Holy Days for the Homesick
Marilynne Robinson has written two remarkable novels: Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize and most recently Home. What is remarkable about these books is, that compared the "modern" novel, nothing much happens. Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the "New Republic" writes, "With the decorous taboos that once governed literary life bursting like soap bubbles, contemporary American fiction has become a groaning board on which characters and plots often seem chosen less for their inherent interest than for their ability to shock."
Home is a book that specializes in "inherent interests". Indeed, it is a small study set in a small town in Iowa (Gilead, the setting and title of the first novel) that focuses on the interactions of a dying minister, Rev. Boughton, his disappointed-in-life daughter, Glory, who is 37 years old and has returned to tend to her father, and the prodigal son and brother, Jack, an emotionally scarred and physically debilitated man, searching for something in the place and among the people he once fled, but to which circumstances have now again driven him. The shock value for the reader is reduced to recognizing how hard it seems to be to connect with the people we most want in our lives.
In an attempt to sooth his father, Jack plays the old hymn on the upright piano. "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling, 'Oh, sinner come home … come home, come home, ye who are weary, come home.'" In a way, this is the reprise of the whole story; can any of these folk really come home to one another? And if not, why not? Glory ponders why a real homecoming is both necessary and seemingly impossible, "What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?"
The writer Robinson has done a brilliant job with this small setting and these few people of creating a microcosm of human lostness. Even the best of intents often are not enough to bridge the chasm between two people, in this case three. The Rev. John Ames, the protagonist of the first small book, Gilead, and a lifelong friend of the dying Boughton, eloquently summarizes our common ineptitude: "In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among ourselves to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us."
We are heading into a time of year bucolically labeled "The Holidays." I would like to remind you that many of us, in one way or another, are filled with a kind of unaccountable homesickness at this turn of the calendar season. Try our best, we cannot seem to come home. We are truly displaced, displaced existentially. Thanksgiving, Christmas, the New Year disturb a chronic condition in us that we can better ignore during ordinary time. And these yearnings—for light that breaks the darkness, for laughter and happiness and acceptance, for warm love, for the smell of food cooking and the beauty of spangled decorations, for a permanent sense of belonging—are really longings for something deeper. Frederich Buechner writes in The Magnificent Defeat, "Like Adam we have all lost Paradise: and yet we carry around inside us in the form of a longing for, almost a memory of, a blessedness that is no more, or the dream of a blessedness that may someday be again."
This is the source of the feelings we humans often call nostalgia or that we diagnosis as an aching feeling of loneliness. Thanksgiving, a gathering together to give humble thanks, and Christmas, the celebration of the Nativity on earth of the Divine, and New Year, the possibility of starting again, all invoke paradisal inferences And that's one of the reasons "The Holidays" can be a wretched time on earth for many people. We are homesick in the deepest part of our souls for what we can't have, can hardly name, nor do we know how to find it.
"We cannot comprehend eternity. We function, birth to death, governed by the boundaries of time. Though we live in an obviously finite world, something in our hearts aspires to the infinite. We have a sense, an inkling, a foreboding, that life on earth may be merely a parenthetical phrase within an eternal context. Our physical being operates in the temporal realm, but our spirit belongs to another reality. The human heart holds a secret." —Jean Fleming, The Homesick Heart.
So this is what I would like to suggest. As we head into the holiday season, let us take a little time to consider the homesick among us. Let us sit down, pull out the calendars and pray about who it is for whom homesickness is an overwhelming condition this Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year season. Then let us make plans to invite them into our lives. Let us include, call, invite, embrace, welcome, seek out, accept, and receive all who might be in that place of puzzling exile. Let us vow to make these next months a Holy Season for the Homesick. (You will be surprised at how many homesick people you discover. You might even be surprised at how your own displacement can be assuaged in the company of those who have not ceased longing.)
"For God does not create a longing or a hope without having a fulfilling reality ready for them. But our longing is our pledge and blessed are the homesick, for they shall come home." —Isak Dinesen, Babette's Feast and Other Anecdotes of Destiny.
I believe this to be true. But for now, here, earthbound in the parentheses, let us practice hospitality for the homesick.
Bag Ladies Project
"As we head into the holiday season, let us take a little time to consider the homesick among us."
"There is only one character
who is missing among the
parade of pornographers, suicide bombers, child molesters,
other erstwhile outsiders who populate our novels. That character is
- New Republic