A week ago I read this essay (here lightly revised) to a room of gracious people as part of the Anselm Society‘s “Honest Christian Art” pub night.
Sometime in the 10th century, an Old English poem is recorded in a book donated to Exeter Cathedral — a poem about an unmoored exile who has lost his home and now roves the earth searching for a new one.
The main speaker of The Wanderer staggers between the memory of warriors and feasting in mead halls and his late beloved lord, and his present sorrow among “yellow waves” where frost and snow fall, mingled with hail.
The world is thus, he reflects, and its glory passes away: “So this middle-earth each day fails and falls. . . . Here wealth is fleeting, here friend is fleeting, here man is fleeting, here woman is fleeting — all this earthly habitation shall be emptied.” The words are raw, the anguish ragged.
But it is the poet who wraps up the soliloquy of the earth-walker and has the last word:
Wel bið þam þe him are seceð,
frofre to Fæder on heofonum,
þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð.
It will be well with him who seeks favor,
comfort from the Father in heaven,
where for us all stability resides.
A thousand years later, scholars and critics will respond to this closing with disappointment, with dismissal, with frustration. Here is a “characteristic Old English injunction to practice restraint on earth, place hope only in heaven.”1 This is a lamentation marked with “a poignancy that is not balanced by the brief introduction and conclusion in the voice of a Christian moralist.”2
The ending is out of joint with the rest of the text, they say.
Why must it be present at all?
How can this terse conclusion be anything but depressing?
I am homesick, I think.
It is August 1995, and my view from the 9th floor of an apartment building in Seoul looks nothing like the muted blue and green Appalachian mountains of my childhood. Concrete villas and low brick buildings sprawl out below me, crowned with bright yellow water tanks and electric red crosses. There are mountains off to the side, like an errant eyelash in the corner of my sight, but these seem darker and more imposing than the ones I have known.
I look, and I weep — for all the miles between me and the places that have brought me joy; for that final, strangely poignant moment in North Carolina when we left the playground for the last time, and I knew I could never come to it as a child again — and perhaps, after time and development had gnawed through the land, never see it again at all.
I wrap my arms around my knees. My aunt crouches close and pats my back. “Don’t cry,” she says. “Don’t cry; you’ll make your parents sad.”
In the end, the homesickness makes my ears more alert to my homeroom teacher’s explanation of Christ. Five months later and ten subway stops away, I relinquish my life to the Lord whom I have, in one way or another, been searching for all my life. Ah, I think, here is the answer. Now I know where I am bound; now the homesickness will cease.
But it doesn’t.
When I read The Chronicles of Narnia for a second time as a high schooler, I count the pages left in The Last Battle like a beggar hoarding the last coins in her pocket.
“Finishing the last book was like waking up,” I write to a friend, “and taking a dreaded plunge back to the world where no such possibility of ‘another land’ exists. I wish I could have stayed there.”
I’m half-paralyzed by the happiness and the pathos of the story, but these are insufficient words; the joy I’ve glimpsed is as deep as the laugh that comes after a long cry, and it lingers long in the air like a sigh of wonder. Encountering it is like taking a tonic that makes you thirstier the more you drink, and as irrational as it seems, I want more of this, what C.S. Lewis calls the “inconsolable longing.”
It strikes again, in college, in the Pavilion Gardens on a late afternoon.
Again, in a cascade of coruscated color falling from the back window of the University Chapel.
And again, to music this time, as I stir sauce with a wooden spoon during the early days of new motherhood.
In beauty and in suffering, and even now, in my most “settled” home yet, the sense of homesick yearning pierces through. Why, I wonder? What makes beauty so quick and so keen, and joy sharp enough to make tears spring to my eyes; why is grief so strong and fear so engulfing and sorrow so deep?
Why so strong a longing still?
I begin to discover that this longing has names in different languages: sehnsucht in German, saudade in Portuguese, geurium in Korean, hiraeth in Welsh. We also have “nostalgia” in English; though we have lost the original sense of the word, it breaks down into the Greek nostos, for “return home,” and algos, “pain.” All through the world we seem to have approximations for this awareness, this yearning for something that we know intimately but which lies beyond our reach.
But it is Tolkien who helps me to perceive this pain unashamedly, who shows me that at the root of this longing is loss. His hauntingly beautiful Middle Earth is elegiac by nature, inseparable from its sorrow. The Elves are steeped in memory and bound to ages past. The Men of Rohan pass down a song:
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
Ubi sunt? is the Latin phrase for this theme for pondering the transience of life, and The Wanderer rings with it too.
Where has the horse gone? Where the young warrior?
Where is the giver of treasure? What has become of the feasting seats?
Where are the joys of the hall?
Alas, the bright cup! Alas, the mailed warrior! Alas, the prince’s glory!
How that time has gone, vanished beneath night’s cover, just as if it had never been!
This is loss.
And in the stark bereavement of these words, I realize that I have lost “home” more profoundly than I have ever known it.
Christians may know grace and redemption more deeply than any other people, but to be part of that true narrative means we also know the ravages of what we have lost: the loss of Eden, the loss of innocence, the loss of unhindered communion with God. We see daily the obscuring and distortion and corruption of real love. And the loss is ongoing: as mortals we know the devastation that comes inevitably with the ebb of Time — places erased, loved ones gone.
But understanding this loss, I am learning, is a vital part of the longing we bear. Only as I plumb the agony of separation can I fathom what lies ahead; only as I heft the weight of this day’s pain do I know how to anticipate the deathless, tearless, painless glory of an eternal tomorrow.
Grief and heartache and wrenching honesty have their place in the Christian life. If we open ourselves up to tears that scald our faces and carve aching hollows in the bottoms of our hearts, it is in faith that God truly will wipe every one from our eyes. Heaven is only a pat answer if He fails to deliver His promises.
In this way, The Wanderer reminds us of the freedom we have to weep outright. To spread our empty hands so that we can take up what is to come.
“[A] man must never utter too quickly his breast’s passion, unless he knows first how to achieve remedy, as a leader with his courage,” says the poet. “It will be well with him who seeks favor, comfort from the Father in heaven, where for us all stability resides.”
The Wanderer cannot see over the cresting waves, nor guess how many seas he will have to cross before he finds rest in the hall of his fathers, but he knows where his remedy lies. This is what it is to “grieve with hope,” as Paul says (see I Thess. 4:13-14). The last line fits because God Is.
I understand, then, that I too am still homesick, and that the longing is chronic. I walk about (and write) like a woman with an open wound and a dressing that never seems to stay. This thing gets everlastingly in the way of my living, and yet fuels its very core.
But I will find my way home to my liege-lord, and on the way I’m discovering that there are many of us who wander but are not lost. And as we travel, it’s the light from our Home across the sea — the light from His very Person — that spills out and around our greatest miseries and our dearest hopes, illuminating the losses we carry, and burnishing them with the promise of redemption.
*Top image: “Wanderer at Half Moon Island,” Jørn Henriksen, 2012; licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0
1 Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 1, 7th ed.
2 Introduction to Old English, Peter S. Baker, 2nd ed.