybe that is where you were truly happy, or last truly happy. It could be in another land and you are, in some sense, in exile. On all my visits to Iraq, from my first visit in early 2015 and many subsequent visits, one of the things that has struck me most powerfully is the painful sense so many of the Christians have of being removed from their home. It was not just their physical dwellings they lost when Islamists drove them out from the Nineveh Plain, making them refugees in their own country, but their connection with their history and heritage. Their families had lived in that place, not just for generations, but for millennia, certainly many of them since apostolic times.

In the West, that powerful connection to place, and the feel of abandonment and loss when it goes, is less easy to understand, or at least less tangible, because life is so fluid now. Is that the reason why so many feel lost and estranged in some way, although they can’t put their finger on why they feel that sense of being lost or out of place? Many of the addictions and compulsions which control and captivate so many people, whether it is drink or drugs, sexual promiscuity or the desire just to avoid deep thought and commitment to anything, can be traced back to that primordial feeling, buried deep down, that we have lost our home.

Those feelings, most of what we truly desire, even if they are so often corrupted by sin are, as Bishop Erik Varden, the Trappist Abbot plucked from his monastery in England to be a bishop in Norway, has written “messages from afar.” The poet Rilke said, “I’m made of longing.” Varden writes that these feelings of longing make us “homesick for a land we have not yet discovered.” The genius and saint, for I believe he was, Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote of the “home behind home for which we are all homesick.” The longing we feel, the sense of displacement, that sense of being homesick for the home “behind home,” the memory of that, Chesterton said, is the life of faith and fairy tale.

Once, we knew where our home was; in the poetical language of Genesis, God walked in the Garden in the cool of the evening with humanity and we were at peace; all was ordered and harmonious, everything in its place. The peace of home, and our happy rootedness, was disrupted and fractured by the rebellion of Man, the sin of Adam. Rather than happiness at home, the false promise of the deceiver, that there were new horizons without God, that freedom would come by leaving home, was believed, and humanity became homeless. But the sense of home was never truly destroyed, hence all the different expressions of human longing. Modern man, or man without God throughout the ages, GKC said, is like a “traveller who has forgotten the name of his destination, and has to go back whence he came, even to find out where he is going.” The “false optimism” of the modern world, he said, “tires us because it tells us we fit into this world. The true happiness is that we don’t fit. We have come from somewhere else. We have lost our way.”

How true that is: the false idea that we fit into this world does, ultimately, “tire us,” because that memory of our true home is always there under the surface, reminding us. Belloc, GKC’s great friend, who suffered much tragedy in his life— losing his wife at a young age and then both his sons, the first in WWI and his other son in the Second World war—wrote of the loss of our physical home, the place where we grew up, our ancient house, as a “sharp foretaste of death.” That is truly profound, for death entered the world through the sin of Adam and cut us off from home.

There is a false religion, growing in strength—particularly among the young and those who sense this rootlessness but do not have the language of faith to express it or understand the true remedy for it—to believe that the earth is not only our home, but our mother. Cardinal George, the late Archbishop of Chicago, wrote that “if the earth is our mother, then the grave is our home and the world is a closed system turned in on itself. If Christ is risen from the grave and the Church is our mother, then our destiny reaches beyond space and time, beyond that which can be measured and controlled.”

Our homesickness can only be healed by the Resurrection of Christ. Where death expelled us from home, Christ’s victory over the grave returns us to that place where our hearts can find rest. For the traveller who has lost his way, who not only has forgotten the name of his destination but doesn’t even know “from whence he came,” the Resurrection is the signpost. It is, said Chesterton, the “first morning of hope,” a hope that can transform our lives in this world in preparation for the world to come. It is not that we must wait to return to the “home behind home for which we are all homesick;” faith in the Resurrection of Christ, the very reason we are Christians, is the reason the Gospel spread like wildfire across the world with the good news that we are not lost on “the road to nowhere.” 

The Gospel, said Michael Ramsey, did not address people who had no thought of the afterlife; plenty of pagans believed in some version, rather like today when most people not only believe in an afterlife, which usually seems to involve an extended party, but also believe they are all going to heaven, despite never living in relationship with Christ and His Church. Christianity, and explicitly living faith in the Resurrection of Jesus, brought to the world a belief in the future life that was “vivid, immediate, central and triumphant.” The Resurrection, Ramsey said, was, and is, the “very near certainty of another world, with which Christians were actually linked.”

This is why we cannot claim the name of Christian, or expect to experience the grace of the Resurrection, to feel that sense of home, without a living and life-giving relationship with the Church, which St. John Henry Newman called a “treasure-house.” The Church is the “halfway house” to home, where we get food for the journey, truth is preached, sins are forgiven, and we are touched by Christ in the sacraments at every important stage in our lives. We cannot find our way home without the signposts that are found in the “treasure-house” of the Church. In the Church, we travelers learn not only our destination, the way to that destination, but also the place from “whence we came.” Newman asked, in an Easter sermon, why people who call themselves Christians and say they believe, stay away from what he called the “greatest conceivable blessing that could come upon men.” The reason, he said, was “unbelief” and “slavish sin-loving obstinacy.”

Finding home again after years away, returning to our roots, experiencing our longings fulfilled: this is the meaning of the entire Easter season. The Gospel, which can wake up a tired world which seeks to find home everywhere but where home can truly be found, is revealed in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This news, Ramsey said, is both “strange to mankind and yet nearer to mankind than the breath with which they breathe.”

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]

Fr. Benedict Kiely

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Fr. Benedict Kiely is a contributing editor to Crisis and the magazine's Middle-Eastern correspondent. He's the founder of Nasarean.org, a 501(c)(3) charity dedicated to relieving the persecution of Christians in the Mideast. He is incardinated in the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.

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