15th August, 2020
In the German language the concept or word ‘Heimat’ has played a definitive role in that culture spanning many centuries. It is not a word that one can easily translate into English; we might render it ‘our home or homestead’ which is close but not quite what it means. In Russia and in Poland similar words to Heimat can be found, they describe something binding in a person’s biography. Further, not necessarily for rational reasons, the concept ‘Heimat’ involves deep emotional bonds, often created though the landscape and lifestyle of a group of people living together maybe for centuries in a particular place. Such a place becomes one’s ‘Heimat.’ In centuries past ‘Heimat’ wasn’t something exclusive, it wasn’t a statement of ownership, it was most often where you had grown up and lived especially in one’s childhood years. This inclusive sentiment sadly changed and certainly not only in Germany. Groups of people today feel that ‘Heimat’ for them is a place shared only by a particular group of people. Anyone who enters the ‘Heimat’ is by definition trespassing. The open-door lifestyle that existed in many countries has over the last century become a more a closed-door gesture. ‘Heimat’ in the past would never have been confused with nation as it is not in essence some politically definable space; it exists on another level of one’s being. Some have wanted to define ‘Heimat’ as the fatherland but in truth it is much more a memory of the motherland, the maternal in our biographies.
We see all kinds of problems in the world with false patriotism and people confusing this realm with political ideas about nation and exclusivity. Fear is often at the heart of these thoughts: how do we react to the so-called foreigner who might enter into one’s country and backyard and begin to change everything? And what of their different culture, how is one to incorporate these dissimilar aspects into one’s own culture, and will they accept our culture? It is not an easy subject to talk about as it is very existential, and often conscious and unconscious emotions are strongly connected to it. We are a long way off from finding a live solution for the migration of millions of homeless people all over the world. When it becomes though a political and exclusive issue like it did under Hitler the consequences are of course more than dreadful. I do not though wish in this article to direct my thoughts about the many misunderstandings of what is legitimately present in a true sentiment of ‘Heimat.’
Considering rather the physical surroundings into which we are born I’m sure you will agree that it plays an important role in creating a sense of meaning in our lives. It is not surprising that the place where we live is tied to our sense of who we are. Think for a short moment of all the different counties and places that comprise the British Isles and then think of the host of unique characteristics, accents, ways of approaching issues, not forgetting the landscapes and topography which influence the people who live there. These forming principles which we find also in race and gender and in language, including our family habits and of course our DNA, all play their part in forming us. On one level we are a sum of our memories, our sense of identity is fashioned by them.
When we move away from the German concept of ‘Heimat’ and think instead of what we understand as home, we find our understanding of home usually incorporates many special aspects and features too. Our original home was probably where we experienced our first room; many experiences in our childhood home formed us into the person we are today. If we stand outside a house it is in material terms just four walls. A home, though, is something quite different; a home has to be lived in. Home is a place that feels familiar and feels good. It’s a place for most that is waiting for us at the end of the day and every day after that. It’s a happy place where we can live, laugh and learn. In the best circumstances it is somewhere where we are loved and respected, a centering place. Don’t we say “there is no place like home.” Robert Frost the poet once wrote: Home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Coming home after a holiday or time abroad is often turned into a family celebration. The one who has been away is affirmed once more and his or her place in the family is renewed and reinstated. These family rituals have over centuries reflected the importance of the home as the place where family and friendships are maintained. We speak in the Christian Community of marriage as being an ongoing ‘community of life’ of which a home can be an expression.
Unfortunately, in our time many of these confirming and positive characteristics we have described and call home have disappeared. For many folk worldwide they have never been present in any form. Homelessness is by far the most devastating collective malady of our time. Many millions of people, including millions of children have never known the blessing of a home and probably never will. Homelessness is so widespread and so deeply experienced that as a modern person it is almost too painful to have any rational conversation about it. The tendency in conversation is to blame governments and the establishment for the discrimination; homelessness is though a very complex situation. It is not only a collective experience; individual people are suffering constantly under the grotesque shadow of being overlooked in the social life.
We need to take the concept of Heimat a step further. Maybe one can call it ‘the second Heimat.’ We sense today that we are not only the product of a family but that we are each our own person. We have a mind of our own, we sense a longing for freedom, we can stand up on our own two feet and leave home and move into the world if we so wish. We create, by exercising our individual freedom, a second Heimat, a place inwardly where we become more or less the master of our destiny. In normal circumstances we can make life-decisions – some good, some not so good. We plan our lives, choose our friends and our jobs and partners. We can feel how the first Heimat sinks far into the background and becomes often only a memory about which we occasionally reminisce. Sometimes people become unstuck on this separate journey and experience that the loss of their original ‘Heimat’ is overwhelming and they are filled with paralysing loneliness. “If only I could go home, all shall then be well,” they might cry, “back to the place of my childhood and all that gave me security in the past.”
In a way most of us have, though, become homeless. When asked, where are you from, many will want to respond: “well, actually from everywhere and nowhere.” We have become in the meantime citizens of the world and not of a specific place, even if we live in one. Home sweet home is no longer quite as definable as it was in the past. Being homeless and living with a sense of disconnect is part of what we may call the second phase of ‘Heimat.’ It is of course not all about negative emotions, it offers the individual many extraordinary possibilities. A true part of our becoming conscious of our essential being is to find the strength to inwardly bear what we might feel as being cast adrift, a sort of cut-off feeling. This is the first stage of a modern consciousness-soul experience, an inner homelessness, which I suggest is an existential necessity. Only through mastering this cut-off feeling can we move on to the next step of forming free communities with other such freed up individuals. Nobody wants to bear this sense of alone-ness: we can grow, through transforming it, into a new sense of selfhood.
We must though reel back a step or two and add that we are all capable of making any place or situation our home. There is a tendency when commenting on somebody who has made a place or situation their own that they will say: “Oh, he or she has adapted well to their new environment.” I wish to argue that we as human beings should never adapt to anything or any place. Animals need by instinct to adapt and they do that well; we as humans need to feel that at any given moment or circumstance we are able to change plans and move on. With this we enter into the third kind of ‘Heimat’: our spiritual home. This is usually a place and environment where we choose to be. I discover on my destiny path – often through much searching – a spiritual home, a place of renewal. We can feel that at last we have come home, found our spiritual reservoir. Should we have found our way to the Christ who is the Lord of destiny, we discover and realise, as a disciple, that becoming a follower is not a staid, comfort-zone position. As disciples and maybe later also as an apostle we are challenged. ‘Are we prepared to move out of our comfort zones to serve loftier ideals and needs?’ Christ in one of his parables reminds us that the birds have their nests and the foxes have their holes, the Son of Man though has no place to rest his head. Inasmuch as we identify with Him as the Son of Man we too on one profound level have no real place to lay our heads. In John 16 Christ prays to the father for the disciples and says: “they (the disciples) are not of this world even as I am not of it. In another translation we hear: “they do not belong to this world just as I do not belong to this world.” To a group of Pharisees though he makes another kind of statement. He says to them: “you are from below, I am from above, I am not of this world. This is why I told you that you would die in your sins.”
Discipleship is the acceptance of a very special kind of homelessness, not enforced upon us through outer circumstances but a resolve we make in freedom. I offer my destiny to serve, to the best of my ability, the aims and ideals of the Spiritual worlds. In freedom I learn to bear the sufferings of my fellowman. I work for the betterment of all groups of people with empathy, that they too in time can find their spiritual home, their true ‘Heimat.’
Clearly there is much work to be done in the world we encounter today; immense problems and huge differences need to be solved and resolved. We need to seek a common guiding idea that draws on cultural roots, common history and common traditions but more than anything on our common humanity. Christ is the measure, the progenitor and living example of our ultimate true humanity. “For even the Son of Man,” Christ speaks, “did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life to save many people, be a redemption, to set many others free.” The stamp of the true homeless individual has these words of the Christ inscribed into him.
In conclusion it seems to me that all three realms of what we call home or ‘Heimat’ require our intense interest and response. All three realms are under vigorous attack, often through baleful misunderstanding but also unbridled egotism and greed.
We have, every day, the possibility through the aid and presence of the Christ to help save, redeem and liberate the world and humanity. We may become conscious of our humanity, be aware of our humanity and may grasp our humanity. In this threefold way we can see the ligh- filled road ahead rising up before us.
As a last thought – in a book by Novalis, Heinrich his main character is asked: “where are you going, where are you heading for?” He replies with great inner equanimity: “Always on the way home.”
Peter Arend van Breda