Let's be clear about one thing first. I am not homesick (at least not terribly). Nor am I pining to celebrate the Lunar New Year with my fellow Singaporeans and family, though it would be a nice thing to do. I am writing on this theme of ‘going back’ because of something that I came across in one of my required readings.
It is a quote from the great T.S. Eliot, from his poem entitled ‘Little Gidding’, from the fourth and final of his “Four Quartets” series. It reads:
With the drawing of this Love, and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
A great deal of our human quests and aspirations, though at first appearing to lead us away from our simple beginnings, are in fact huge detours, excursions and side trips that bring delights galore. But when we are satisfied and fully sated with exhilaration, we often realize that what we long for is a return to where we began, or as T.S. Eliot says, to ‘arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time’.
In my study of theology and seemingly esoteric academic pursuits which pose such a challenge for this no-longer nimble mind of mine, so many of my readings have this undergirding discovery that it is often not a newness that academics and teachers are really trying to impart, but a recovery, and a deeper appreciation and a harking back to what the Church has always taught. Yes, there have been new developments of theological and spiritual thought through the ages, but the undergirding truth is that the reality that grounds it all has never and will never change – simply because it is truth and love itself – God.
At the same time, our human nature loves to explore new things and experience delight in them. Traveling to new lands thrills and excites many, and being introduced to things unseen and un-tasted before somehow jolts one into the realization that we are more alive than ever before. But after one has tasted and drunk so much, read so much and experienced thrills ad nauseam, newness can reach a saturation point and ennui creeps up upon us, often unannounced.
It is at this point that the human person becomes most attentive, most willing and even pliable to cooperate with the grace of God that constantly beckons one to return to one’s origins and ‘home-base’ in Him.
That’s the amazing and truly subtle nature of how the grace of God works. The grace of God is one of the most important things that we humans can ever have in our lives, and at the same time, it is also one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated gifts that we can ever have. Up and down the centuries, there have been people who have been determined to believe (and even heretically teach) that grace can be earned and merited. Though the father of this heresy is generally known to be Pelagius, who lived in the early part of the fifth century, his way of thinking about grace has somehow persisted in various forms right up till now in the ways that many Catholics erroneously think that they can earn the goodness or the blessings of God, simply by being good. I have heard these people being called semi-Pelagians, but that’s just a name or category until we can readily identify which part of their theology has shades of Pelagianism.
But this much is certain. Once a person has been touched by the unmistakable grace of God, once that hard heart is softened, readied and prepared, he or she is then ready to return to that place of settlement and solace. St Augustine’s famous line from his Confessions echoes something of a familiar strain that almost parallels T.S. Eliot’s in the first part of this reflection. “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in you”.
Indeed then, 'going back' will be the most important journey that we make in life. Most of us will struggle against it at first. We may protest and fuss. It may be a very long journey and it could be a very hard task, but it undoubtedly, it will also be the most important things we do in life, because we will be doing it for life.