The Common Good
May 1994

On Holy Ground

by Julie Polter | May 1994

The practical theology of home.

I thought, growing up, that only special places could be "spiritual," and I was sure that my home ground wasn't one of them—too ordinary. I have reconsidered my understanding of place, however. We live our lives in the material world. The inner journey is shaped by outer ones, by where we place ourselves and how (if) we open ourselves to those surroundings.

How do the landscape, the people, the sights and sounds around us interrogate, challenge, and nurture our faith? Where does our cloud of witnesses reside—an ancestral home, jostling by on the city street, speaking from pages of a oft-opened book, drawing close as a child is wrapped in Great Grandma's quilt? How does God's shaping power of creation linger in objects and soil and how they are used or misused?

The horizon that opens or blocks my view of the universe; the smells of cooking, cut hay, or factory smoke; the way the wind blows in springtime, the sun shines in June; the rhythm of night and day, neighbors' coming and going; the sound of silence, of sirens, of children squealing and laughing: All serve as the markers in my memory, in my heart, for the relationships and experiences that make a place—for a time or for a lifetime—home.

Of course Hebrews 11 teaches that we should be "strangers and foreigners on the earth," seeking a heavenly homeland, desiring a better country. But what I've learned about that country, I've learned here, in my search for a earthly home.

Reading stories—fiction or non-fiction—about home and exile, journeys to faraway lands, and the cycles of life and death lived on a patch of soil, under a roof, is another way I have connected with that search for home that is our spiritual call. Our tradition is rooted in such stories—Jesus used the most everyday of customs, food, and family relationships to shape the parables that tell us what the kingdom is about. We can learn theology, but wine, bread, water, a net straining with shimmering fish, spring plantings, and fall harvests bring it home.

Poet Kathleen Norris left New York City for the house built by her grandparents in an isolated town on the border between North and South Dakota 20 years ago. In Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, she writes essays about both the hospitality and closed-ranks paranoia of small-town society, the stark western Dakota landscape and weather, and the power of memory and family stories.

After years of estrangement from Christianity, it was on the Great Plains that Norris returned to that tradition, making a spiritual home there. Dakota is, Norris writes, "my spiritual geography, the place where I've wrestled my story out of the circumstances of landscape and inheritance...writing about Dakota has been my means of understanding that inheritance and reclaiming what is holy in it."

In an essay titled "Ghosts," Norris poignantly tells of struggling to reconcile the faith legacies she received from her grandmothers—from one a harsh fundamentalism that made her fear the church, from the other a more tolerant, quiet piety. Long believing that religion was a constraint that she had overcome, Norris was startled to find that in fact religion "was in my blood," that moving to South Dakota was also a religious pilgrimage, to find on the ground of her grandmother's faith "the means and end" of her own search for faith.

Describing herself as a "complete Protestant with a decidedly ecumenical bent," Norris is also an oblate to a Benedictine community of monks. Norris skillfully weaves in commentary from the monastic tradition and her own monastic experiences, not just in describing her personal spiritual journey, but in essays analyzing the social and economic gifts and woes of Plains culture.

She finds a natural affinity with the desert wisdom of the fourth-century monastics who lived in Cappadocia and the deserts of Egypt: Like them, Norris "made a counter-cultural choice to live in what the rest of the world considers a barren waste"; her "idea of what makes a place beautiful had to change."

Norris doesn't flinch from hard truths, or sentimentalize losses. But she does draw beauty out of the place she is, and in the process leads the reader to look more closely at his or her surroundings, history, and neighbors—to see how their own faith and identity might draw riches and space to grow from the place where they are.

While Dakota tells of a return to roots, the short stories collected in Border Lines: Stories of Exile and Home are about being uprooted. Written (in English) by authors from all over the world, they are about political exile, voluntary relocation, and even estrangement within one's own house. All explore, one way or another, "the complexities of belonging and identity," editor Kate Pullinger writes in her introduction.

There are shifts of rhythm that come with any multi-author fiction anthology, differences in phrasing and beat and style from story to story. In this collection the shifts only enforce a reader's sense of the dislocation being experienced by the characters—they echo the jolts of language, custom, and atmosphere that come with a physical journey.

The stories are variously tragic, cynical, and funny. A Pakistani woman, alone in London, her husband and son dead, tells the story of how she came to be there. A New York City woman is a prisoner of her fear of attack, obsessed with each newest act of violence reported on the "all news, all the time" radio station...that she never turns off. An eccentric old man pays a surreal and humorous visit to a family in Canada. He claims to be the narrator's (a young boy) grandfather, and tells stories of being a "builder of socialism" back in Czechoslovakia, while making oddly dysfunctional folk furniture and swilling plum brandy.

WHAT POWER is there in kinship and love for a region that will make people cling to it despite economic and physical assault? Denise Giardina's The Unquiet Earth is a rough and honest ode to the mountains of Appalachia and the perseverance of the people who call them home. The novel centers on Dillon Freeman, a fiery union organizer, his cousin, Rachel Honaker, and their child, Jackie, from the 1930s to the '80s.

Dillon is obsessed with love for Rachel, but ultimately it is with the mountains and the community as a whole that he places his loyalty, to the point of dying in the attempt to defend them from disaster caused by outsiders' greed.

Loving a place, as in loving a person, means risking irredeemable loss. At the conclusion of The Unquiet Earth, Jackie is haunted by the memories of the mountains and the people she loved there. "I can no more go back than I could dig up a corpse and blow life into it," she states. Still, some of the community remains there, somehow carrying forward the history and the struggle, hoping against hope.

It is through passing on history and customs that a community survives and the people within that community come to know who they are. But individuals also need love, and nurturing within specific relationships. Barbara Kingsolver explores what happens when community and individual needs come into conflict in the novel Pigs in Heaven.

The central character, Taylor, adopted her daughter, Turtle, after the then-abused and malnourished toddler was abandoned in Taylor's car at an Oklahoma gas station (a story told in Kingsolver's first novel, The Bean Trees). Taylor, who is utterly devoted to her daughter, runs away with Turtle when a lawyer in the Cherokee Nation discovers that the girl was illegally adopted out of the tribe and begins proceedings to take her back.

As Taylor travels through the West, refusing to let even her mother or boyfriend know where they are, she barely scrapes together a life for her and Turtle. What becomes evident is that poverty doesn't just eat away at the material aspects of a home, but, especially when experienced outside of a matrix of supportive family and friends, also saps Taylor's ability to provide emotional security.

Meanwhile, the Cherokee lawyer, Annawake Fourkiller, tries to reconcile her fervor to protect her community and its children with what she knows is Taylor's sincerity and love for Turtle. The power in Annawake's life drawn from the land, spirituality, and relationships of the Nation is clearly shown.

With characteristic humor, and characters that, if anything, are too likable, Kingsolver creates a conclusion that manages to make a workable compromise between the pulls of individuals' love and the need for communal ties.

AUSTRALIAN TIM WINTON also writes with loving humor about family and community. But Winton, a prolific, award-winning author (and former member of an intentional Christian community—see "Spinning Stories and Visions," October 1992) adds magical realism to the mix.

His 1992 novel, Cloudstreet, is the bawdy, grace-filled tragicomedy of two hard-luck families, the Lambs and the Pickles, thrown together in a ramshackle haunted house in Perth during World War II. The Lambs are God-fearing people who lose their faith after a beloved son, Fish, is brain-damaged by a near drowning. The Pickles, on the other hand, never had faith, save in the "shifty shadow" of luck.

Written in the tough poetry of the characters' working-class dialect, the book rolls through 20 years as the families grow intertwined despite themselves. As they betray, take care of, hate, and love one another, both the rough and beautiful edges of their life work to drive out the ghosts and shadows in the house, a communal act of redemption. At one point Oriel Lamb's thoughts are described as she remembers losses and looks on her sleeping husband:

There were Hells abounding, and if there wasn't a Heaven then there was this, the sleeping, the helpless, those that were your own. She was a sinner, she knew, and proud, and angry at God to the point of hatred, but she knew that she'd made a fortress for her own and for whoever sought shelter there, and that it was good, worthy, and priceless.

Cloudstreet is not, it is implied, their ultimate home; it is not just material redemption of which Winton writes. The Lambs and the Pickles are accompanied by manifestations of spirit: visions, appearances by a mysterious aboriginal man who seems to guide them on their way, and a pig that (no joke) speaks in tongues. And a voice emerges in the narration periodically, talking to Fish, reassuring him that he will get to come soon to the "place" he tasted when he almost drowned, a place "beyond the net of time," not so much an afterlife as a fulfillment of life.

Maybe we are all strangers through time, wandering to where, we don't know. And home, for now, is the point between who we were and who we've become, who we are and who we might be.

As we read and tell stories about the places that make us and break us, perhaps the best goal is an understanding of true hospitality, the welcoming of another to the place we are calling our own. As Norris writes in Dakota, monks welcome the visitor with expansive graciousness because of "the notion of God's ever-present hospitality in both nature and other people, the idea that, properly understood, everything in creation invites us to share in God's love."

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. By Kathleen Norris. Ticknor & Fields, 1993.
Border Lines: Stories of Exile and Home. Edited by Kate Pullinger. Serpent's Tail, 1993.
The Unquiet Earth. By Denise Giardina. W.W. Norton & Company, 1992.
Pigs in Heaven. By Barbara Kingsolver. HarperCollins, 1993.
Cloudstreet. By Tim Winston. Graywolf Press, 1992.

Julie Polter is associate editor of Sojourners.

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