Our homing instinct – Chris Gleeson, SJ

While travelling with my young brother and sister-in-law in North Cornwall in early 2003 on a bitterly cold January day, I went into a shop in the beautiful little fishing village of Padstow to look at some antiques. Carrying an ear infection and feeling somewhat miserable, I was rugged up in a beanie and scarf covering much of my face. When the shopkeeper behind the counter caught sight of me, he quipped: ‘Is anyone at home in there?’ It is a good question, because often we are anywhere but at home to ourselves.

Several years ago in Sydney, I attended the Mass of Thanksgiving for the life of that fine human being and eminent historian, Oliver MacDonagh. In his homily, the Celebrant and Oliver’s Parish Priest, Father Rex Curry, referred to his homing instinct. Like a homing pigeon, Oliver knew instinctively where to find his true home. He understood, in the words of St. Augustine, that his heart would remain restless until he rested in God.

Surely coming home to ourselves must contain an element of being at home to and with our God?

In today’s society, our attention is frequently and rightly drawn to the plight of those many needy homeless people who live on the streets. It is worth recalling, however, that there are many homeless people living in lavish mansions. With a hole in the soul, they are deeply unhappy in themselves.

During my years giving retreats in Brisbane and across Australia 2005-2010, I spent a good deal of time trying to help people come home to themselves. Very frequently at the beginning of my retreat sessions, and in imitation of Richard Rohr OFM, I would seek to challenge my audience with the four words: ‘Try to be here.’ Try to leave behind the worries of the previous hour or two, the squabbles of the last thirty minutes, the excitement of some event to come. After all, God is to be found only in the present – right where we are – and we don’t need to look anywhere else. This is what the Incarnation means. God is right here with us in every moment and event of our lives.

As a homecoming exercise, reflection is a powerful tool for all of us. It is that capacity to stop and ponder the meaning of one’s experiences and the direction of one’s life. It is the ability to place a mirror on one’s actions and reflect to oneself the value of one’s activities. It is a matter of rewinding and realigning the day, of tuning into ourselves before turning in. In Ignatian language, we call it the prayer of Examen. Far too frequently, we allow life to wash over us; we live alongside the world, rather than within it! As the great Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara once said: ‘Action alone without reflection is being busy pointlessly’. Putting this another way, ‘we progress by stopping’ wrote Meister Eckhart, the 13th-century German Dominican preacher.

That fine British poet T.S. Eliot once said that ‘home is where we start from.’ What an interesting idea! We ourselves say constantly that ‘home is where the heart is.’ Sadly, so many people today have not found their hearts, or have lost their hearts in the rush and hustle and bustle of everyday life. Our consumerist life-style keeps mystery at bay and wants to keep us and our young people on the move, to live life on the surface. Why else could the seats at fast food places be so hard, if not to keep us on the move?

Nearly seventy years ago in 1949, the distinguished German theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote: ‘Most of our life continues on the surface. We are enslaved by the routine of our daily lives, in work, and pleasure, in business and recreation. We do not stop to look at the height above us, or to the depth below us…We talk and talk and never listen to the voices speaking to our depth and from our depth. We accept ourselves as we appear to ourselves, and do not care what we really are. Like hit and run drivers, we injure our souls by the speed with which we move on the surface; we miss, therefore, our depth and true life.’ Very little has changed in the past seventy years. Try to be here.

In his excellent little book, Already Within, Daniel O’Leary has written many catchy lines – none more so than ‘if you dare to love, be prepared to grieve’. I am sure that Jesus was sad at farewelling his friends, his disciples, at his Ascension. Certainly, he promised that He would not leave them orphans, that He would soon send them the inspiration and confirmation of the Spirit at Pentecost. But it was time for Him to move on, to return to the Father, and be at home to those He left behind in a new and different way. 

As the summer season and the new year approach, we have the opportunity of coming home to ourselves to review the past year and seek to grow in the months to come. At Christmas we celebrate the fact that Jesus has been born to establish his home amongst us. Not that he knew much of the comforts of home during His public ministry – ‘the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head’ – but Jesus remained perfectly at home with His Father and the Spirit. This perfect at-homeness with one another, this communion, is what we know as the Trinity. For too long we have looked on the Trinity as an insoluble arithmetic problem – how can one equal three? It has forced us to see God as a self-contained divine individual – one in three and three in one – residing in heaven far distant from us. Yet the invitation from Jesus to all of us in John chapter 15 is very different: ‘Make your home in me as I make mine in you.’

Let us come home to ourselves this Summer and experience the fact that the Lord is very much at home within us.