Year A Easter 4
The Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch describing one day in the life of a prisoner in the communist prison system, knew what he was talking about. As a young man in the 1930’s, Solzhenitsyn was a dedicated Marxist, but it turns out that in spite of how much he loved Marx, he didn’t quite love Stalin enough (Stalin by the way, is probably responsible for upwards of tens of millions of deaths so he isn’t really very lovable). For the crime of not loving Stalin enough, Solzhenitsyn was sent to slave labor in a prison system called the Gulag for 8 years.
While he was imprisoned, he recalls that his wife sent him a letter that dreamed of, “When you come back…” He later wrote of his despair at reading those words, “The horror was that there was no going back. To return was impossible… Although the man who came back would have the same surname as her husband, he would be a different person, and she would realize that her one and only, for whom she had waited fourteen lonely years, was not this man at all – he no longer existed.”
Many of us know the feeling. For instance, when I return to a place where I used to live, like New Haven Connecticut, I feel as though I am accompanied by the ghost of past memories. The people I knew have changed or moved on, and although it’s a place I spent a part of my life, it isn’t the same – not at all. What we experience when we return to a place we’ve been, or look at old family photos, or go to the art museum and gaze at the beautiful Ecce Homo painting by Titian, is nostalgia. Which of us has not experienced a sudden, seemingly random moment of feeling homesick for a past time and place? From nowhere it arrives and just as suddenly moves on. This is a natural, common experience, this nostalgic longing so intense that almost seems to hurt. It creeps up and causes a moment of reckoning at the oddest moments: driving your car alone at night with music playing, waiting in line at the checkout, driving by the old school…
Nostalgia is a positive sort of heartbreak, a sense that life is pretty wonderful and yet we are never able to linger in the places and with the people with whom we want to linger, because in the attempt to return we find that we are not the same and those places are not the same. This longing for a permanent home is actually a sign that we are not made for this world. We are made for eternity. The heartbreak is the overflow of a dreaming soul. If human beings are mere animals only made for this physical world, we would not dream, would not hope, and we would not suffer from nostalgia.
To borrow from and slightly amend the philosopher Aristotle (don’t tell my philosophy teacher from school that I’m butchering everything he taught me), our longing for heaven is the longing for what might be and what should be. We’re not there yet, though, and so cannot help but proceed except by a sideways glance. Pope Benedict says, “The arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him, and in this way gives him wings, lifts him upwards toward the transcendent.”
When we feel nostalgia, it creates the thirst to know God more and to love him better, to seek the home beyond the homesickness. Our longing for are Heaven remains an enigma – inexpressible, nameless, and yet it is the romance that precedes nuptial bliss itself.
This is the sort of longing that creates great poetry. That Aristotle quote I mangled earlier is actually about how poetry is the language of possibility, what might be and ought to be. If you’ve ever wondered why the Church loves poetry like the Song of Songs and the Psalms, and why we use poetic, elevated language during our prayers, this is because poetry is the language that addresses the God beyond our everyday words. Today specifically, we prayed the most enduringly beloved of the Psalms, which begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.” The ending is beautiful, too, “Only goodness and kindness follow me/ all the days of my life;/ and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD/ for years to come.” In other words, God is Our Shepherd leading us to new places of rest. The reality we yearn for when we are nostalgic, that is where Christ leads us – He is the fulfillment of our dreams.
Our Lord fulfills the poetic wonder of Psalm 23. He makes this clear by teaching, “I am the gate.” He is the way, the only way, by which we will find our way home. The difficulty that Alexander Solzhenitsyn encountered was that nothing could ever be the way it was before he went to prison, and he felt that as a lack. And it is true that none of us can ever quite remain the same, but as we follow Our Lord, our Good Shepherd, the ways in which we change don’t make us less ourselves but help us to come home to our true selves. Jesus gives us our lives back and although he changes our lives forever, he leads us and guides us to our true resting place, where our souls can find the true purpose of our creation.
We might ask ourselves, do I belong to his flock? Have I walked through that gate? Have I made my home with Jesus?
I am the good shepherd, says the Lord;
I know my sheep, and mine know me.