We Are Not at Home in the World

We are finite beings, but our longings are infinite, and we long for an infinite God who loves us infinitely.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Prodigal Son Abandoned,” ca. 1660-1665
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Prodigal Son Abandoned,” ca. 1660-1665 (photo: Public Domain)

Here’s a question for you. Are you at home in the world? I mean, entirely and completely at home? And if not, why not? What is it that prevents you from being wholly at peace with the world in which you live? 

Perhaps you find yourself at sword’s point with the world, actively opposed to its pretensions, and you’d like to know why the relationship must always be more or less mutinous with the age in which you live. Why can’t you just accept that this is the way things are? 

Could it be that you were never really meant to remain in the world? Not forever, that is, which is a not unimportant distinction. After all, if God made the world, then it must be in some significant sense a good place to be. And yet our faith enjoins us to be in the world but never of it. How can that be unless God intended that we not stay here forever? 

And so it’s all right not to be altogether at home in the world. In fact, it is fitting that one should feel that way, that one not get too comfortable amid the fleshpots of this world. To know, for example, with complete moral certainty that no finite thing will ever be found to fulfill the deepest desires of your heart. If each of us is this “hollowed-out space,” of which St. Augustine speaks, waiting for God to fill it, why shouldn’t we feel less than satisfied with every mortal and sensate thing? 

We are all on a journey, in other words, and until we arrive, reaching at last our place of destination beyond the stars, there can be no lasting place here below. Nor will we succeed in banishing altogether a certain dis-ease of the soul — of “repining restlessness,” to quote the poet George Herbert, owing to the fact that here below is no place to which we permanently belong. 

It is, not surprisingly, the great theme running through all the Scriptures.

“For here we have no lasting city,” the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “but we seek the city which is to come” (13:14).

Or the passage in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, reminding us that because “we are citizens of Heaven, we eagerly await a savior from Heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ” (3:20). Notice that St. Paul is telling us not simply that we await a savior, but that we do so eagerly, which means with a certain relish at the prospect of union with him outside of history.

Or St. Peter in his First Letter in which, addressing the members of the Jewish Diaspora, he exhorts them, “Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul” (2:11). Why else would Peter speak that way unless it were true that here is no lasting home, that God has destined us for another, which beckons us at every turn to reach beyond this one? 

And then, leaving aside the Scriptures, we see evidence of the same ambivalence in the Letter of Pope St. Clement I, written just before the end of the first century, addressing certain problems of the Church in Corinth. In it he describes the condition of two peoples, each “living in exile,” not only because both are aliens forced to live in a pagan world, but because they are pilgrims in a strange land bound for glory in another, truer home, which is Heaven. 

In other words, like the Archangel Raphael in that lovely prayer written by Ernest Hello, “whose home lies beyond the region of thunder,” we are all called to inhabit “a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.” Who would not pine for Paradise if handed a travel brochure describing it in those terms? If one’s home finally is Heaven, then it is not unnatural that we should feel a certain impatience in getting there.

Life, as St. Teresa of Ávila describes it, is no better than “a night in a third-class hotel.” So, yes, of course, none of us wishes to remain forever stuck with accommodations indistinguishable from, say, a slum. And when given the choice, why wouldn’t we want to move into a much nicer hotel? It would be a kind of madness to never want to leave. 

In a wonderful little book called Feast of Faith, Joseph Ratzinger reminds us that in the experience of Catholic liturgy, “the absolutely Other takes place, the absolutely Other comes among us.” And citing the commentary of St. Gregory of Nyssa on the Song of Songs, he relates how man is described therein as one “who wants to break out of the prison of finitude, out of the closed confines of his ego and of this entire world.” And it is true, Ratzinger tells us, “this world is too small for man, even if he can fly to the Moon, or one day perhaps to Mars. He yearns for the Other, the totally Other, that which is beyond his reach.”

What is ultimately behind all this yearning, of course, is the need to escape death, to surmount the oppressions of a merely time-bound world.

“In all their celebrations,” continues Ratzinger, “men have always searched for that life which is greater than death. Man’s appetite for joy, the ultimate quest for which he wanders restlessly from place to place, only makes sense if it can face the question of death.”

It is because we all must die, bound to the wheel of a fallen world which rolls remorselessly on and on, leading but to the grave, that we feel the need to get out, not to resign ourselves to merely this material world. We may be finite beings, bound by the limits of what appears to be a closed world, but our longings are not finite. They are infinite — which means that they may only be met by an infinite God who loves us infinitely. Which he has proven by making himself small in order that he might then raise us up to a height equal to his own.