Monday, February 11, 2008

Wayfaring strangers, homesick for God

j.j. asked (Feb. 8, 7:14 AM): "I believe God put it into our hearts that we are all strangers in this world, and never quite feel 100% comfortable. Is it because we know we are going to die or is it because he wanted us to long for Him (or both)?"

j.j.'s question reminds me of the haunting Appalachian spiritual "Wayfaring Stranger," which can be heard here. "I am a poor wayfaring stranger, wandering through this world of woe. But there's no sickness, toil or danger in that bright land to which I go ... "

There seems to be an innate human longing for something more, something beyond this life. The death of loved ones is hard to endure without that hope. I don't think, though, that this longing is simply shaking our collective fist at mortality. It feels more like a yearning for an existence we know but have forgotten. Homesickness for a home we can't describe.

French scientist and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: "What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."

This is sometimes called the God-shaped hole -- the emptiness in us that can only be filled by God. As St. Augustine put it, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

One reason for the tradition of giving up something for Lent is that it helps us to see how addicted we have become to whatever we use to satisfy our cravings, to fill that hole. And when we encounter that terrifying emptiness, that "infinite abyss," while disarmed of our usual defenses against it, we are more likely to stop and look deeply into it. We are more likely to find what truly belongs there.

So, j.j., my answer would be "both." It is both a hope for life that endures beyond death and a realization that this material world is only part of our existence -- that we are spiritual beings who find our purpose and fulfillment in God. Whether God planted it there or it is a logical outcome of being mortal yet spiritual creatures, I have no idea.



Rod said...

I question the premise that ALL people feel at least a bit like strangers in this world. I've known quite a few that seemed totally comfortable with this life. Generally, they couldn't be comfortable with death, because they either (a) believed in nothing thereafter, or (b) feared whatever might come thereafter.

People of faith, however, generally feel much more comfortable with death, which for them is not a major event, just a transition. Such people usually feel "not at home" in this world, but rather a longing to "go home" to the spiritual life with their God in the life to come. I write this from a Christian perspective, but other readers may confirm that from their own faiths, as well.

At our church, we sometimes sing a song which begins: "This world is not my home, I'm just passing through." I often find myself humming those lines and thinking those words in the office, or somewhere else away from church and home. I think that is because God's Spirit resides within me, and the Spirit cannot be comfortable in a world which is ruled by God's arch-enemy.

Anonymous said...

When I was younger I was less satisfied with life and searched for a place I could belong. Now I'm at home with my wife and content reading a good book in front of the fire or watching a funny movie.

Having a strong aversion to death helps keep me alive. I do what I can, eg, eat right, exercise, and not drink, to live longer. I like surrendering to what being human is. The more I surrender the more at peace I become.

Iztok said...

rod, "People of faith, however, generally feel much more comfortable with death, which for them is not a major event, just a transition."

I think your blanket statement is really far from the truth.

I find it that most religious people are indeed afraid of dying and don't really trust what they are told. If they would really think hereafter is such a great place then they would be more looking forward to get there as soon as possible. Instead they are still around. Noticeable exceptions are faithful martyrs exploding themselves. Interesting to note is that people who are telling such stories to the martyrs are not so inclined to take their roles.

On the other hand history is full of faithful who were in hurry to impose punishment to people they perceive as infidels. (Very dogmatic.)

On the third hand you have atheists and agnostics who are mostly very comfortable with the idea that we were dead before we were born (and it wasn't at all bad, as there was simply nothing) and we'll be dead after this life is over and since there is no hell to be worried about or heaven to suck up to, we just live the best life right now and here.

Someone recently told me that helping God with his plan of adoption of my daughter was a really noble thing to do and that we are doing a great job (we are several weeks away from completion I hope). I smiled and told him that he should have seen how poorly God was doing on his own trying to help this girl before I've entered this girls life.

Danbo59 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danbo59 said...

Rod wrote, "...and the Spirit cannot be comfortable in a world which is ruled by God's arch-enemy."

I found your comemnt quite interesting and uplifting. I, though, do not believe that this world is "ruled by God's arch-enemy." The war -- the struggle -- for this world continues for sure, but I hardly think Satan reigns supreme here.

Remember, Satan has no power other than that you give him. God has all power (and glory) by default, yet He still allows us the free will (which makes us like His angels, like Him in some measure, and different from all other animals on this earth) to make our own choices.

In this time of Lent, can any words be more beautiful, more revealing than these spoken by Jesus (paraphrased) --

1) "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that procedes from the mouth of God." Bread is important, but without God you can eat all the bread you want and still be "hungry."

2) "It is written, 'You shall not put the Lord, thy God, to the test.'" God's love for us in unquestionable -- period. We shall not ask Him to prove it, because He already did in giving us His only Son.

3) "Worship the Lord, thy God, and do Him homage. No others shall you serve." I find this quite self-explanatory.

Praise God. May He continue to bless us all!

Postscript to Iztok -- God was doing just fine in finding that young lady a home. He sent you to her. He may have asked others to do the same before, but their answer was "no." Freedom of choice.

Anonymous said...


Doesn't the bible state that Satan rules this world?

Danbo59 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danbo59 said...

The Bible does make statements such as those found in John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11 which could be construed as naming Satan as the "ruler" of this world (some Bible versions replace the word "ruler" with "prince"), but again -- you must remember that Satan has no power, no rule other than that a person gives him.

As Jesus said, "No," to Satan so can we, too. Satan may rule the world (because Satan is death, and all living things die) but that doesn't mean he rules all people on this earth.

Every time we choose not to sin, we rob Satan of his rule.

Nick said...

C.S. Lewis wrote about this in "Surprised by Joy" and Peter Kreeft does it masterfully in "Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing." An MP3 of him speaking about it can be found at his website

JJ said...


Great discussion... I agree with your opinion on this subject. I have discussed this topic with a few very seemingly confident persons who look at me like I have opened a window to their soul. I think some are very good at pretending that they know exactly what we are doing and that they belong here...

The truth is that we are all trying to find purpose in our lives. Iztok has found purpose in his life by helping a young lady that might not otherwise have a chance( which is a very selfless thing to do).

I believe that whether we want to admit it or not, God is slowly but surely leading us home. In the case of my brother and your husband, Jane, He took them from us before we were ready to give them up. But His plan is mysterious, complex and it is not always our plan (in fact, it is rarely our plan) - but some day when we pass to our eternal home, our eyes will be opened and it will all make sense.

As far as the faithful being scared of death.. I am not scared of death. I am looking forward to it. In fact, I wonder how long I will have to wait to see my brother (and grandpas, grandmas, uncles) again. My fear comes from leaving my wife and 3 wonderful kids behind. I know God would take care of them, but I know how much I cherish their love and how much they cherish mine. For me, that is the only thing that might be considered "fear" - it's probably more like a father's longing to be there for his family.