Everyman an Exile, Homesick for Another Country

“What the soul hardly realizes is that, unbeliever or not, his loneliness is really a homesickness for God.” —Dom Hubert van Zeller

Juan Bautista Mayno, “Saint John the Evangelist in Patmos,” c. 1613
Juan Bautista Mayno, “Saint John the Evangelist in Patmos,” c. 1613 (photo: Public Domain)

Leaving aside the New Testament itself, the earliest Church document we possess is a single letter written by the fourth Bishop of Rome, Pope St. Clement, to the Christian community in Corinth near the end of the first century. The letter is far from brief, but its short opening salvo says it all, which is that we remain in a state of exile even as we are “called and sanctified by God’s will through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Let us linger a bit over that word exile, shall we, because it suggests that membership in the Church of Christ often means the loss of all civic standing in the world, particularly where killing Christians becomes a state-sanctioned blood sport. The official paganism of the late Roman Empire offered no refuge for the baptized. Not until the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century would the ferocity of official persecution come to a blessed and definite end.

But the word also suggests the fact that in becoming a Christian, one no longer belongs to the world, that while one could hardly escape being in the world, one must never be of it. “We seek the city that is to come,” the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us. And so along the high road leading home to God, we are expected not to conform ourselves to the world, a world that, in any case, is passing away.

Nevertheless, the condition of being exiled from one’s world is not peculiar to membership in the Church. It is the story of Everyman who enters into the world. Who among us has not felt the persisting sense that, at the margin of this world, another and better world beckons? That however pleasant the arrangements here below, we really do not belong here, that we’ve been summoned elsewhere, bound for a place far beyond the stars. And until we arrive there, a condition of “repining restlessness,” as the poet George Herbert put it, remains our lot. It will not leave us alone, nor grant us peace. Even the most draconian of laws cannot suppress the unquiet heart. “Legislation,” as W.H. Auden wisely foretold, “is helpless against the wild prayer of longing.”

But why should we want it suppressed anyway? Or wish for distractions lest we be tempted ever to think about it? It is, after all, the deepest drive of all, this incessant thirst for God. What else is there to define man but that he is a seeker, a pilgrim in search of the absolute? Who, if he were to withdraw from the quest, would at once be plunged into a sadness seemingly without end. “What the soul hardly realizes,” writes Dom Hubert van Zeller, “is that, unbeliever or not, his loneliness is really a homesickness for God.”

There is the true nature of man’s nostalgia. And until we recognize it as such, and refuse to settle for cheap substitutes like money or sex, politics or power, our lives will neither be reasonable nor happy. Only God can fill that hollowed out space where the human heart lies, its hungers unappeased by anything less than communion with the living God. Like those thousands upon thousands of Poles, their voices raised above the din of collectivist propaganda, crying out with their beloved Polish Pope, who had returned to his and their native land for the first time as Vicar of Christ: “We want God! We want God!”

It is the one standard of greatness by which we are to measure everything. Dostoevsky has given it unforgettable expression. “The whole law of human existence,” he tells us, “consists merely of making it possible for every man to bow down before what is infinitely great. If man were to be deprived of the infinitely great, he would refuse to go on living, and would die of despair.”

And what is the nearest waystation on the road to despair, but the arrant admission that even if there were a God, one need not bow down before him. It is the refusal to acknowledge the source on which everything depends. Including, to be sure, every breath of our being. We do not need a course in Metaphysics to know that each of us, from moment to moment, draws his life force from above. Or that asphyxiation awaits those who, depriving themselves of the oxygen of God, choose instead to breathe in the toxic fumes of a corrupt culture. They will not heed what my old friend and mentor, Fritz Wilhelmsen, used to call “the poetry of the transcendent.”

It is the sad pretense of those who, seeing the world as flat as a map, go on to lie to themselves and others that it is somehow the perfect sort of topography to look out upon. To be immured thus in a flat world without even wishing to reach for the stars, such is the nature of their despair.