The early years of my adulthood and priesthood were spent teaching theology at Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Canada. I was young, full of energy, loved teaching, and was discovering the joys of ministry. For the most part, these were good years.
However, they weren’t always easy. Restlessness and inner chaos find us all. The demands of ministry, the tensions inside community, the obsessions I’m forever prone to, the not-infrequent departure of cherished friends from the community, and the constant movement of people through my life, occasionally left me in emotional chaos, gasping for oxygen, struggling to sleep, wondering how I was going to still my soul again.
But, I had a little formula to help handle this. Whenever the chaos got bad, I would get into my car and drive four hours to our family farm just across the border in Saskatchewan. My family still lived in the house I’d grown up in and I was able to eat at the same table I’d eaten at as a child, sleep in the same bed I’d slept in as a boy, and walk the same ground I’d walked while growing up. Usually it didn’t take long for home to do its work. I’d only need a meal or an overnight stay and the chaos and heartache would subside; I’d begin to feel steady again.
Coming home didn’t cure the heartache but it gave the heart the care it needed. Somehow home always worked.
Today, the same kind of emotional chaos and heartache can still unsettle me on occasion and leave me unsure of who I am, of the choices I’ve made in life, and of who and what to trust. However, I cannot drive to my childhood home anymore and need to find the steadying that going home once gave me in new ways.
It isn’t always apparent where to find this, even amid a good community, a still supportive family, loving friends, and a wonderful job. Home can be elusive on a restless night. What one needs to steady the heart isn’t always easy to access. Once you’ve left home, sometimes it’s hard to find your way back there again.
So what do I do now when I need to go home and retouch my roots to steady myself? Sometimes a trusted friend is the answer; sometimes it’s a call to a family member; sometimes it’s a family that has become family to me, sometimes it’s a place in prayer or in nature, sometimes it’s immersing myself in work, and sometimes I can’t find it at all and have to live with the chaos until, like a bad storm, it blows over.
Through the years, I’ve discovered that a special book can take me home in the same way as driving there once did. Different people find homes in different places. One of the books that does this for me, almost without fail, is “The Story of a Soul” by St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Not surprising, it’s the story of a recessive journey, the story of Thérèse’s own effort at recapturing what her house, home, and family once gave her. But the recessive journey in itself is not what gives this book (which I highly recommend for anyone whose heart is aching in a way that unsettles the soul) such a special power. Many autobiographies unsettle more than they settle. This one soothes your soul.
However, remembering alone doesn’t necessarily care for the heart, and sometimes our memories of home and childhood carry more pathology and pain than steadying and healing. Not everyone’s home was safe and nurturing. Tragically, one’s initial home can also be the place where our trust and steadiness are irrevocably broken, as is the case often in sexual and other forms of abuse. I was fortunate. My first home gave me trust and faith. For those who were not as lucky, the task is to find a home, a place or a person, that caresses a wounded soul.
What makes for a home that caresses the soul?
Home is where you are safe. It’s also the place where you experience security and trust, and where that steadiness enables you to believe in the things of faith. I used to drive four hours for a meal or a night’s sleep in order to find that. Today, I need to make that recessive journey in other ways.
It’s a journey we all need to make in times of chaos and deep restlessness in our lives, namely, to find a place, a space, a friend, a family, a house, a table, a bed, a book, or something that grounds us again in security, trust, stability, and faith.
Of course, there are headaches and heartaches for which there is no cure; but the soul doesn’t need to be cured, only properly cared for. Our task is to go home, to find those people, places, prayers, and books that caress our souls at those times when our world is falling apart.