I experienced my first airplane ride the day before my sixteenth birthday. It was not a pleasure trip; I was with my family on our way to Ecuador. We changed planes in Atlanta and then continued on to Miami where we spent the night.
Late the next night we boarded a Braniff jet (the first company to paint its aircraft in bright colors). We landed in Panama about daybreak and got out for a while to stretch our legs. Then we got back into the plane for the trip to Quito. In those days, the Quito airport was a small and modest building. The immigration officer sat at a crude desk. After a brief conversation, he would personally stamp each passport.
Soon we were in the front of the airport, several miles from the city. (Now, of course dense housing and business districts surround the airport.) My father hailed a taxi and soon we were riding on the old cobblestone covered Pan-American highway.
The sights and smells were so unfamiliar. In the center of town, the people who filled the sidewalks were dressed in clothing I had never seen before, brightly colored ponchos, strange hats and shoes made of rope. Others were cooking on the street and the fragrances of the food startled me. The buildings were older than any I had ever seen. Everyone was speaking words that I did not understand. I was now an immigrant. I was in a country where I did not belong.The first night we slept in an old adobe home near the center of town.
I awoke shortly after daybreak, hearing people laugh out in the courtyard. Several houses opened up to the same courtyard, and people were washing their faces in the cold mountain water of the fountain. I could smell coffee and freshly baked bread. Soon our host offered me papaya, some toasted bread, and the strongest but most flavorful coffee I had ever tasted.
After a few weeks of continual strange experiences, I began to experience what we now call culture shock. It is a sense of social vertigo, an intense feeling that the world is not right and that one is out-of-place.
In the grip of culture shock, one begins to feel a profound longing for home. That is what happened to me. I longed for the Appalachian mountains and for familiar sounds, smells and foods. I dreamed of home. I cried myself to sleep thinking about home. My mind recreated West Virginia as a mystical, Garden of Eden sort of sanctuary. If only I could get back there, all would be well.
I have been back to West Virginia many times since those days. I even lived there for a brief time.
While I still love my boyhood home, it is no longer home. Alas, I have never quite recaptured the same sense of belonging anywhere I have lived. I have liked in Nashville longer that anywhere else; but in a sense, Quito is home, Montreal is home, and Phoenix is home. I left a part of myself in each city, and each city gave me something new. However, when in any of them, I long for things I experience in the others.
Both St. Patrick and St. Augustine speak of this sense of homesickness and dislocation.
“Why is the heart of the Christian heavy?” Augustine asks in his Confessions, “it is because he is a pilgrim and seeks his own country.”
Like me, Patrick also experienced a traumatic dislocation on his sixteenth birthday. One day he was playing in the fields beside his father’s house; the next day he was in a boat in chains, traveling to Ireland. He hated Ireland every day he was there and prayed constantly for his release.
When God finally answered his prayer, how he rejoiced to be going home! But home was no longer home.
After a while, a voice came in the night, calling him back to Ireland. When we think of Patrick, we can only think of Ireland. Late in life, he writes the Roman churchmen, lamenting that “you mock us for our backwardness and ignorance because we are Irish but I remind you that we are the children of God.” He no longer thinks of himself as an outsider. He has become a defender and advocate for the people and the nation that he once despised. As we mature, a Christian begins to realize that “here we have no continuing city but we seek one to come.”
We love our country; we love our birthplace.
However, the people who once filled those landscapes with laughter slowly slip into eternity. The places they once occupied become like picture albums on our coffee tables: reminders of what once was. As this happens, our grasp of a geographical place as sanctuary loosens its grip.
We begin to find our sense of home in God, in the work He has given us to do, and in the people that He has given us to love and serve.