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Nichole M. FloresJanuary 10, 2020

“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion.”

– Psalm 137:1

In August 2007, I hitched my Dodge Neon packed with my belongings to the back of my dad’s pickup truck. After leaving my hometown of Denver, we would drive across 10 states until we arrived in New Haven, Conn., where I was to pursue a master’s degree at Yale Divinity School. I sobbed as we drove eastward across the plains in the dark, not knowing if or when I would return to live in my hometown again. Arriving in New Haven, my dad and my sister unloaded my belongings from the car and helped me set up my new apartment. A couple of days later, they embarked on their journey back to Colorado. As we wept in each other’s arms, I promised that I would never forget where I came from. My sister kissed my cheek and my dad made the sign of the cross on my forehead. Then they headed westward toward home.

This was not the first time I had lived far from home. I spent my undergraduate years at Smith College in western Massachusetts, thousands of miles from any family members and in a culture that often felt alien to me. During my first year, some of my housemates ridiculed me for going to a “ghetto” high school and not being able to buy anything but a candy bar during a trip to the mall. If the thousands of miles between my family and me had not already made me feel far from home, the experiences of social rejection certainly did.

If the thousands of miles between my family and me had not already made me feel far from home, the experiences of social rejection certainly did.

I found a refuge in the Catholic student group that met in the basement of the college chapel. Each of us, in some way or another, was far from the home we had known in our youth. Yet, we shared a common striving to anchor our distinctive identities in Christ. This group became my family during these years; our shared faith was the framework through which we found meaning in the world. We made a home with and for each other.

The decision to move back East for my graduate studies was a difficult one. I missed home as much as I had during my undergraduate years, if not more so, because this move had a feel of permanence that the previous one did not. During the spring semester of my first year, I wrote an exegesis essay for my Hebrew Bible class on Psalm 137, a bitter lament composed in the context of exile:

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

This bitterness gives way to anger and cursing, calling for revenge against the author’s captors: “O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!/ Happy shall they be who pay you back/ what you have done to us!/ Happy shall they be who take your little ones/ and dash them against the rock!” This cry for vengeance is one of the most difficult texts in the entire body of Scripture, a behavior that is unjustifiable in the morality of mercy that, as the theologian James Keenan, S.J., argues, is the very heart of the Catholic faith. Even so, this exilic lament conveys the penetrating, mournful anger of a community that believes that their captors have taken everything from them. It is the wailing of someone who has lost their home.

Psalm 137 conveys the penetrating, mournful anger of a community that believes that their captors have taken everything from them. It is the wailing of someone who has lost their home.

Exiles From Home

I read Psalm 137 that semester alongside the works of theologians Miguel A. De La Torre and Ada María Isasi-Díaz, both of whom lamented their own exile from their Cuban homeland. While liberation theologians have turned to Exodus as a source of hope in the midst of oppression, Mr. De La Torre argues that Psalm 137 resonates more profoundly with the political and cultural dimensions of Cuban exilic experience. “Like the psalmist,” he writes, “Exilics sat by the rivers of their host country, singing about their inability to sing God’s song in a foreign land.”

Ms. Isasi-Díaz once described her experience of being asked to sing the songs of her Cuban homeland in the United States: “Those around me could not figure out why I, who love to sing, always seemed reticent about singing ‘Guantanamera,’ the song that uses for its verses poems from the father of my country, José Martí.... So I kept saying to myself, ‘How can we sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land?’” She feared that singing this precious song in the United States, where it is easily commodified and risks being treated as cheap entertainment, would be to disrespect her homeland.

The danger of commodification is exacerbated by a sense of one’s own inauthenticity in relation to the homeland after years of living in exile. As Mr. De La Torre explains, it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to remember a homeland that one left when he was very young: “Those who arrived in the United States from Cuba as infants or small children struggle with the realization that they do not belong to the mythical Cuba de ayer of their parents.” Both Mr. De La Torre and Ms. Isasi-Díaz are wary of the way the treasures of their culture would be treated outside of their homeland, especially in the context of the dominant U.S. culture where they have experienced mockery and hatred directed toward them as Latino people. Nonetheless, both theologians yearn to return to their homeland, even if their own memories of the place are imperfect. They yearn for a connection to their home.

The Cuban-American theologian Roberto Goizueta calls community “the birthplace of the self.” The loss of our community—along with the places and spaces in which we come to know that community—can shake our identity and sense of self to its core. Reading these reflections on the relationship to homeland in exile allowed me to hear Psalm 137 speaking to the spiritual dimensions of the loss of home and community in a new way. While it illuminates the spiritual dimensions of our political relationship with place, it also shows how our sense of self is shaped by attachments we have that give us a sense of home. Losing these attachments means losing our self-understanding, but also our sense of belonging both to the community and to God.

The loss of our community—along with the places and spaces in which we come to know that community—can shake our identity and sense of self to its core.

Memory and Loss

I missed my homeland during those early days in New Haven. I missed the weather, the people, the food. I often thought of the beauty of the Rocky Mountains opening their arms wide to my home city of Denver. I recalled mornings riding the light rail to my job at the center of the city, the eastern face of the Front Range shining in the light of the bright morning sun. My mother would send me mixed CDs with music from my favorite local radio station, acoustic tracks recorded live at the station that evoked images of cold winter mornings covered with powdery snow. And while I yearned to return, I did not feel the same anger expressed in the psalm. After all, I had only been away from home for a little while. While it might be difficult to find a job there, no political entity or law explicitly prevented me from returning there on my own accord. And I always hoped that I would return in due time.

The second year of graduate school, I fell in love with a member of my systematic theology class. We married the year after graduation in a ceremony held in my hometown to make sure that as many members of my large, Mexican-American family could attend as possible. On our wedding day, my father told us that home would now always be with each other. His benediction seemed to be realized as we embarked on our lives together. The week after our wedding, we moved to Massachusetts for our doctoral studies. Three years later, we moved to New Hampshire when I was offered a job teaching in Manchester. Then we moved to Virginia when I was offered a position in Charlottesville. Each move took us farther from our extended families and our homes, if only existentially. But my father’s blessing continued to resonate with us as we built a home together in Christ.

It has been more than a decade since I lived in my hometown. Some days, Psalm 137 reflects my longing to return home, even as I am aware that I have idealized it in my earnest efforts to not forget it. At the same time, I feel anchored in my faith and growing family, a home that I can call my own no matter where I live.

Some days, Psalm 137 reflects my longing to return home, even as I am aware that I have idealized it in my earnest efforts to not forget it.

A Crisis of Hope and Home

It was not until we had our first child that that feeling of home began to seem insufficient. A perfectly mundane pregnancy and labor gave way to unexpected difficulties with the delivery. It took only moments for sheer joy to become unimaginable terror as our first and only child was wheeled out of the delivery room in a plastic bassinet for emergency treatment in the neonatal intensive care unit. The attachment between my son and me, one that had been fully embodied for the better part of a year, ended abruptly. I was unable to cradle him in my arms for the first four days of his life. I spent those days surrounded by family, friends, doctors and hospital staff. But I had never felt more alone in my life. Thankfully, his treatment was successful, and we were able to take him home just six days later. But the rupture engendered a sense of the fragility of life and of our attachments that would become the central spiritual challenge of my earliest days of parenthood.

My family spent the first weeks of my son’s life helping us change diapers and wash bottles. Once they departed, we began to feel the full weight of responsibility for the life of a child while living thousands of miles from both of our hometowns. We have many friends in our city, but we had not really cultivated the kind of relationships where we would feel comfortable imposing upon someone to come hold the baby while we napped or cleaned the house. The pressures of parenthood without a social cushion began to mount. Like many new mothers, I felt the aches of loneliness as I arose multiple times each night to nurse my son. I would cry in a sleep-deprived haze, wishing I had my family nearby to help me with the loads of laundry, the dishes and the tears.

My experience of loneliness was complicated by the trauma I experienced during my son’s delivery and the first week of his life. Why had this horrible thing happened to my son? As the days, weeks and months of sleep deprivation wore on, I began to wonder if God was angry at me. I began to ask for the first time in my life whether God really loved me. While this kind of spiritual upheaval is commonly referred to as a crisis of faith, it seemed more accurate at the time to call it a crisis of hope. While I did not doubt that God existed, I lost hope that I had a home with God. I lost hope that God would rescue me. I felt the abiding sense of home beginning to unravel. I felt angry. For the first time in my life, I felt truly adrift.

While I did not doubt that God existed, I lost hope that I had a home with God. I lost hope that God would rescue me.

Adrift at Sea

The current state of our society’s relationship with home has been fraught with neuralgia because on a global and national scale, debates rage on about the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Unimaginable violence in Syria and the ensuing refugee crisis have led millions of vulnerable humans to seek asylum, only to be turned away by neighboring nations that are their only hope for safe harbor. Unbearable images of suffering migrants have been cast across social media, searing our consciences with the image of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach, or Omran Daqneesh’s visage covered with blood and ash. These images are a reminder that the loss of home usually causes irreparable harm, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

According to a recent report by The New York Times, the weight of the great recession has crushed economic prospects for younger generations, making it statistically more likely for us to remain near our hometowns than previous generations. This is the case despite dwindling economic opportunities in small-town and rural areas in the United States. At the same time, rising costs of living in cities disincentivize movement to major metropolitan areas in an attempt to improve one’s economic opportunities.

These reports are in tension with the experiences of long-time residents of major cities, especially economically strained communities of color, who are seeing their neighborhoods transform through rapid gentrification (the displacement of less wealthy residents of a community by more wealthy newcomers). This displacement has led to the dismantling of neighborhood institutions that grounded these communities: churches, businesses, social clubs and even public art that have both consoled and empowered these communities in the midst of social and economic turmoil.

These dynamics concerning our collective relationship to home make it difficult to detect a clear signal about the status of our society’s relationship with notions of homeland. Beneath the aggregate of any demographic profile exists the mosaic of our stories in which home, as well as its loss, bears particular significance for each of us. But what is clear is that members of these generations often struggle to feel truly at home, regardless of our proximity to homeland.

What is clear is that members of younger generations often struggle to feel truly at home, regardless of our proximity to homeland.

‘To Whom Do You Belong?’

Natalia Marandiuc, who immigrated to the United States from Romania to pursue her studies, is an assistant professor of Christian Theology at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, where she researches the theological meaning of home and belonging. “When I would visit my grandmother in her village in Romania as a little girl, the moment I stepped off the bus, villagers would ask me, ‘Tu a cui esti?’,” which means “Whose are you?” or “To whom do you belong?” According to Ms. Marandiuc, the question of “to whom do you belong” is becoming an increasingly difficult one for our society to answer. Although physical distance from home is the cause of some of this difficulty for many, she argues that there is an even deeper sense of loss of attachments, ones that keep us anchored in the midst of indeterminate circumstances.

Our social attachments have come under pressure in our contemporary society. Once viewed as the bonds of affection necessary for living in a society together, our relationships with others are increasingly seen as expendable. But, as Ms. Marandiuc argues, such attachments are necessary for a sense of authenticity: “Authenticity of the self in fact requires attachments,” she says.

To understand the role our attachments have in shaping the self, argues Ms. Marandiuc, it is important to understand how they are formed within a framework of meaning. But she argues that such frameworks of meaning are not necessarily given in the context of modernity and post-modernity. “As if in a cafeteria, contemporary people can and do pick and choose, from different paradigms of meaning, the bits and pieces that suit them,” she explains, “and they pick and choose according to criteria that they themselves have chosen subjectively.” Despite this inherent subjectivity of our contemporary orientation to frameworks of meaning, however, Ms. Marandiuc argues that the loss of a framework is a profoundly disorienting experience that raises questions about the foundations of meaning. Drawing on the writing of Charles Taylor, Ms. Marandiuc says: “To lose such a framework is tantamount to being adrift ‘at sea, as it were,’ to lose one’s sense of orientation with respect to who one is.”

Ms. Marandiuc describes experiencing this kind of loss when she moved to the United States. “It was hard for me to come to the United States in ways that I did not expect,” she says. She was so lonely, in fact, she was not sure the word “lonely” truly conveyed how she felt: “I had no experience in my home culture that would translate in any way.” The experience of loneliness, almost too profound to express, accompanies the loss of a framework of meaning.

I know what she means: It was this same feeling of loss more profound than loneliness that I experienced as I felt my attachments eroding as I tried to raise my son without the support of nearby family and in the context of trauma. My framework of meaning is my Catholic faith; to feel a rupture in that framework was to feel as though I was losing everything.

My framework of meaning is my Catholic faith; to feel a rupture in that framework was to feel as though I was losing everything.

This experience of something even more profound than loneliness motivated Ms. Marandiuc to study questions about the theological significance of home. She was deeply moved by the plight of migrants, especially those without the protections of documentation or the privileges of whiteness or wealth. But as she delved into questions of migration, she became interested in questions about the loss of home and homeland. What makes home good? In her 2018 book, The Goodness of Home: Human Love and Divine Love and the Making of the Self, she points to our attachments of love as that which gives us a sense of belonging.

Similarly, contemporary life in an atomized, deeply individualistic society such as the United States can be antithetical to the formation of such attachments of love. The theologian William Lynch, S.J., wrote of the “problem of freedom” in this regard, noting that the “problem of freedom is not about the goal of freedom, but the far more difficult question of how, in our actual lives and in the life of the city, we move to attain real freedom—how, in other words, we understand the relation of freedom to the contrary reality of limitation.” When humans seek complete autonomy from concrete commitments, the result can be a loathing for oneself, for one’s background, and even for one’s country.

Our attachments, in other words, are central to our shaping of the self. They allow us to give and to express love, and thus give us a sense of belonging, and help us to “be at home” in ourselves and in our actual homes.

Attending to research in neuroscience, Ms. Marandiuc articulates the role of attachments in human cognitive development. Such attachments are crucial to emotional well-being. “The only way human beings become fully formed is through attachments.” While her argument is theological in nature, the developmental significance of attachments informs a bioethical argument of the centrality of home, family and belonging for the integral development of the human person.

This position has implications far beyond the walls of our homes. For example, the current crisis of migrant detention at the Mexico-U.S. border, including morally evil policies of family separation, have concrete implications for the cognitive development of children separated from their caregivers. For young children, the attachment to parents is essential not only for development, but for survival. According to Nim Tottenham, associate professor of psychology at Columbia University, parents and children “can be thought of as a single organism.” Separating them from each other causes a rupture in attachments that has lasting negative implications for their cognitive and emotional development. One need only remember the stories about certain orphanages where children were deprived of any emotional nurturing, and the traumatic effects on their intellectual and emotional development.

Our attachments—to people, to places and even to institutions and ideas—are fundamental to human experience and identity. Respecting and nurturing those attachments, as well as acknowledging the serious implications of both the loss of those attachments and the maintenance of harmful attachments, is thus essential to attending to human physical, emotional, intellectual and moral formation in the 21st-century global context.

Our attachments—to people, to places and even to institutions and ideas—are fundamental to human experience and identity.

Faith, Love and Hope

Before I gave birth to our son, a deacon at my husband’s church wisely suggested that we establish a meal signup. Friends from my parish, my husband’s church and our office quickly began relaying fresh, warm food to our door, often offering to hold our son for a few minutes while we ate a quick bite before returning to our parenting duties. And while I am not sure that they were aware of it at the time, these friends anchored us during some of the most tumultuous times of our lives.

The presence of our people during these stressful times witnessed to God’s unyielding love for us. It helped us see that others claimed us as their family. It helped us remember that God’s family was our home. It was this community that guided me back home when I felt that all was lost.

I asked Ms. Marandiuc how Christian faith helps us to recover a sense of self resulting from ruptures in our frameworks of meaning. But she suggested that I shift the question from the theological virtue of faith to the theological virtue of love. “What helps us to recover the goodness of home is love more than faith,” she said. While we rightly conceive of the church as a means of communicating the overwhelming sense of God’s love, she argues that love helps us to form attachments with others. These attachments take the shape of institutions such as the church, she says, but they are also conveyed in other manifestations of community and relationship. “Thinking in relational terms,” she said, “we need to think above and beyond the church.”

In singing songs together, we keep our promise to remember where we came from. In our singing, we make a home together even though we are still far from home.

I concur with her about the significance of love for forming these kinds of attachments. But it is also essential to highlight hope. It is these attachments that allow us to experience hope in an abiding sense. This hope is not a simplistic one, but one that grounds us. Pope Francis has returned to this theme time and again in his homilies, especially to young people.

Alejandro García-Rivera, yet another Cuban-American theologian, once wrote of a beauty that draws a community together: “Subversive, yet gracious, ever hoping and fresh, Beauty crossed barriers and created community. Beauty’s call made possible the impossible and made visible the invisible.” This is the kind of beauty that holds together communities across time and place and space. This is the kind of beauty that reveals the attachments we have to each other and to God. This is the kind of beauty that engenders hope when we feel far from home.

I experienced this hopeful beauty as I watched my son look at our Christmas tree. I watched him marvel at the lights and tug on the ornaments adorning each branch, even as I tried to keep him from toppling the tree. He pointed at each ornament, his face lighting up at the sight of each glittering bulb. He asked me to lift him up so he can take a closer look at the branches out of his reach.

As we inspected the tree, I told him the story of each ornament. Here is one that your grandma Nancy gave us the winter before she went home to Jesus. Here is one from when mommy and daddy lived in New Hampshire. Here is the ornament from your very first Christmas here in Virginia. Each ornament represents a person, a place, a memory, a hope. And in this way, our tree represents a diachronic array of people, places, spaces and institutions. It remembers our web of attachments that define who we are, even those attachments that feel lost or far away. It helps us teach our son about the attachments that form us even as he begins to form his own, ones that will be related-but-distinct from our own. But, significantly, the tree remembers the birth of our savior Jesus Christ, the root of all of our relationships and attachments. And it reminds us of the home he gives us, even as he lay in the cold without a home of his own.

When we finished examining the ornaments, we sat at the base of the tree singing Advent hymns and Christmas carols. In singing songs together, we keep our promise to remember where we came from. In our singing, we make a home together even though we are still far from home.

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