Without an understanding of home, man becomes sinful and desperate

In a letter of sympathy to Evan Charteris, whose father had just died, Hilaire Belloc once wrote:

Now what has come upon you is as hard a thing as any man can have to bear. The inanimate friends, which are the truest and which never betray, the walls and scents of home, when we lose these we lose, as it were, ourselves. It is a sharp foretaste of death[.] … To lose one’s home, Evan, is to lose one’s bones and one’s skin. I know it. To lose unique and mutual affection is almost (in a mad metaphor) to lose one’s soul.

What is left if the home vanishes? Little more than an incoherent mess of sensual data rushing at us from the vast world, with no possibility of resting among those to whom we know that we belong. If a man seeks to find meaning while refusing to belong to his family, he will find nothing more than transient distractions to stimulate and occupy him for the present moment, until his thoughts bring him back to the emptiness of his rootless situation.

The Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel echoes Blaise Pascal and Søren Kierkegaard when he writes:

I am inclined to think that those people are becoming ever more numerous whose existence coagulates round a few satisfactions which from outside seem almost incredibly petty: the daily bridge party, the football match, some recreation connected either with love or food. They would not miss these pleasures for anything in the world. If for some reason or another they have to do without them, existence itself becomes a desert, a blank night of gloom. There is, of course, the most direct relation between the exaggerated value which is given to them and the insipidity which characterizes the general substance of life — an insipidity which can in an instant become nauseating. In every department the passage from what is insipid to what is unendurable is imperceptible.
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The sheer lack of normalcy in the past couple of months has forced millions of people to rethink their priorities, their work, their recreation, their family time, their children. It has forced the question: what is the personal value of my home to me? Do I even have a home? Or have I been so drawn away in other directions that I have failed to do what it takes to remain connected with or to establish with others such a mysterious place?

When the heart of the rootless man tries to make a nest in the desperate vacuity of his whirlwind life and predictably fails, he will only redouble the search for temporary distractions until his life becomes a fleeing from, not a movement towards, reality. The home is the first and lasting context of the fullness we can speak of as “welcome,” “familiarity,” “belonging.” Strip it down or take it away, and eventually, the only thing remaining is a frivolous masquerade. Behind the mask is nothing, yet the elaborate process of masking we see going on around us in the world — a masquerade that may be said already to have developed its own protocol, values, and lifestyle, especially in the virtual world created by social media — enables rootless men and women to bear for a time the emptiness of their existence, the inversion of being and the nausea that would result from staring into it.

The “outer world,” the world outside us, has meaning only in terms of a stable reference point from which we gain our sense of belonging, of rootedness. When we speak of “going away,” we imply that there is something central and fixed from which we depart: we go away from…home. What does it mean to travel, if not to leave behind something familiar, and to return to it afterward? The concepts “domestic” and “foreign,” “near” and “far,” “local” and “foreign” would have no meaning if we did not intuitively understand, as the basis of all such concepts, “home” and “away from home.”

Each of us approaches the world from within a place where we are already welcome, not strangers — or at least where we feel we ought to be and could be welcome, whatever the strains and difficulties may be due to a history of human failings. This feeling of welcome, which fits like a glove and warms like hot cocoa, is hidden within the meaning of the word familiar. If there is no home — no household, no hearth, no mother and father, no family — then the world loses its intelligibility, its benevolence, its promise; it becomes a place of emptiness, alienation, the echo chamber of the ego. We can no longer compare what we encounter along the way with that which is first and better known to us. Our center of gravity, our language and our sentiments, are so tightly bound up with our homes that we cannot even realize the extent of our indebtedness unless something goes tragically wrong.

Home is a locus of activities, memories, undefinable experiences, a shared dialect, a household way of doing things one doesn’t exactly find anywhere else in the world — all circling around the mother and the father. There is no home without a man and a woman who, under God’s causality, give life to their children, and thus bring into being a complete (if diminutive) community of reciprocal love, care, sacrifice, authority, dependency, education, and transmission of culture.

This home is the soil where life — physical, spiritual, cultural — is rooted, and whence it draws sustenance from day to day, year to year. For these reasons it is an elementary given of human life. The home, ensouled by the family, is the beginning of the person — the beginning of our life, our consciousness, our development, our ability to engage the world, our adaptation to the demands accompanying maturity, our success in meeting others and loving them. In a very real sense, home is a person’s greatest natural (i.e., non-supernatural) treasure in this world.

It seems to me that the present circumstances, as strange and strained as they are, push us inevitably toward these truths, or at least nudge us to awaken to them and become more appreciative of goods we take for granted or fail to invest in.

Through the home of one’s childhood as well as the home one may later establish with a husband or a wife, one learns to absorb and reflect love; one makes oneself available to others. In our own homes, by working for and with our family, we fulfill our fundamental vocation to name and cultivate, rule and serve, carry the Cross and extend the Kingdom of God.

Through the home of one’s childhood as well as the home one may later establish with a husband or a wife, one learns to absorb and reflect love.