I remember the first time I saw the Robert Heinlein title, Stranger in a Strange Land. Very few phrases captured my inner sense of self in such a way. I was a teenager at the time – thus, a fair amount of my commonality with the title has to be chalked up to “teenage angst.” Few teens feel at home – anywhere. In many ways, they’re not supposed to. Too much is changing, both inside and out, for a teen to find a confidence in the nature of things. This is particularly true in our modern economy.
There is a tale told about “coonskin” caps. Following Disney’s release “Davy Crockett” (1955), a craze began among young boys – everyone wanted a coonskin hat like Crockett’s. I had a cousin who made his own (now that’s impressive). The discovery birthed by this 50’s phenomenon was the power of marketing to the post-war “baby boom.” Never before in human history had so much attention been given to youth-as-market. Rock ‘n Roll, the teen angst of James Dean in “Rebel without a Cause” (1955), created an image and model that began to peak in the 1960s and became the avant garde of everything modernity has sought to sell ever since.
Marketing is, by and large, the manipulation of shame in order to stir desire (the passions). It is not an environment in which anyone ever feels “at home.” You’re not supposed to. Those who are most at home shop the least. (Nobody “needs” a coonskin cap).
Despite all of this, there is within us something that responds to the phrase, “Stranger in a strange land.” The sense of homesickness, or a desire for “home,” is not erased by marketing. Neither can it be satisfied in that manner. If anything, we must describe our inherent homesickness as a gift from God. A quote from C.S. Lewis points to this:
“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
It is to Lewis’ credit that he managed, despite a young man’s atheism, to come to the realization that his heart was hungry for God, homesick for heaven, and that he needed to change course and set sail towards that Dawn that has no ending.
It is of note, in the providence of his life, that it is likely that this longing was intensified by the death of his mother when he was a young boy. It need not have had such an effect, but it seems unmistakeable that it contributed to it. Only a belief in the goodness of God dare make such an observation.
Our own lives, indeed, the life of the world, is marked by many tragedies, disappointments and points of suffering. They are not the “cause” of our homesickness, but they easily contribute to its poignancy. I traveled back to my home last September, on the anniversary of my mother’s falling asleep. My childhood neighborhood is in ruins, economic and social decay have largely been unchecked since 1964 when the local Air Force base closed. I also drove down to see the trailer that my parents had moved to in the country (it stayed there for quite a while). I do not know if it’s been moved, but it is now so overgrown that it cannot be seen. The picture accompanying this article is from about 10 years ago when it was still visible.
What I observed on that trip was that nothing whatsoever in this world could assuage the ache of my heart. Instead, saying prayers by my parents’ graves, and remembering them in the Church, are the only balm. Indeed, they are now no longer part of my past but part of a future that I properly long for.
The true heart, so often hidden from our awareness, is paradise. And, as such, it contains “many mansions.” Many things, even all things, dwell there, but not as they were. What we find in the depths of the true heart is Christ, and all things in Christ. Much of what I ever knew in the past was make-believe, or imagninary. For example, no child truly knows their parent. What we see of them is the tip of an iceberg, often surrounded with things we imagine to be true. A child might mention a moment that endures in their memory which the parent cannot even recall. All we could ever find, were we truly able to travel into the past, would be a shadow, a shade, a ghostly apparation that mocks reality itself. These things have no place in the true heart.
Of course, there may be many things and moments in our lives that carry some echo of eternity. It is eternity itself that we long for and not its echoes. I have some wonderful memories of transcendent moments in various Liturgies through the course of my life. But those moments were themselves not the thing itself. The thing itself has been present in every Liturgy, even every other moment of life, mostly unrecognized.
Among the most poignant statements in the gospels is in the opening chapter of St. John:
“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” (1:10-11)
It describes Christ’s “homecoming.” It is followed by a statement that reverses and fulfills:
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in His name:” (1:12)
Home Himself has come among us in order to welcome us strangers into the place that has been prepared for us. Strangers no more, we may dwell in paradise – the heart’s true home.