“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.