Saturday, September 1, 2012
ON BEING HOMESICK
It came to a head when a teacher caught him with his cell phone out during a test this past Thursday and asked him to hand it over. I wasn’t surprised, actually, on hearing that he had blown up, refusing to hand over the phone and then had run out of the room and had gone on his own to sit in the school office.
He and I have had a few run-ins ourselves during my class this summer session. I decided to swallow my instinctive dislike for this troublesome, obnoxious kid and talk to him privately. Once we sat down it took about three minutes to start unpacking what was going on. He’s new this year and is disoriented by all sorts of new demands. He’s living in our residence facility because his home is hours and hours away by plane. This turns out to be a big part of his problem: he is seriously homesick. I asked him what he misses most about home and he said “My mom.” “And what else?” I inquired. “Everything!” was his answer.
He wants to be here in our school because he sees the great opportunities the experience is offering. But that doesn’t prevent him from being miserable at the same time. And this misery explains a lot of his acting-out behavior. Especially the cell phone incident: He told me that he was afraid that if he surrendered his phone he wouldn’t be able to talk to his mother any more. And that was just too much. That’s why he ran.
I think our talk helped him to be more aware of how his homesickness was affecting his attitude and his decisions in lots of areas. We talked about the need to consciously accept the reality of his situation: He’s away from home, and it’s sometimes a high price to pay for the advantages he gets by being here. We talked about being more aware of how he feels at any given moment, so that he can avoid putting himself in bad situations with others because he’s in a bad mood. I didn’t have to suggest to him to stay in touch with home – his precious cell phone was already helping with that.
This everyday encounter with a student has left me thinking about my own homesickness.
A LAND OF UNLIKENESS
Christian spiritual writers have always talked about the situation of a Christian on earth as being exiled from his or her true homeland in heaven, and our life as a long homecoming journey.
A young man made a long and difficult journey to visit a holy rabbi. When he entered the holy man’s little dwelling the young man looked around at the frugal furnishings and asked the rabbi: “Rabbi, why don’t you have any furniture?” He replied to his visitor “Why don’t you have any furniture?” “Obviously because I’m traveling, I’m on a journey.” “Well,” said the old man, “So am I.”
Saint Augustine writes in his Confessions "I discovered I was a long way from you in a land of unlikeness." We are all, it seems to me, sojourning here in “a land of unlikeness” where things are often very far from showing us the image of their creator.
A fellow Benedictine puts it this way: "In God's loving plan, the victory was never meant to take place here, much as we would like that to happen. Thus we must endure the painful twinges that are inevitable for those who are on a journey. Legitimate but provisional attachments must give way to permit the only attachment that will never need to be broken -- our attachment to the Father in Jesus and the Spirit. We will know then that this world, though a wonderful place to visit, was never meant to be our real home. The Spirit helps us to understand this as he creates in us a kind of homesickness -- an aching void -- that can never be filled with anything less than God" (Demetrius Dumm, O.S..B. A Mystical Portrait of Jesus, (Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN, 2001) pp. 64-65).
So here I am on a journey, away from my true home. When I forget that fact and begin to settle down here in the “land of unlikeness,” things inevitably go wrong. Luckily my monastic calling includes lots of traditional ways of keeping myself aware that I’m on a journey rather than comfortably at home: ascetical disciplines, voluntary poverty, celibacy, communal living, and so on.
WHAT! NO CELL PHONE?
More and more people express surprise these days that I don’t have a cell phone. But I do have one, but it's of a very different kind . Just like my homesick student I use it to stay in touch with “home.” It has lots of “apps,” too: For example lectio divina lets the Spirit tell me things about myself that I need to hear, the Liturgy of the Hours that I sing daily with my brothers encourages my homesick soul with songs from my homeland, while quiet prayer of praise and petition is a chance to talk to my Father.
If someone were to try to take that from me I hope that I’d do what my homesick student did the other day when the teacher tried to confiscate his phone: get up and run out the door!