There’s no place like home – a story of why

“Vocation is to search for home…” writes Emilie Townes. “Home” has been a consistent and complexifying thread.  My energy is stoked – and my anger is provoked – when people do not have access to a literal or metaphorical home.   I now see this longing for “home” as encompassing both “the work I need to do” and “the work the world needs done” (Buechner).

               Creating and nurturing home has been the unifying thread of nearly twenty years of ministry in different contexts. As a Jesuit Volunteer in Nicaragua, many of my neighbors had been internally displaced or refugees during the Contra War.  During my years in parish ministry, I worked with immigrants and refugees (finding and fighting for home in a new place), doing congregation-based community organizing around affordable housing, and coordinating a shelter for people experiencing homelessness.  In serving at Innisfree Village (a community with adults with disabilities), I was a “house mother,” making home through providing daily care.

Why all this home-building, home-seeking, home-hunger? 

Five or fifteen years ago, I would’ve answered the “why” with some (TBH probably sanctimonious-sounding) theological explanation of how faith calls me to do justice, probably referencing Catholic Social Teaching – the preferential option for the poor, universal human dignity, maybe a Greg Boyle quote. That’s not wrong…but also not fully true. 

               I left Central Virginia in 2014 at age 33- the image that emerged from prayer was a seed needing fresh soil.  Within months, I became able to articulate a nudge towards religious life.

               Fast forward six years, and I have entered and left Religious community. I called the Sinsinawa motherhouse “home.” But as hard as I tried and as much as I prayed, a sense of “home” became difficult – then impossible – to maintain. In meetings, leadership presented possibilities of deconstructing beautiful (but aging and impractical) motherhouse buildings and moving large numbers of Sisters away for assisted living/skilled care (median age is 82).  Sinsinawa could not be my “forever home.”

A sense of home was equally elusive in local community. My first local community in Chicago disintegrated as two of the three sisters in the house developed both memory and physical health challenges. So I moved to a large old convent on Chicago’s north side with Sisters from another Dominican congregation. Several months later, the decision was announced for the old and crumbling convent to close. I networked and brainstormed with my formation director and others, but no possibilities for local community were forthcoming.  

Though much went into discerning to leave Religious life, certainly one factor is that “home” – a physical place of belonging – didn’t seem possible.  Yet through Religious life formation, my passion for creating home for those who are most vulnerable was cracked open.

               A favorite definition of discernment is: “God’s gradual revealing of us to ourselves.” During canonical novitiate (the second and most intense year of formation) I was challenged to do heart and not just intellectual and practical work.  In a confluence of real-time family crisis with content from formation on trauma, family dynamics, etc, I was forced to face my own dysfunctional family reality – alcoholism, mental illness, suicide – and the patterns I had developed in response.  

I remember clearly the cold Saturday when my novice director tried to convince me of my “wounded inner child” – I rolled my eyes so hard I almost pulled a face muscle!  Yet a nighttime dream (reminiscent of Samuel?) showed me there was real inner work I’d managed to avoid. I started seeing a therapist and facing the ways I’d wallpapered over the tough parts of my growing up.  It was hard to face much of my motivation for ministry was avoiding and denying my own vulnerability by caring for others.  Ouch – bruising to the ego! Attending to these vulnerable, neglected parts and unlearning patterns through God’s grace remains ongoing work.  I hold the complexity that Religious life offered support for this internal shift while ultimately not providing a stable, physical place to live.

What stirs in me as I pray with “home” now:  a sophomore wrote our classroom felt “more like being at home with family then being in just another class,” which is perhaps the most meaningful pieces of feedback I’ve received (especially given that class shifted online with the pandemic’s onset).  And I have found in sitting with students as spiritual director this year just how palpable and real the Spirit is (as I am abundantly aware how tired/distracted I can be when coming in for a session, so I know it is truly God at work), and how “home” can occur in that sacred space with director and directee together.  As I discern both physical living situation and ministry, and seek to trust the continued work of God in knitting together my own homeless parts, I rest in the words of Jesus’ final discourse of the promise of a dwelling place – for all of me, for all of us.

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5 thoughts on “There’s no place like home – a story of why

  1. Rhonda,
    I felt a sense of the living God, especially in your last paragraph – when you pray with “home” the words of your Sophomore students finding home, and resting in the words of Jesus that we are promised a dwelling place. I also want to echo that you have found inner peace in your decision to leave Religious Community. Despite the practical uncertainty it seems your spirit has found deeper rest, perhaps you are coming home to yourself in this process (I like your discernment definition). I wonder how your inner work in year two of novitiate might be connected to the home motif of your spirituality. How do you continue to carry these wounds and healing from your childhood home into your discernment?

  2. Rhonda, it seems that “home” and creating home for others as well as finding it for yourself might be your life mission. I am reminded of something I read a long time ago of how “Abba” was the grounding for Jesus and the “Reign of God” was his mission. How consciously are you creating home for your students? How might you continue to create a home for them? How can you support yourself in creating a home for yourself where you can recharge, renew and heal so that you can continue to create a home for others? I think that considering there are so many people and students who may not know or have a real experience of “home” your gift to others can be to create one. Are you able to dream big and maybe create a “home” on a large scale, like an orphanage, but not, where others could live there and learn about what a real home is? What would it take to get donors who could help with something like that? Would it be practical/possible? What would that look like and what would it feel like? Could that mean that you are being called to create a new community, maybe religious, maybe not, where HOME can be the end result to different people? Blessings.

  3. Beautifully written, Rhonda, to name “home” as a common thread and interpretive lens for many of your experiences over the last 20 years — and as a way to discern where God is healing parts of you and inviting you to new “homes” today.

    You’ve shared about your many, many years of living in intentional community, and a movement you’re experiencing to live differently, at least for a time. You’re asking about who you are when you’re not accommodating others. This strikes me as also related to the question of “home.” What does it mean for you to be at home with yourself? And what is your deeper home, your center? Is it with God? The Spirit? Would you express it some other way? What does it mean, and what does it feel like, to be home there?

    “There’s no place like home.” 🙂 Amen.

  4. Dear Rhonda,
    As I spend time with your words, I’m imagining transgressive images of home (ragamuffin homes, so to speak): Peter Pan’s den with all the lost boys and Wendy as a little mother, or Ruth making her family with Naomi, or the Beguines, or the Catholic Worker. I think of how St. Catherine had a little family of co-disciples who were spiritual children to her (even if they were older than her).

    The Catholic Worker is the family that made a deep impression on me, because the Worker is the island of misfit toys. Anyone who’s looking for someone can come to that table (at least in the community I lived in). That was a deeply consoling experience, because the house of hospitality was a place where people who had loose connections with their biological families (and were experiencing homelessness) could make a new family together.

    So my journal prompt for you is to imagine wildly unorthodox homes. You could visualize the building, or the natural environment, but maybe the people would be more apt. Maybe the home is an underground raccoon burrow. OK, it’s too late at night and now I’m just running with crazy thoughts!

    Last thought: one biography of Louisa May Alcott is called “A Hunger for Home.” It could really be beautiful to look at the lives of people you love (from the past) through this lens of home.

  5. I relate so much to your story, Rhonda. It’s funny how we’ve lived in a lot of the same places at different times–Charlottesville, Chicago, and Iowa in particular. I had a lot of deep wounds in my childhood that I took a long time to recognize, and in the meantime I was desperately looking for a “home” of love and belonging I never got from my parents. I think my life story would have looked a lot like yours if I hadn’t chased after marriage as the place I thought I would find that home. I look forward to seeing where the Spirit leads you from this liminal space you’re in today.

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