Homesickness for Alien Places

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“Homesickness” by Rene Margritte (1940). Used under Fair Use by Wikiart.

There are times when, after coming back from a sojourn overseas, we start pining for it. Sometimes, this pining can be the afterglow of a holiday destination after having to face the imminent return to the office.

At other times, however, this pining stems from something more than a mere reluctance to go back to the drudgery of work. This variant of the experience of pining for foreign places often takes the form of a kind of homesickness. This experience can be particularly visceral when one has lived in that foreign land, but they even come with respect to places that the person has not even visited. Regardless of context, these alien lands often stir our hearts, and we may often find ourselves whispering to ourselves that one’s home was not where you are now, but in these foreign lands. For those that go through such an experience, it becomes particularly poignant when that tug of the heart only goes stronger with each passing season.

The experience of homesickness for places other than one’s own can be a theologically rich moment of reflection. At one level, this experience can be an analogue of a much deeper longing within us, for a native land that is not only unvisited by us, but one that categorically transcends the whole cosmos. This experience of homesickness can be a reminder in the Letter to the Hebrews that we “are seeking the city that is to come” (13:14), and that until then, our hearts remain restless until we are restored to that place we have never been to, to borrow the beginning of Augustine’s Confessions. In other words, our experience of longing is but an analogue of a God given impulse to seek a more heavenly destination.

At the same time, however, precisely because this experience is only an analogy, there can also be a danger that our longing for other places can become an occasion for the operation of vice, particularly of the vice of acedia. As RJ Snell wrote in his Acedia and Its Discontents, this longing for another place can a vice-ridden restlessness when it becomes a longing for a utopia, and a neglect of where we are now. Those who have lived in the place that they long for may protest that the longing is anything but utopic, but as Michel de Certeau reminds us in his Practice of Everyday Life, our worlds always shift to such an extent that the place we thought was there never really remains. Thus, even when we have had a real contact with that other place, that longing can nonetheless still be the result of the vice of acedia, whispering to us to abandon all we have and where we are.

It may seem that those who harbour these longings are doomed to spend their lives with their longings unresolved and always at risk of predisposing ourselves to vice, and in many respects, that is true. We are however, also given in the Eucharistic Liturgy, a forum with which to reflect upon this longing. We are, in the Eucharistic Liturgy, not only abstractly engaging in a form of prayer, but also gathering a people who are acting upon their longing for a place we have never been – the eschaton. Yet, the vice of acedia is resisted precisely because of the incarnate nature of the Eucharistic lord, the Body of Christ compels us never to abandon our posts here on earth.

Discerning Before Utopia

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“The Daydreamer”, Creative Commons

This post was spurred on by two things, a class given on discernment at Campion College Australia and reading a letter in a section of the monthly journal Traces, put out by the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation.

In going through the contingencies of life, discerning God’s will is always hard to do. The challenge becomes particularly acute when we realise that discernment is almost always mixed with our desires and the frustrations of those desires by the slings and arrows of fortune.

Being creatures driven by the heart, as James KA Smith noted in his Desiring the Kingdom, it would be impossible to eliminate the restlessness that desire instills in us and the eagerness or anxiety that will find its way in the discernment process.

The reasons for our eagerness can be gleaned when one considers how desire operates in the context of what Graham Ward calls a “subject position” in his book Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice. Ward suggests in that book that desire does not allow us to keep still within our subject position, which is always made up of a whole range of social and cultural factors. Rather, our desires put us onto what he calls “projects” which, as the word suggests, projects us forward, pressing us against the confines posed by the factors that make up our subject position. In many respects, our eagerness inevitably will drive us to want to break many of these confines, and urge us to strain towards “where we want to be”. This is what Ward calls in his book “utopic horizons”.

However, our eagerness is often met with frustration because, as the name “utopia” suggests, our desires very often push us towards places other than where we are now. We believe that where we are now are but obstacles to our discernment and to the fulfilling of our vocation. We want to escape where we are and what we are doing, so that the will of God can finally be done.

This desire to escape our circumstances is understandable, but it must be juxtaposed with observations by Rabbi Edward Feld and Fr. Luigi Giussani. In an essay on the 23rd Psalm, Feld noted that, though the journey in the psalm is marked by many changes and much buffeting by the circumstances of life, the sheep are nevertheless still “on the right path”. Fr. Giussani put it more succinctly, saying once that it is in the circumstances that one seeks to escape where one’s vocation, one’s call resides. Discernment thus is not dependent on an escaping of those circumstances, but by pressing against them and feeling their texture press back upon us.

When What We See Is What We Worship

The old saying goes that the “eyes are the windows to the soul”, and many are quick to scoff at the grave implications of a faculty that is used so often for such mundane things that it is taken for granted. Upon examination of the Christian tradition, however, such a claim, though liable to some qualification of being the window to the soul, nonetheless posits sight as one very important access point.

Consider how, of all the senses, the Christian tradition appears to give the most attention to the sense of sight, as if our being and our salvation – our beginning and our end – literally depended on it. The first creation account in the book of Genesis makes the  provision of light – the foundation of sight – the first creative act upon whichall other creative acts follow. It was the sight of a burning bushthat lay the foundations of the forging of the covenant with Israel. The psalms speak of the path of life as also a path that is lit by God, the Gospel of John speaks of Christ as the “light that shines in the darkness”, while the synoptic Gospels give great weight to, Jesus’ healing of the blind as well as the lame. Our salvation lies in a state that theologians call the “Beatific vision” where, as Paul once wrote, our true home lies in an eternal state of “seeing Him face to face”.

Scripture’s attention to the sense of sight is continued on in liturgical worship, where colour, shape and sheen are not incidental to the proper worship of God, but are the very means by which one enters into the proper act of worship. Seeing was very closely linked
to worshiping.

As we know from the Genesis account, however, a major contribution to the downfall of humankind lay in the eating of a fruit that was “pleasing to the eye”. Other than sound, it was also sight that contributed to the entry of sin into the world.

What is interesting to note, however, is that this kind of sight was not a seeing devoid of worship. However banal the object of our sight is, whether it is in a movie, news report, fashion item or porn image, the act of worship is never far behind. In his book Gifts  Glittering and Poisoned, Chanon Ross provides a very important insight into the link between seeing and worshiping. Ross refers to the Marxist philosopher Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, to show the way in which seeing in our day not only serves a material function, but is also a spiritual action.

For Debord, seeing was not merely an instrumental function, but also a tapping into a longing for transcendence. Debord speaks of our economy as one dependent on the faculty of sight, and argues that a sight-based economy is driven by a form of “religious fervour” for what Debord calls a “factious god”, and seeing becomes a way of accessing this god.

Though Debord sees the need for a change in the economy by ridding ourselves of the need for religious fervour and gods, Ross sees in this analysis a highly important insight, that Debord recognised that seeing is more than a function but a liturgical “worship of a …  god”. Ross is even more pointed to not only draw a link between seeing and worshiping, but saying that seeing analogous to worshiping. The beholding of a spectacle in an economy saturated with the shine of images and commodities, Ross says, “is like a prayer offered to a malicious god” which “opens us to powers and principalities”. Ross suggests then, that an economy built upon spectacle is not just a material order, but also an order oriented towards the worship of things other than the worship of the God of Israel.

Dance and Transcendance

 

There is something uncanny about the subgenre of electronica broadly called “dance music”. In sample after sample, whether it is Ellie Goulding’s “Burn“, Juventa’s “Move Into Light“, Armin van Buuren’s “Waiting for the Night“, Koven’s “Eternal and You” or Seven Lions’ “World’s Apart“, the listener will notice that this musical genre better epitomises the postsecular than any other, for it is the most upfront in bringing in the vocabulary of soul, redemption, transcendence, eternity, light and darkness familiar to many believers, including many Christians.

Indeed, many Christians number amongst the devotees of the dance music scene, and possibly because of the overlap between the vocabulary of their faith and the lyrics blasted from the speakers, backed up by the aesthetic statements built into the music videos and live concerts, be they the enhanced strings in the harmonics, flashes of light breaking the monotony of the dark, the streaks of cloud drawing our gaze into the heavens, or the technologically enhanced superimpositions on temporality, modulating voices into multiple inflections, expanding bodies beyond natural capacities or making nature itself portray realities beyond what is physically possible.

Is the allure of the dance subgenre to a critical mass of young adults and the supposed ties to transcendence speaking to something built into our makeup as persons?

Scripture offers an obscure clue in 2 Samuel 6, when the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the holy city of Jerusalem after the defeat of the Philistines and David, the man after the heart of God, dances half naked in front of the crowd, but more importantly in the intimate closeness to the God who dwelt in the Ark.

The ancient Church would seem to build on this and offer a more heavenly parallel via the Cappadocian Fathers, in particular St. Gregory Nazianzen. In the course of talking about how the three persons in the transcendent Godhead related to one another, Gregory used the term perichoresisWhile nowadays used to denote the very technical process of “circumincession” or the “creation of space for another”, it is interesting that the original usage of the term related to a form of dancing. The persons of the Trinity, in whose image we are made, to which all were drawn and in whom all find their eternal home, were thus depicted as engaged in a transcendent and eternal dance. The natural act of dancing, therefore, was used as to echo the transformed state of creation – indeed creation in its redeemed form – in their participation in the Godhead.

There is plenty that would set apart the reciprocal self-giving of the Trinity’s perichoresis from the isolating gyrations and simulated liturgies of the dance floor. Nevertheless, one cannot in the name of rejecting the blasphemous within dance music, dismiss also the important overlaps between the two sets of practices and logics, and in so doing understand the allure – dare one say salvific appeal? – and organisational power of music in postmodern culture, in its interface with the spiritual dimension in the human person.

A Sin Called Sadness

In the reading of Scripture, we are familiar with the exhortations against committing specific sins. Do not fornicate, do not kill, do not steal, do not cheat your neighbour, and so on. We are warned that to sin is to earn the fruit of sin, which is death.

What is less obvious are the exhortations that do not fit into any recognisable schema, most probably due to their isolated mentions in obscure parts of scripture.

Key among these more obscure exhortations is found in Psalm 98, in which the exhortation is to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord”, or in Psalm 66 “shout for joy to the Lord”. Many may think this as an optional suggestion for exuberance, until one considers its converse, which is sadness. In the Wisdom of Sirach, more commonly known as the Book of Ecclesiasticus, we are warned against “Sadness” and “Sorrow”. More than a warning, we are given a chilling a reminder of what sadness can do. The Book of Ecclesiasticus presents us with a prescription and a warning that says “put sorrow away from you, for sorrow has killed many” (Sir 30:23).

The reader might sympathise with such an exhortation, arguably due to the familiarity with the phenomenon of literally dying from a broken heart. However, the ancient tradition of the Church does not confine the reading of this verse to a causal connection between emotion and medical outcomes.

As can be seen from a new book on the vices by Dr. Rebecca DeYoung, published by Brazos Press, early Church Fathers such as Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian have designated sadness as leading to spiritual death, so much so that sadness was classified as one of the capital sins. Even though Gregory the Great was to remove sadness from the list of deadly sins to make the more familiar list of seven, sadness nonetheless lurked behind the operation of many of the other deadly sins, in particular sloth.

Sadness was thus seen as more than just a pervasive and morose emotion. As a vice, it was also a predisposition that could prime us towards separation, not only from loved ones, but even from God Himself. This link has been given some recognition in the liturgical life of the Latin Church, especially on “Rorate Sunday” in Advent, during which a Gregorian hymn couples Isaiah’s familiar cry for the dew to drop from heaven and the clouds to rain the just (Isa 48:5) with a less familiar rhetorical question from God: Why art thou consumed with grief, for sorrow has estranged thee.

Part of the Christian moral life then calls for a vigilance against something that is incredibly deadly, yet also incredibly ingrained into the texture of everyday human experience. It is something that we must recognise, even articulate and express in lament. The Christian is also called to be vigilant against simulations of the antidote to sadness, which is the frenetic cheerfulness lacking in any foundation. Be that as it may, the Church does, to borrow from the words of Michael Hanby’s article on boredom, have a solemn duty to put a “resistance of joy”. It is a resistance that does not ignore the sadness in this world but also, in Hanby’s words “make a radical ontological affirmation, and yet this affirmation is…only intelligable if the world is created in the Father’s loving delight for the Son”. Such an affirmation then cannot be found in the inner cheerfulness of the human person, but in that person’s praise of God in the liturgy.

Mary’s Visitation & the Ark of the Covenant

The Gospel in the Lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Advent recounts the visitation by Mary to her kinswoman Elizabeth, which is recounted in Chapter 1 of the Gospel of Luke. It is a familiar scene, where Elizabeth breaks out into prophetic utterance, asking rhetorically “But why am I so favoured that the Mother of my lord is coming to me?”, declaring Mary as “the Mother of my lord”, and Mary responds with her famous hymn of liberation, the Magnificat.
While an endearing scene, the homily for that Sunday also alerted the congregation to another reason for this episode’s significance: for this scene provides one of a number of typological links between Mary on the one hand and the Old Testament motif of the Ark of the Covenant on the other, and from that, providing a glimpse into what is to come in the adult life of Jesus.
The Old Testament evidence is another famous bible story: the return of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles 13. More specifically, it is the prelude to this episode. 1 Chronicles 13 recounts David going up into Kiriath-Jearim (a hillside town belonging to Judah) to bring back the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, where David and all Israel danced and sang before God (1 Chronicles 13:8). As this episode unfolds, David asks a question that sounds very much like the question of Elizabeth: “How can I bring the ark of God to me?”, before settling the Ark into the house of a man from the priestly tribe of Levi for 3 months, while  David establishes himself as king in Jerusalem, and defeats the militarily stronger Canaanite tribe, the Philistines (1 Chronicles 14).
These two reference points, David’s question and the storing of the Ark for 3 months in a priestly house, find their New Testament counterpart in the account of the visitation. Elizabeth asks how another Ark that held the word of God could be brought to her, and Mary stays 3 months in Elizabeth’s house (more specifically, the house of Zechariah who “belonged to the priestly order of Abijah” [Luke 1:5]). With her Magnificat then, Mary as carrier for the Word of God, stands as a harbinger for that important third element: the establishment of a Kingdom that will begin in Jerusalem, and the overcoming and final defeat of an enemy that so many deem unassailable.
We  in our day thereby have typological grounds to anticipate the final installation of the Kingdom of heaven, and the final defeat of a mighty enemy, and only the contents of the Ark of the Covenant, and it is only our fidelity to those contents, could bring about that liberation prophesied by Mary’s hymn.
A happy Christmas to all!

Fundamental Joy

It finally happened. In an interstate flight, the Pixar movie Inside Out was watched and, oddly enough, it was quite the charmer. Even more surprisingly, Inside Out proved to be rather philosophically and theologically astute.
Whether conscious or not, whoever conceptualised the movie has rather deftly brought together elements of Augustinian theology, as well as an appreciation of Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life, in which interior states folded outwards to form landscapes that were inhabited, rather than mere heremetically sealed feelings, giving the sense that one’s psyche is a cosmos very similar – and very connected – to the natural universe in which we live.
Of particular interest, however, was the sequence at the beginning of the movie in which the girl whose emotions are the main protagonists, Riley, is born, and her emotions gradually come into being. Interestingly, it is Joy that makes the first entrance. She smiles in wonder at everything she beholds, and it is her presence that marks Riley’s most fundamental orientation to the world, marked by the construction of largely happy core memories as theme parks. Her absence, while a key driver in the plot, is also portrayed as an abnormal development.
What is interesting about this very short but very fetching sequence is that it gives an optical statement concerning not only the fundamental orientation of the human creature, but also the fundamental structure of creation. In David L. Schindler’s book Ordering Love, the point is made that order in the universe is not only a dry abstract structure, but also a statement about the amount of care and concern shown by the Creator for creatures. Love, Schindler boldly states, is the metaphysical bedrock of the universe.
This bedrock of love then demands a proper response, a response is gleaned in the second creation account in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis. In an interview on his book Acedia & Its Discontents, R.J. Snell made the point that the first words that Adam spoke came out in a cry of delight, an exclamation of joy. This exclamation of joy, however, is not just a delight at the sight of Eve. As John Paul II’s work on the Theology of the Body makes clear, Adam’s first cry is also a statement of the fundamental nature of the human creature. It is joy, not sadness, that forms the fundamental makeup of the human person. It is for this reason that the sight of so much sadness in our world evokes the conviction that something abnormal has taken place.