Twelve years ago, I began writing this column. I chose to call it In Exile. There was a double reason for this choice: Superficially, I called it that because, at that time, I was living in Europe, away from my family, my community, my life-long friends, and away from much of what I felt, then, to be home.
More importantly, though, this title was chosen because all of us, irrespective of the love, family, community, popularity, and success that might surround us, live our lives as distanced always from true consummation and from the type of intimacy we would need to experience to feel truly at home. All of us live our lives, in one way or the other, in exile, as an outsider. In this life there is no such a thing as a clear-cut pure joy. There is no finished symphony, but rather, as Henri Nouwen puts it: “In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitations. In every success, there is fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, there is distance. And in all forms of light, there is knowledge of surrounding darkness.”
Our Christian faith invites us precisely to this kind of perspective. Scripture tells us that we are on this earth as pilgrims, not really at home but yearning always for an intimacy, a communion, a consummation, that is somehow beyond us. Thus, St. Paul finishes his great ode to love by saying: “For now we see as through an enigma, a glass, darkly.” Only later, on the other side of eternity, we will finally see, and meet each other and life, “face to face“. Here, in this world, as we groan with creation itself, we look forward to a fuller day and we are always the exile, the foreigner, the one who is excluded in some way. In this world we all live in an unspeakable loneliness.
Through the years, more than one friend and more than one editor have challenged me to change this title. Invariably the appeal is something like this: “In Exile sounds negative, morbid, a little like the old mourning and weeping in this valley of tears spirituality. Why not something a bit more positive, upbeat, joyful?”
I must confess that sometimes I have been tempted to follow that advice. Always something has stopped me. Sometimes it was only my stubbornness, straight Germanic tenacity, which held me to the original conviction that speaking from this kind of a podium is a healthy way to go. But that isn’t the main reason why I have retained this title and intend to continue to into the future. Through the years, I have received many moving letters from readers who have expressed appreciation for this title precisely because they feel like they are perennially “in exile”. Let me share just one such letter:
Several years ago, I received a letter from a woman who commented as follows: “I very much like the title of your column, even though I don’t always agree with what you say in it. You see, for my whole life I have struggled with mental illness. I’ve never felt like a normal person. It’s hard. It’s hard forever struggling with doubts, with other people not understanding you, with you not even understanding yourself. I can’t begin to tell you how lonely it is sometimes, always being excluded, always being unsure, never being able to relate the way I would like to, being forever trapped in a closed world that I cannot seem to get out of. I know what it means to be in exile. It’s the story of my life.”
It is also the story of each of our lives. Many of us, unlike her, are not clinically ill, but, like her, all of us have our own form of psychosis, of mental illness, of personal sickness, wound, dysfunctional history, idiosyncrasy, and plain quirks which distance us from each other. It is not a question of: Are we alienated? It is only a question of: In what ways are we alienated? All of us, as Thoreau says, live lives of quiet desperation and, I might add, of not-so-quiet frustration. All of us spend most of our lives waiting for something else to happen to us. Ninety-nine per cent of our lives are spent in a restlessness of one form or the other, waiting for a fuller moment. Who isn’t in exile?
Jesus said: “I have not come for the healthy, but for those who need a physician.” I am not Jesus, I am merely a columnist (and a bit of hack at that) but, if I may loosely paraphrase the master: “I do not write for those who are well, who feel themselves on top of things, rather this column is intended for persons like the woman whose letter I quote, who feel far from the centre, who look for God’s consolation and challenge in a world and a life that is far far from whole.