A few weeks ago I woke up a few hours before dawn and decided to go out for a sunrise hike. I set off with my cleats and headlamp and hiked up the local peak and city park in my now home-city Helena, MT. As I climbed under the inky sky glittered with stars, with the silhouette of the Big Belt Mountains etched on the northeastern horizon, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for being able to come back to this place. Returning to the west has encouraged me to think more about the power of homecomings and the role place plays in our spiritual lives.
The well-known ancient parable of the Prodigal Son speaks to the risk and joy found in homecomings—not only to families but to the land as well. Woven into the stories of the complexity of family relationships is a reflection on human beings’ complicated relationship to the land and to place. At the risk of letting my Ignatian imagination run away with me, I wish to explore this aspect of the story further.
In the beginning of the story we learn that the son demands his portion of the property. This is telling. The son sees his family land as mere property—something he can own, sell, use, and dispose of. Through his selfish demands, he not only separates himself from his brother and father, he separates himself from his native place. He leaves the fields he has plowed and cultivated, the flocks and herds he has tended, and the sounds, sights, and smells that have formed him. We don’t know why he wants to leave. Whatever it is, we get the impression he is disillusioned with his life on the farm. Seeking adventure and autonomy, he cuts himself off from this place, this land that has been his home.
It is only when an extreme famine hits and the “distant country” can no longer sustain the younger son’s life-style does he begin to think of returning. He finds himself in “dire need” struggling to survive. He is penniless, landless, and homeless. What were those days on the pig farm like, I wonder? What memories and images came floating back? I imagine the son had restless dreams filled with verdant landscape, the smells of fresh manure and grasses, the feel of sweat and the wind in his face, the sounds of birds in the air and sheep in the fields. I imagine he started to notice an internal ache, a hunger for more than just food. That ache can only be described as yearning–not for something or even someone, but somewhere. It is the ache for one’s home. This ache for home is a bodily remembering and a bodily knowing. As scripture puts it, the son “comes to his senses.” He gets up and sets off. And, of course, his feet remember the way.
This parable is about God’s compassion and mercy. But the theme of mercy is not just reserved for the end, when the father embraces the son and insists on a celebration. Mercy abounds throughout the story and is revealed in the son’s own act of remembering. God’s mercy is present in that moment when that memory compels him to return to his home. God’s mercy keeps the son putting one foot in front of the other. And God’s mercy is there when he begins to see the familiar sights of home. I imagine the son catching sight of those hills and fields, the sky, smoke curling up from the chimney of his childhood home. From that vantage, perhaps he sees not property to be squandered, but a home to be cared for, lived on, and loved. With new eyes, perhaps he is able to recognize his dire need and dependence as gifts rather than burdens. If so, the younger son is not only found; he also finds. Is it any wonder the father recognizes how alive his son is? He was dead: dead to this work, dead to his own family, dead to himself. But now he is alive: he recognizes and claims his own radical interdependence with the land and his family.
This story is instructive as we struggle to reclaim our own interdependence with creation in the midst of unprecedented environmental destruction. Care for the earth can only happen in the context of authentic love of place. We need to “come to our senses” and respond to our own yearning to be reconnected to the world around us, to the land and water that feeds and sustains us. In Laudato Sí, Pope Francis tells us that God speaks to us through this innate tether to our common home.
Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighbourhood square; going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves. (1).
We all share this common ache to be connected—not only to one another, but also to the ground beneath our feet. This ache is God-given. It reminds us that we are as good as dead when we can only reduce acreage and topsoil, watersheds and mountaintops, and even human lives to mere commodities. We cannot hope for reconciliation with one another if it is not accompanied by a deep desire and effort to reconcile ourselves with the rest of creation as well.
And what of the older son? The story makes clear that homecomings are not easy. They are ongoing and often filled with tumult and struggle. As we know from our present-day witness of the refugee crises in Syria or displaced immigrants struggling to make a new life for themselves, homecomings are not always possible. The dangerous plight refugees face includes the spiritual turmoil that comes with being forced to leave places they love. For all of this talk of homecoming, many cannot return to their war-torn, flooded or now arid homelands. The older son’s reaction to his brother’s return challenges us to reflect on our own practices of hospitality as we work to repair the damage we have inflicted.
The return home is never easy. But, as this story tells us, it does put us in contact with God’s mercy. In her book Belonging: A Culture of Place, bell hooks reflects on her own painful but life-giving return to her native Kentucky:
When I left Kentucky I hoped to leave behind the pain of these wounds. That pain stayed with me until I began to do the work of wholeness, of moving from love into greater understanding of self and community. It is love that has led me to return home, to the Kentucky hills of my childhood where I felt the greatest sense of belong one with nature, of being free. In those moments I always knew that I was more than my pain. Returning to Kentucky, doing my part to be accountable to my native place, enables me to keep a sublime hold on life.
Everyday I look out at Kentucky hills. They are a constant reminder of human limitations and human possibilities. Much hurt has been done to these Kentucky hills and yet they survive. Despite devastation and the attempts by erring humans to destroy these hills, this earth, they will remain. They will witness our demise. There is divinity here, a holy spirit that promises reconciliation.(2)
My own homecoming to the west has shown me how potent the healing power of our native places can be. And when I’m out hiking and feel that harsh, brisk Rocky Mountain Front wind on my face, when I see the ever-shifting expanse of sky, the sunrises in the east, the sunsets in the west, and the stars at night, my cup overflows in gratitude for the grace and mercy I have experienced in my own homecoming. And I’m going to fight like hell to continue this reconciliation. As we turn our gaze towards Holy Week, I pray that we as a species continue to “come to our senses” and that each of us has an opportunity to return to the merciful, loving embrace of our common home—wherever she roots each of us most fiercely.
- Pope Francis, Laudato Sí, June 2016, Accessed http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html, No. 84.
- bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place, (New York: Routledge, 2009), 52.