At the last supper before his death, Jesus tried to offer a measure of peace to his friends. A traveling teacher without “a place to lay his head” for the past three years seemed to think that a promise of a “house with plenty of room” should be enough to lift his friends’ troubled hearts. I can see why; for most of us, homes are comforting. Of course, in the context of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse”, we understand the “Father’s house” to refer to life after death. Indeed, I have preached dozens of funeral sermons based on this passage, so it’s even a little odd to be reading it at this regular Sunday service. But it did make me wonder, why do our earthly homes make for a good analogy with heaven? Why do we imagine heaven as a place, not a state? Is home sacramental? Like bread and wine, water, light – what else can you think of? – might our homes not only symbolize, but enable an experience of spiritual realities?
What is in a home? Safety, ownership, belonging, beauty. Routines and memories; laughter and heart-to-hearts; meals and milestones; work, play and rest. And who is at home? Our loved ones – recommended in reasonable doses, as per the pandemic experience! – and, God. After all, what was Jesus planning to do “to prepare” a place for his friends? Not to furnish, clean up, or stock the fridge; but simply to be there, waiting for them. And so it is likely that what makes a place “a real home” is that there, we feel God’s presence more acutely. We might not think that’s what it is, but God’s presence does at times masquerade as belonging or wellness. This is just how we envision the many rooms God prepares for us in heaven. We hope that what/whoever matters to us here, we will find there. We may model our understanding of heaven after our homes!
Our physical homes do seem to contribute to the spiritual aspect of our lives, which is why we experience consolation within them, get attached to them, and grieve moving. But, there might be other places that we might figuratively call “spiritual homes”. For example, are you familiar with the Celtic concept of “thin places”? No, not areas populated by skinny people or narrow strips of land, but special locations that seem to have a strong spiritual effect on people, where the boundary between the material and spiritual world – if one exists – seems to be, well, thin. “Eerie,” though not spooky; otherworldly, yet ordinary. They seem to predispose people of all walks of life and traditions to transcendent experiences, reminding us that there’s more to this world than meets the eye, offering glimpses of the divine, allowing us to feel its touch. Grace seems to be just “waiting to happen” there. Old buildings, ancient worship sites, scenic views, locations associated with legends and big events… We seem to remember our visits well, and long to return. Are these places inherently conducive to prayer (if so, why?), or do they become sanctified by the prayers and hopes of those who visit them?
What are some well-known “thin places,” like the Stonehenge or Notre Dame, that you’ve visited, and did you feel anything special there? Now, what about those “thin” places that are uniquely yours – where is your “spiritual home”? In that one particular chair by the window in your living room, canoe at the cottage, garden or balcony? Somewhere you like to return to on your travels? Your childhood house or the one to which you first brought your own family? If you are able to be there regularly, you might wish to leverage its effect. You might already know to go there if you’re sad or stressed, but also if you seek to establish a spiritual discipline or prayer routine, consider anchoring your practice in that space, or visit it in your mind as you enter meditation.
Our vocations and homes seem to determine “our place in the family of things” (Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”) on earth and in heaven. What we do and where we live provide spiritual experiences – the “living stones” – for the “house” of belonging, wellness, and purpose we construct for ourselves. Like an archway with a keystone, it’s held together by faith. But, Thomas, an ever intellectually honest architect whom we met on Easter 2, voiced the concern we all share: do we really know the way? Where is the building plan? Must we “walk on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting” to earn our way into heaven? Mary Oliver was “spiritual, but not religious,” but I, too, wonder if there is simultaneously more and less to finding our place in God than “being good”. I don’t mean that we should feel free to be selfish or dispense with organized religion. But, if our first tendency is to build our spiritual homes out of caring, sharing, and helping, then we might wish to become more intentional about learning to actually experience love, notice the beauty of heaven as it peeks through nature, art, architecture and music – the thin places – and never take for granted “the peace which passes all understanding” that might occasionally surprise us in those special places.
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