I do not have a hometown. I think that fact about me, perhaps more than any other, is the defining feature of my history. And it is a defining feature — if not the defining feature — of my person.
And at least here in English-speaking culture, an introductory question about where you grew up is virtually inescapable. And because my line of work has me meeting new people regularly, I am constantly reminded and find myself reminding others that I do not have a hometown.
Does that mean that I do not have a home? That is a trickier question to answer. I of course call Emmaus, Pennsylvania, “home” these days and have since 2010 (though I started serving as a priest in Emmaus the year before). But will it ever be home for me in the way that a hometown is home? No, it will not and cannot. That part of my life cannot simply be edited.
That said, I don’t want to leave it pretty much ever. And that is at least partly so that my children will have this thing that I cannot.
Weirdly enough, all this came up for me internally again as I decided to pull the lever (well, push the button; you know how it goes these days) on becoming a formal student again about a month ago. I was accepted into the Master of Arts in Language and Literature program at Signum University, which is a fully online university that (at least for now; they are expanding) specializes in a lot of subjects that are quite near my dearest held interests — Tolkien, culture, language, myth, folklore, things Germanic, the medieval and literature. I plan to pursue the concentration in Classical, Medieval and Renaissance Literature, leaning more on the first two, since the latter is where I spent much of my undergraduate attention. I begin study a little over a week from today.
So, why does beginning a new degree program raise for me again the question of my homelessness? (Let the reader understand: English is one of the few languages to make the distinction between a house and a home, yet oddly we use homeless really to mean houseless. By God’s grace, I have never experienced the latter.) Explaining that will require some background, since it has been almost 14 years since I was a formal student and I graduated from seminary in 2007.
Okay, full disclosure: I was not really a very good student prior to seminary. My high school GPA was not very stellar, and my undergraduate GPA was even more terrestrial. (In fact, when I applied for acceptance to the MA, I was a little worried that this record would haunt me.) But there was something about beginning seminary that made me say to myself, “Okay, Andrew. This time it’s not going to be Does not work to potential.” And I am pretty proud of how I performed in seminary.
I think starting seminary in 2004 is when I finally accepted my homelessness. Prior to that, all my relocations (of which there are now 22) had been moving along with my family to a new place or, with the last couple prior to seminary, just local moves. But now I was choosing to go somewhere on a mission of my own for a purpose of my own to go and make some new place my own. I had to own my uprooting this time, even though the roots were, as always, fairly shallow.
When I began seminary, study became not something I had to do (even if it was for some other purpose that I wanted myself) but that I wanted to do because I now fully believed in the idea. And it took me until my late twenties finally to get there.
I have the occasion to work now with people who are fully a decade or more younger than I am, who did not take until their late twenties to become dedicated to education, and I sometimes feel that I really wasted my twenties. I could console myself with pious-sounding platitudes like “Well, that was my path then,” “God knew what He was doing,” or somesuch, but that really is to deny the actual harm I was causing myself and to fail to incorporate that decade into myself in an honest and integrative — and, if I may say so, repentant — way.
No, I have to own up to my failure to cultivate what I could have cultivated then and simply chose to dally with. It is not that I learned nothing in my undergraduate years. I certainly became familiar with numerous fascinating texts and had some excellent guides to take me there. But it was nothing like it could have been.
For me, Christian life has often been a narrative of realizing that I wasted a lot of time or spent a lot of time badly, and now the time has come to do this thing right — whatever the “thing” is, be it marriage, fatherhood, priesthood, prayer, personal health, etc. Failure is opportunity, though, not occasion for condemnation. I love that Orthodox Christianity has a strong tradition of saying, “Today, we begin again.”
All that said, I feel like this second Master’s degree is for me a sort of homegoing. It is not that I can substitute study of myth and legend for having a hometown. One does not replace the other. But if I have ever had a home, it really was in this kind of reading and interaction. It is probably no accident that whenever I read In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit, that it feels like opening the door to home and seeing my family there.
Since graduating seminary 14 years ago, I haven’t given up reading, to be sure — though I think I am still in recovery from how we had to eat (that was the word I always used) texts in that frantic, over-functioning course of study. But it has been a solitary venture and one that I set aside far too often because I was just tired or attracted by binge-watching or binge-browsing too many nights.
My hope is to finish this course of study in about four years. And I already have a firm idea for what I want my thesis to be about. (It will surprise no one that I am considering looking at Divine Council theology in Tolkien as mediated through Old English literature and Germanic myth.)
So, here I am again, picking through old ruins and listening to old stories and finding another way to integrate everything I love. That first great integration was probably when I started working in theatre, and the second was ordination to the priesthood. And now this one, which includes not just this course of study but my new professional role which not coincidentally begins almost concurrently.
I hope that I will become a better Christian, better husband, better father, better priest, better communicator, better story-teller and better writer. Because in the end, everything is one. And de-fragmenting ourselves in Christ is one way of seeing what this life is about.
And it is the ultimate home-going.