Homesickness for Alien Places

“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.

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.

The Rampage of Sloth

Nowadays, we tend to associate the capital sin of sloth with laziness and listless inactivity. Because of this association, there is a tendency to associate its opposite, which is vigorous activism, with virtue. The more active, the better one’s moral disposition is.

In the face of this, it is interesting to note the writings of the fourth century ascetic Evagrius of Pontus – parts of which will be covered at a course on moral and sexual integrity at Campion College – who is one of the earliest authorities on the vice of sloth, or what he called acedia and also termed “the noonday demon”. In reading a famous passage in his Praktikos on how the “noonday demon” acts, the reader may notice thatacedia was never associated with inactivity. Rather, for Evagrius, the “noonday demon” acts by causing the Christian to engage in fidgety and meaningless activity. It is precisely through such activity that the sin of sloth is made manifest. And what the person will see is not idle lazing, but wanton destruction. This will explain why Psalm 91, on which Evagrius’ writing on sloth is based, refers to sloth in active terms, as a “scourge that lays waste”.

One gets a sense of this when reading the devastating introductory chapter of a new book on acedia by RJ Snell entitled Acedia and Its Discontents, published by Angelico Press. Snell uses passages from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, describing a blanket of rape, torture, murder, mob violence and pillage covering a post-apocalyptic earth. The reason suggested is not profound: it is because one simply can.

Despite appearances, Snell says that this chain of seemingly meaningless activity is the stuff of the sin of sloth. Sloth is not passive indolence, but is a “frenzy of pointless action”. Moreover, it is an action that is motivated by an active “disgust at the actual work given them by God”.

What this points to is a link between sloth as a “frenzy of pointless action”, and what Snell calls a “breezy lightness of freedom”. More accurately, it is the desire to save one’s freedom – defined as the exercise of the will with no end – at any cost, which he links with a love of self overtaking the love of God.

Thus, counterintuitive though it may seem, our drive for greater productivity, our drive for more forms of entertainment, our tendency to respond to “how are you” with “busy”, our drive to “do something” for every thing, is part of the institutionalisation of sloth. Snell writes later in the book that “sloth seeps into our loves and lives in virtually every domain, before finally transforming itself into boredom and nihilism.

It is because it is so pervasive, yet so unnoticable, that acedia was regarded by Evagrius as the most insidious of demons.

"St Evagrius of Pontus and Redeeming Time in Postmodernity" on The Other Journal

An essay by the Divine Wedgie’s Matthew Tan was published on the American postmodern theological resource The Other Journal. The site is connected to the “Church and Postmodern Culture” series of books, which is published by Baker Academic.
The essay looks at how “the noonday demon”, coined by the 4th century Christian ascetic Evagrius of Pontus, helps us understand the concept of time in postmodern culture. Rather than a neutral category, the essay argues that postmodern time is actually an institutionalization of “the noonday demon”.
This in turn explains why so much of our culture is marked by what Evagrius calls acedia, a bored corrosive listlessness. The diagnosis is later followed up with a look at liturgy as a prophylactic against the encroachments of the noonday demon.
The full essay can be found by clicking here.


The Clock, Secular Culture and the Noontime Demon

An earlier post spoke of the importance of the constructed nature of how we in the Body of Christ look at time. We are, as Stephen Kepnes once mentioned, victims of “Scientific” clock time, where time is seen as a string of repeatable units of measure, completely devoid of meaning. The net effect of this conception of time is that is becomes possible to conceive of an endless string of clocked moments, which is crucial to assist a culture obsessed with control to maintain supervision of historical events.
Modern culture, and the cultural condition of postmodernity, thus becomes the institutionalisation of what Evagrius of Pontus called the “noontime demon” in The Praktikos, in which it “seems that the sun barely moves…and the day is fifty hours long”. Because each Modern clock moment is a freezing of the dynamism of history, the stringing out of these moments only becomes a repetitious stream of frozen and empty units of measure. The experienced reality of this is best articulated by the reflections of the American poet Kathleen Norris, who describes the “noontime demon” as something that “suggests that…my entire life of ‘doings’ is not only meaningless but utterly useless”.
This secular phenomenon of clock time thus also institutionalises the robbing of one’s willingness to experience true joy, which is something that only a God that transcends clock time can give. It should not be surprising then that secular culture is thus marked by what Michael Hanby calls “an ontology of boredom”. It is this refusal to experience joy, more than sheer laziness, which is the what Evenlyn Waugh calls the malice of the sin of sloth. As he writes in The Seven Deadly Sins, laziness is only a symptom of Sloth, whilst its true nature lies in its “alli[ance] to despair”.
The response to this is a new conception of time, which for Kathleen Norris, was found in the Benedictine liturgy of the hours. This observation is important for the Christian, for the string of liturgies is not a freezing of time in a single moment, and the commodification of time by evacuating it of meaning. The string of liturgies rather institutionalises a renewal of the historical inbreaking of God, who is the true engine of the liturgical prayers. Instead of the secular freezing and repetition of time, a kind of secular Kairos, the Christian Kairos is one where the moment is renewed and infused with God’s interruption of the despair of history. To paraphrase the prayers at the foot of the altar during the Tridentine Mass, Godturns to us and brings us back to life so that we may rejoice. It fills the moment with meaning, and instead of being merely repeated, as in secular time, each renewal in the Christian Kairos is a unique episode of God making all things new.