The early years of my adulthood and priesthood were spent teaching theology at a College in Edmonton, Canada. They were exciting years: I was young, full of energy, loved teaching, and was discovering the joys of ministry. These were good years, everything that young adulthood should be.
But they weren’t always easy years. My congenital restlessness, the demands of ministry, the tensions of community, the obsessions I’m forever prone to, the not-infrequent departure of cherished friends from the priesthood, and the constant movement of people through my life, occasionally left me in emotional chaos, gasping for oxygen, too restless to sleep, wondering who I was, saying to myself, like Janis Joplin in her moments of desperation: ‘Where is everybody going?’
But I had a little formula to help handle this. Whenever the chaos got really bad , I would get into my car and drive four hours to our family farm just across the border in Saskatchewan. My family still lived in the house I’d grown up in, ate at the same table I’d eaten at as a child, slept in the same beds we had as children, and walked the same ground I’d walked as a child. Usually it didn’t take long for home to do its work. I’d only need to be there for a meal or overnight and the chaos and heartache would subside, I’d begin to feel steady and to know again who I was.
Coming home didn’t cure the heartache but gave the heart the care it needed. Somehow home always works.
Today the same kind of emotional chaos and heartache can still unsettle me on occasion and leave me unsure of who I am, of the choices I’ve made in life, and of whom and what to trust. But I can’t often drive to my childhood home anymore and so I have had to find the steadying that going home once gave me in new a way. And, even amidst a good community, loving friends, and a wonderful job, that isn’t always easy to find. Home can be elusive on a restless night. What steadies the heart when it’s restless isn’t so easy to access. Once you’ve left home, you sometimes can’t get back there again.
So what do I do now when I need to go home and retouch my roots to steady myself? Sometimes a trusted friend is the answer; sometimes a family that has become family to me can provide that special place, sometimes I can find that place in prayer or in nature, but sometimes I can’t find it at all and I have to live with the chaos until, like a bad storm, it blows over.
But through the years, I’ve also discovered that sometimes a special book that can take me home in the same way as driving there once did. One of the books that does this for me, almost without fail, is The Story of a Soul by Therese of Lisieux. Not surprising, it’s the story of a recessive journey, the story of Thereseâs own effort at recapturing what her house, home, and family once gave her.
But the recessive journey in itself is not what gives this book (which I highly recommend for anyone who’s heart is aching in way that unsettles the soul) such a special power. Many autobiographies unsettle more than they settle. Remembering alone doesn’t necessarily care for the heart and sometimes our memories of home and childhood carry a lot of pathology and pain. Not everyone’s home was safe and nurturing.
What The Story of a Soul does is what a good home does; it names and claims for us what’s deepest and most precious inside of the human person. That’s what gives the soul the steadying it needs.
What is that place? Home is where we can shut the door on the outside world, where a warm fire is burning, where we can eat familiar foods, where we don’t have to be on guard when we speak, where we can be sick and somebody takes care of us, where we can sleep in our own beds, where a trusted hand steadies the world, where we can be weak, and where we can shut the door and lock out every kind of storm and restlessness. Home is where we are safe. It’s also the place where, one way or the other, we learned about God. (And it’s this that is so tragically and irrevocably destroyed in sexual abuse.) I used to drive four hours, just for a meal or a night’s sleep, in order to find that. Today, among other places, I find it when I read The Story of a Soul.
There are headaches and heartaches for which there is no cure. But the soul doesn’t need to be cured, only to be properly cared for. Our task is go home, to find those people, places, prayers, and books that truly care for our souls at those times when our world is falling apart.