Several years ago, when l still taught on a college staff, I had a colleague, a priest, who used to travel nearly 200 miles regularly to visit his invalid mother.
She was 90 years old, almost totally incapacitated, couldn’t recognize her son, couldn’t speak to him, or make any form of rational contact. Yet her son would regularly visit her, just to sit quietly at her bedside.
For him, there was no rational contact, but there was tremendously meaningful contact—”I go and sit by my mother’s bed and it steadies me, it centres me in some deep inchoate way. I always leave after a visit with a much more surer sense of who I am and what I believe in. After sitting with my mother for awhile at least, I know who I am!”
I experienced something quite similar recently when our extended family gathered for a family reunion. On my father’s side we are an extremely large clan and when we gather for a full reunion every 10 years, almost 300 people show up.
But it isn’t just the chance to see long-lost relatives that makes this a special gathering. For most of us, almost as important as the people is the place. We meet for a weekend at our old parish grounds in a very remote farming region where our grandfather and grandmother and some of their friends and relatives came and homesteaded nearly 100 years ago—and where most of us grew up.
Our grandparents were the first persons to ever break the soil there, to build houses there, to raise families there and to build a church there. That church still stands, a very humble stone and cement building, alone among some very lonely hills. It’s still worshipped in by the local parish which is made up mainly of relatives. My parents are buried in the church cemetery.
Something happens when we gather there that goes far beyond the simple nostalgia of seeing the old place, reminiscing with relatives you haven’t seen for 10 years and visiting your parents’ graves. There is a deep experience of coming home, of sitting by the bedside of a silent mother who, while she cannot talk to you, can steady you and help you sort out who you are and what you really believe in.
To truly touch your roots is to be nurtured by them, to drink strength from them, and to be steadied and given solid direction from the trunk that they have produced. Like my priest friend’s experience with his aged mother, there isn’t rational communication, but there is mystical touch, a dusting off and a branding of what lies deepest in the mind and heart. We know most truly who we are when we are at home.
Anthropologists today tell us that home is as much about place as it is about kinship, blood relationship, and family or psychological bonding. To be at home, one needs a place, a homeland (as the Germans say).
Sadly, today, for many of us, there is no longer any sense of home as place, no homeland. Home no longer has any land to call its own.
In a world of transience, of future shock—when people, organizations, knowledge, things, and places, move through our lives at an ever increasing rate—where perhaps we have never been able to sink meaningful roots in any one place, it is no accident that more and more of us find ourselves morally lonely and anything but steady.
Instability, confusion and a deep moral loneliness are born of transience. When we’ve not a place to truly identify with, no roots to drink from, no tree trunk to give us clear direction, it is no accident that we can, on any given day, sincerely wonder who we really are, what our values are, what we mean and which of our seeming multiple personalities is our true one.
From lack of home, we suffer schizophrenia, dislocation and much loneliness—both psychologically and morally. And part of that lack of home has to do with place. Place is also a home, a mother, we need to go back to occasionally.
It is no accident that land can be considered holy and that so many wars have been fought over the Holy Land, that our aboriginal peoples feel so utterly dislocated once they have lost their lands and that living in exile, away from one’s homeland, for anyone, is so painful and disorienting. These things have to do with the loss of home. And home, in this case, means place.
Our old church back home stands on a hill, itself surrounded by miles and miles of desolate prairie hills. Those lonely hills are silent. They don’t speak. I looked at them long and hard a few weeks ago, standing with some of my family by the graves of my mother and father.
We said some prayers and we felt, from our deceased parents and from those silent lonely hills, a strength, a joy and a steadiness that, for that time at least, took away a lot of moral loneliness.