Monday, May 3, 2010

Living in Exile - Chapter One: The Longing Way Home

As I indicated in the first post of The Longing Way Home this is an experiment in writing a book as a Blog - at least for me. Beginning with this one, I propose to submit successive posts as chapters of the book. Following each post, I'll add a segment of a memoir to illustrate the personal ground from which the book and, as closely as possible, the preceding chapter emerged. I'll also do this as an attempt toward limiting the length of the chapter as well as shifting the tone and character of the writing.

I am not at all sure how this will go, or what degree of interest it will evoke from those who may access my blog and posts. For that reason, as well as for critical response, I invite you to raise questions or make comments as I/we proceed. It may be that this experiment will not work and I'll abandon it or continue it in some other way. Your responses will help me make that decision so I thank you for them in advance.

I must necessarily add that any and every part or portion of the written form and substance of The Longing Way Home, including this blog and all posts, is under copyright, 2010, and all rights reserved. No part can be reproduced in any manner except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews without prior written permission from the author.

That said, here we go.


For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Isaiah 55:8

Beginnings need a compass, an operative North Star. Otherwise what follows from them is often rather pointless meandering; interesting perhaps, or entertaining, even challenging or vaguely satisfying, but as a rule more than vaguely disappointing.

That observation applies to any subject. Even more crucially it applies to life itself. The difficulty is that life’s North Star, its point, its dogged meaning, usually takes time, perhaps a lot of it, to be discovered or discerned. It may take thirty or forty years, or longer. Or it may never happen. The point is there but we miss it, or mistake it, or dismiss it. And during those years, life can be experienced as a rootless wandering without a compelling point or with too many points that are more confusing than clarifying. These memoir-meditations are about life itself, including my own. They do have a point. Over the years, I’ve discovered and rediscovered it countless times. Since it’s a process that constantly involves me, I am constrained to disclose it at the outset. To do that, I have to start nearer the end than the beginning of my life.

My point is longing – yours, mine, everyone’s -- for I believe longing is a common human experience. Our longing is persistent. It is insistent. It is unquenchable. Although it takes many different forms, the longing itself is universal. It can be intense, it can fade but it never ends as long as we live. So I suggest that longing is our primal connection to God, and is the ground of faith. Longing is a basic way God relates to us more deeply than our belief systems, creeds, scriptures, practices, philosophies, institutional expressions of religion, or the rejection of any or all of these. I also suggest that longing is a gentle, quiet but trustworthy guide in our lives. Simon Weil, a Christian mystic, says, perfect attention is prayer. In that profoundly spiritual but unconventional sense, I believe paying close attention to our longing is essential to spiritual life, indeed to our very humanity.

These are huge, perhaps presumptuous assertions. I’ve arrived at them over the course of many years, nearly half of them as a minister, author, theologian, husband, father, grandfather, as well as a lifetime of being a mortal, seeking, struggling, flawed, awed, blest, grateful human being. These memoir-meditations are about how I’ve come to these assertions. I write them in the hope they will engage us in a dialogue together.

To begin with, longing is hard to define precisely even though it’s a prevalent, frequent experience. Often it’s assumed to be the same as having a dream, or passionate desire, or wanting, craving or wishing for something. While longing can be similar in some ways to those views, or a factor in them, it is not quite the same. To me, desire, wanting, wishing, dreaming have a more specific and limited quality to them. They are typically directed toward a particular person, object, status or goal, many, even most, of which can be reached or achieved and the desire or wanting can be satisfied at least temporarily, sometimes permanently.

In my experience, longing is much more elusive. Rather than relating to specific things, longing infuses our experience of nearly everything. It persists even after any specific desire, dream or wish is met. It lurks unabated at the edges of the glow or exhilaration or satisfaction of the most personal or intimate experiences or achievements or triumphs. It also remains unwavering through disappointments, disillusionments and defeats. That is, longing refers to an enduring condition that is unquenchable and yet is irresistible and unavoidable. That paradox is the abiding mystery of longing while constituting its spiritual quality and power.

Spiritual is a term that usually makes me uneasy. Too often it is used to refer to a new age types of personal, basically private self-improvement ventures which are accountable to no one or nothing other than the attitudes, preferences and objectives of the individual or his/her mentor. While that can be a quite accurate view it’s perhaps a too narrow one. I’ve come to occasionally use the term spiritual to designate a generic human impulse hardwired into each of us. It’s pre-religious and, as I said, does not necessarily find resonance and expression in religious communities, creeds and practices. I posit longing as that essential condition of spirituality that affects all of us whether personally acknowledged or not.

Therefore, our common spirituality makes longing relevant as a guide and teacher in life for everyone and is accessible both within and outside of any particular religion. Being a Christian and serving for 45 years as a minister, I contend that paying attention to the prompts of our longing is a critical factor in the continuous reformation and renewal of faithful persons as well as religious institutions and life itself, certainly of Christians and their churches. That’s a large piece of what I’ve learned in my life and why I’m beginning nearer the end than the beginning of my life. In truth, that contention is a deeply held belief and a major motivation for writing this book.

Home is a powerful new novel written by Marilynne Robinson as a companion work to her beautiful, almost devotional book, Gilead. It’s set in the same small prairie town of Gilead, Iowa. It deals with some of the same Gilead characters later in their lives, in particular retired, old Presbyterian minister, Reverend Robert Boughton and his two middle-aged children: Glory who has come back home to take care of her father after the breakup of her engagement to a duplicitous man; Jack, the rebellious, black sheep agnostic of the family who left and stayed incommunicado for twenty years and reappears at the family home one day without much explanation to anyone. The core of the novel is the dynamic between these three characters.

So Home explores the questions, “What is home?” and “What does it mean to come home?” In one of the most poignant lines comes toward the end of the book as Robinson sums of the experience of Glory and Jack this way: “Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?” (1)

That question comes close to the heart of the human condition. It’s what longing is about. A sense of exile! No matter how comfortable or troublesome our place on earth may be, no matter how safe or threatened we may feel, no matter how much we know or don’t know, or have or don’t have, no matter how certain or shaky or absent our beliefs may be, our longing keeps whispering to us that somehow we are living our lives as exiles. Or as one reviewer summed it up, “Eden is exile, not Heaven.” (2) Put simply, living in exile is to be living away from our own home country.

There can be many explanations for our intuiting that condition – neurological, political, choice, war, being taken there among them. But the most existential reason is simply that as human beings, we are actually born into exile. However close to Eden, or the promised land, we may strive to be, even feel or think we are, we are still away from our real home, away from the country or kingdom to which we most fully belong but at best only partially belong now.

At strange times and in curious ways, we sense that partiality. It happens through the common, public arena of science as physicists try to pulverize atoms in the effort to discover and share with us the secrets of the origin of the universe, of matter and life, of where humans came from and are going. It happens in neuroscience which explores brain function to try to determine how or whether it conditions our relationship to reality or if it's the other way around. It happens in the social, political area as we go through the ritual of reciting our complaints and failings and argue over how deal with them in order to fashion a more perfect future. It happens in the intimate personal arena in those fleeting fragments, slivers of moments, glimmers of awareness, those occasions of either delight or defeat when we feel personally, however vaguely and briefly, that somehow we really are prodigals in a far country and a kind of homesickness stirs in us. That is a condition of mortality, of finitude. That is the refrain longing keeps humming to us in those times when we listen. That is why I maintain that longing is our primal connection to God. Reflecting on personal experience has led me to this conviction.

(1) Marilynne Robinson, Home (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 282
(2) James Wood The New Yorker, September 8, 2008 78

No comments:

Post a Comment