Are we nomads by nature, or do we naturally seek homes wherever we go? Foxes have burrows and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. (Matthew 8:20).
Even in our wanderlust, I think, we look for homes to anchor ourselves to; even when we run away from home, we seek him.
The evening started well. I was 18, drinking sangria on the streets of Barcelona. I had met some American friends back home who were four or five years older. In the time measured in adolescence, this was significant. They had seen and done things that I had only watched on TV. They were the guardians of my adulthood. I’ll follow them and hope they let me in.
The Gothic Quarter of Barcelona (Piece Gothic) is a labyrinthine maze of streets. For an American, especially if he’s drunk, every turn starts to look the same. My older friends were dancing next to me at a nightclub, but then they disappeared. They were dancing with girls; then they were gone.
Then the night began to turn. Where were my friends? What was the name of my hostel? The bottom fell out of my alcoholic euphoria. I started to sink. I walked the streets looking for them. I was turned away from hotels by receptionists who told me it was too late to get a room. In a sea of revelers, in the early hours before dawn, I walked the streets with no destination. No place to go. Was this how the homeless felt the first time they hit the streets, before familiarity and routine took over? Were they as lonely and panicked as I am now?
Foxes have burrows and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head..
At dawn, I boarded a half-empty train for a destination three and a half hours away. I watched the sunrise over the Mediterranean from my window as the glass swayed slightly with the curves and clatter of the rails. I prayed, without knowing how or that I was doing it, that the family who had hosted me there a few years ago would answer the phone when I arrived. By the mercy of God, they did. After a restless and frantic night of searching, I found a place to lay my head.
It was strange, in the middle of a hot Spanish summer day, with cooking smells in the kitchen below, to bury my head in the pillow. I learned that sleep and a place to lay my head are not the same thing.
Our struggles have a way of confronting us again, no matter how diligently we seek to avoid them; and no matter how much of it we claim to be from. Eight or nine years later, as a graduate student, I returned to Spain, again alone. This time it was Madrid, for a memory search at the national library (National Library). It was a cavernous, museum-like, semi-militarized space. You had to check your bags and open the pages of your notebooks, lest you try to smuggle out rare manuscript pages. When you looked at the manuscripts, you had to wear gloves. In the basement was a cafeteria where scholars – and those who claimed to be or sought to be scholars – could have coffee or lunch, eat and drink in semi-muffled voices. The library was a sort of secular sanctuary, where the dead lived and continued to speak through the vellum.
Even the kings of the absolutist era, whose looping calligraphy I have seen in manuscripts, had aspirations, mundane or otherwise. They sought to instruct their retainers in the basics of traditional court ritual; and they sought fellowship between the living and the dead. Philip IV believed that a Spanish mystic communicated with his young son in purgatory. One, Maria Jesus de Agreda, told Philip she had bilocated – physically staying in Spain but speaking to Indians in New Mexico and Arizona who sought salvation and protection from the ruthless Apaches. .
The church near my hostel was almost the size of a cathedral. It was as if to challenge the light secularism of passers-by. Worshipers at weekday morning mass were usually those who couldn’t just walk past the domed challenge monument anyway – the elderly. Like motorists on a highway, they wanted a rest area. To enter the church, one had to pass a beggar and cross a threshold while opening a heavy wooden door that creaked loudly no matter how it was pushed.
The priest spoke behind tinted glasses, almost as if to hide his own face, giving the impression that his words came from elsewhere. His voice echoed in the ceilings and in the back, accentuating the emptiness of the benches. I knelt on my pew, learning to pray, still hearing the crackle of Vespas and the horns of cars on the street. On the outside, I was nobody – a young academic with impostor syndrome trying to look determined and busy. The streets of Madrid, I knew, could swallow me up just as easily as they had in Barcelona. Inside the church, I was closer to home.
As I knelt in prayer, another door opened and closed: the confessional. A woman behind me pointed to the confessional wondering if I was waiting. It was as if she knew. But I did not enter it. That would come later, the day before my confirmation. Looking back, I now realize that there is a time, a place, and a plan—God’s plan—for everything.
I sat there wondering how to be reverent and godly. A revelation came to me in the form of a fleeting comment from my father: “When I pray, I feel like God is looking over my shoulder, as if touching my back. He did not understand, because he had never felt, the feeling that God was not there. The gift of faith and its antipode, doubt.
As I prayed in the church, I wished to be somewhere else. Two places at once. To be with my future wife in the United States, on the other side of the Atlantic, not here and now; and to know eternal rest in the embrace of God. Eight or nine years later, I was still looking for a place to lay my head. But in the church, I felt closer than before. The light of our Lord fell on me. I could feel it on my skin and in my heart and lungs scraping my ribcage to meet the light.
“Blessed is the man who takes refuge in you,
in their hearts are paths of pilgrimage. (Psalm 84:6)
Wasp of birth and upbringing, I couldn’t help but see the Los Angeles Cathedral, with its postmodern exterior, in a certain way. He represented the excesses of Catholicism. A more austere church would have meant more mouths fed or children sent to school. An architecture of fear was by its very nature and an architecture of excess. The fact that it looked like an abstract futuristic-Guggenheim play was even more a testament to the fact that the church had gone astray. In the early 2000s, I heard whispers that the Archdiocese had bankrupted itself by paying sex abuse claims and that the interior of the cathedral was barren for lack of funds. This is how I had thought of the Catholic Church in my youth – an empty shell of its former self; a glory which, contrary to Scripture, was coming to an end. An ostentatious exterior and a vacant lot within was an apt visual metaphor. Or so I thought.
As if by instinct or by intuition, I didn’t even go to the cathedral in Los Angeles when I became a Catholic. That is, until our suburban priest was transferred there and we promised to visit him. When I got on the escalator from the parking lot, I expected something garish or sordid.
Even though the cathedral wasn’t the same kind of landmark I had passed through in Europe on my journey to faith (no dome, no gothic spiral towers), it felt the same way inside. interior. The floors had the luster of finely polished stone – alabaster or marble perhaps. The muffled voices echoed up to the ceiling. All cathedrals, I realized, have a smell, a sound and a feeling that bind them together; it is a harmony of design that unites believers wherever they go. When I knelt in the pews of Los Angeles, I saw myself and others kneeling in the pews of Madrid and in the church where I was married in north central Illinois at one o’clock from the border with Iowa, and in all the cathedrals in Europe in which I had ever set foot, even briefly. It was the feeling of a home that followed you wherever you went and stayed with you if you stayed put. You could move, but you couldn’t.
Looking at the crucifix, the Virgin Mother above on a tapestry, and the cross-shaped window frame above both, created the sensory experience against which all atheists and agnostics – I now understand – desperately struggling. It was the architecture of fear that poured light into your heart. They tried to fight the wonderment by explaining it as cheap stuff – the optical illusion and pageantry designed to flip your wallet and make you feel better. These were the thoughts they told each other so as not to be overwhelmed. To not get carried away. Do not take. They denied their senses and denied the space within them where reason and faith converge and find a common home. Lord, help me not to stray from the path of pilgrimage that unfolds in my heart.
In the ceiling above the altar, below the cedar beams themselves, is a laminated plaque, with a verse from Psalm 84: “As the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest to settle her young , my house is near your altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God!