A few years ago, while I was traveling, a middle-aged man struck up a conversation with me as we sat next to one another on our flight. He was intrigued by my white Dominican habit (the religious clothing I wear as Dominican friar) and found it an occasion to ask me questions about life, purpose, and God. It was a pleasant conversation. At one point this man told me the greatest experience in life is all about the journey. Nothing matters except the road and the paths we take. “It’s all about the ride,” he told me. As I listened to him, I could not disagree more. After he finished, I remember asking him, “You honestly don’t think that this flight you are on is more important that the destination you are going to, do you?” At that point, he stopped and took a deep breath. Something new had resonated with him.
What this man represents is a kind of resignation emblematic of our modern culture. As James K. A. Smith puts states in his book, On the Road with St. Augustine: “‘The road is life’ is a motto you try to convince yourself is true when you never feel at home with yourself.” Smith identifies this modern dilemma with the image of Sisyphus from Greek mythology. Sisyphus was a figure punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. “He’s never going to arrive, never reaching the other shore, never getting to stay at the top of the mountain,” says Smith. Sisyphus is the image of the restless person, always toiling, working, and searching. Eventually, as “the road is life” takes hold, it is not hard to resign oneself to this fate and to the belief that it should make us happy, even when it never does.
Yet, alienation and loneliness are real. We still never feel home. Of course, the most common way to stifle this “not-at-home-ness is by trying to make ourselves at home in the world, even if that looks like mostly distracting ourselves from the unsettling fact of our alienation,” says Smith. The lie that modernity tells us is that we are already home. Our home is our journey; one bustling, endless onslaught of activity and entertainment. Sometimes it is toil (Sisyphus), other times it is pleasure, in some form or another. As Smith notes, “‘You belong here’ is the lie told to us by everyone from Disney to Vegas.” We settle for a neighborhood far below where we would like to build a home for ourselves. Consider C.S. Lewis: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” We easily settle, even when it makes us miserable.
But what if this “not-at-home-ness” is a gateway for truly finding ourselves? What if our experience of alienation is because we have never known a home, but we know we want to find one? What if we considered ourselves refugees, “vulnerable, exposed, unsettled, desperate, looking for a home” we have never been before? Smith asks us to:
“Imagine a refugee spirituality, an understanding of human longing and estrangement that not only honors those experiences of not-at-home-ness but also affirms the hope of finding a home, finding oneself. The immigrant is migrating toward a home she’s never been to before. She will arrive in a strange land and, in ways that surprise her, come to say, ‘I’m at home here,’ not least because someone is there to greet her and say, ‘Welcome home.’ The goal isn’t returning home but being welcomed home in a place you weren’t born, arriving in a strange land and being told, ‘You belong here.’”
The refugee is the person who is awaiting something new and good, something that she has never tasted but knows must exist because her heart longs for it. It is the place where she finds her true belonging. It is a pilgrimage embodied by a quest for peace and rest.
St. Augustine tells us in the opening lines of his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” We crave this rest from the depths of our being. Our soul hungers for the quiet peace and tranquil joy of knowing we have made it to a place that is not only new but has been made precisely for us. Smith tells us further:
“It is the blissful rest of someone who realizes she no longer has to perform; she is loved. We find joy in the grace of God precisely because he is the one we don’t have to prove anything to. But it is also the exhale of someone who has arrived – who can finally breathe after making through the anxiety-inducing experience of the border crossing, seeking refuge, subject to capricious whims of a world and system that could turn on her at any moment. What we long for is an escape not from creaturehood but from the fraught, harrowing experience of being human in a broken world. What we’re hoping for is a place where a sovereign Lord can assure us, ‘You’re safe here.’”
The Christian life is about being an immigrant in search of a new, welcoming homeland; and we know the way. Jesus tells us, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” When we enter his traveling band upon Baptism, Jesus gives us a compass to make our journey – the life of the pilgrim Church, here and now. One day when we cross the glorious border, we can put our compass aside and be welcomed into the light of His face. Once the ride is over, truly we will see what it means to be in a homeland we have never been to before: heaven.