Homesick For God
Does anyone remember their first time away from home, parents and family? Maybe it was a sleepover at a friend’s house or going to overnight summer camp. How did it feel? Were you scared? Were you sad? Perhaps you were crying and wanted your mom and dad. This is not unusual. It’s called homesickness. There’s a Greek name for homesickness. It’s called ‘nostalgia’ and it means ‘pain or desire for what is known.’ It’s the same desire that drives us to look at old family photos, to visit the house or neighborhood we grew up in, or to attend our high school reunion.
We see that same homesickness in animals and creatures. The robin, for example will fly to warmer climates in the winter but the following spring will return to the same tree in the same back yard to build its nest. The salmon will leave the Columbia or some other river and go thousands of miles to its feeding flats in the Pacific. Then when its life cycle is about to end, it returns to the same river, fights its way up the falls, and refuses to stop until it comes to the same bend in the river where it was hatched to spawn a new generation. Monarch butterflies will fly 2,500 miles south to winter in the exact same trees as the previous generation did the year before.
We Christians believe that God has placed a profound, persistent and ineradicable homing instinct deep in the heart of humankind, not just for ancestral parents, home and friends, but more importantly for God Himself. In today’s Gospel reading, from the 13th Sunday of Luke (18:18-27), it begins by saying, 18 Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" We learn later in the passage that this ruler was rich (v.23). Why does the rich young ruler ask such a question? Did he not have plenty of money and lots to eat? Why should he want eternal life unless he was deeply dissatisfied with what he had? Behind his question lies a deep inner desire for that which alone can satisfy man completely: God. Some call it a homesickness of the soul for God, placed within us by God Himself in order to lead us to Him.
David the Prophet and King experience homesickness for God when he wrote this Psalm: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps.42:1-2)
St. Paul knew this when he wrote: “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2Cor.5:8).
What makes us homesick? Fr. Anthony Coniaris, in his book “My Beloved Son” (vol.2 p.110), explains it this way: “Basically, it is because we are made in the image of God. And the image is always attracted to the Original, the Archtype. We were made for God. When God created us in His image. He endowed us with a mind that we may come to know Him. In addition to a mind, He gave us a heart to desire Him, to long for Him, to crave Him and run after Him, to be homesick for Him. ‘God has placed in the human heart the desire for Him,’ writes St. Maximus the Confessor. In addition to a mind to know Him and a heart to desire Him, God gave us a part of His image in us a free will that we may freely choose to love Him and to come home to Him.” As He designed the fish to live in water and birds to fly in the air, so He designed us to live in and with Him.
Many people hunger and thirst but they don’t know for what. We are like the little child who says to his/her parent, “I want something but I don’t know what.”
For some people this homesickness for God will express itself through loneliness. I may be with my best friend, or my wife, or my children, and all of sudden in the midst of a pleasant conversation, there can come a terrible sense of loneliness or emptiness. We were made for God and without God we can be lonely even in the midst of a crowd of people, even friends and family.
Another very common way by which our homesickness for God expresses itself is through our dissatisfaction and discontent with life. We are unhappy and we don’t know why. We have everything and yet we want more. And when we get it, we still feel empty and dissatisfied. We run around endlessly, burying ourselves in activities, events, television, internet and all sorts of material possessions. Perhaps this is why the ruler who came to Jesus in today’s Gospel was very rich (v.23). He couldn’t satisfy that deep desire that only God Himself can fill. Pascal talks about this inner emptiness, “There is God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.”
Along a similar line, Fr. Coniaris says, “There is only one sickness, and that is homesickness. And this strange nostalgia, this homesickness for God, is responsible for most of our other sicknesses—mental, physical and spiritual. God hunger is the worst kind of hunger and until it is satisfied, nothing else man has or does can satisfy.” This is very important for us to understand. In its most extreme cases it manifests itself in addictions where a substance or behavior becomes the god that never fills the desire. It less extreme but much more common cases, it manifests in general dissatisfaction, discontent and complaining. We often indulge our friends and acquaintances when they are not happy but consider the following exchange share by Fr. Anthony:
A person said to a friend. “I’m really very dissatisfied with my live.” Congratulations!” the friend said. “What do you mean by that? Didn’t you hear me? I said I was unhappy with the way things are going.” His friend replied again, “You are very fortunate. God is speaking to you through you discontent. It’s part of your homesickness for God. He’s got something much better in store for you if only you will come home to Him.”
The meaning and goal of life for each one of us is to respond to this homing instinct within us and go home to God. The difference between us humans and all other creatures in the world is that they do it automatically. We however, have a choice. We can choose to go home to God through prayer, worship, fasting, and almsgiving. We learn how to go home to God from the prophets, apostles, martyrs and Jesus Himself in reading the scriptures, church fathers and saints.
In conclusion, in responding to our homing instinct, are we asking the right question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Am I directing that question to the right persons? To God Himself, our spiritual father, our most faithful and dedicated Christians? And finally, how will we respond to the answer we receive? Will we become very sad or will we be joyfully obedient to do whatever it takes to return to our true home? Amen!