I was looking at this bucolic setting for the South Dakota state capitol building this morning and wondering if I might enjoy living somewhere even more remote and rural than my present situation. Provided I could earn a living there, I believe the answer is yes.
My thoughts this morning brought to mind Walker Percy's essay "Why I Live Where I Live," in which Percy describes his reason for choosing to live in Covington, Louisiana: "The reason is not that it is a pleasant place, but rather that it is a pleasant nonplace." As I take Percy's meaning, a "nonplace" is a place that is conducive to writing without encumbering the writer with such a sense of place that his writing is bound or altered by it.
All of us are affected by the places where we live and work, probably to a much larger degree than we realize. Michigan could not have produced a Walker Percy any more than Connecticut could have produced a Willa Cather, or New York produce a Flannery O'Connor, or Massachusetts a John Steinbeck.
Writers sometimes have to be exiled from the place they call home in order to reflect most profoundly on its influences. Take Willa Cather moving to New York City at age 33 and living there the rest of her life, writing what critics of the time considered to be anachronistically agrarian novels. You can take writers out of the places they call home; but, often, it only serves to reinforce the sense of home that lives forever inside them.
I write these words looking out a window on Upper Nashotah Lake, in Wisconsin, on a sunny but blustery day in March. Yes, I think, South Dakota would be fine—at least in the summertime. A writer needs a place, or a nonplace, to call home.
Unlike two of my favorite American authors, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor, I am not a southern Roman Catholic, I am a northern Episcopalian. Or, to be more accurate, I am a southern Episcopalian living in the North. And given that I find even the North's long winters preferable to the South's heat and humidity, here, God willing, I shall remain.
But I do miss the South. In particular, I miss the churches in the South. But having gone back there in recent years, I am reminded that even they are not what they were. The old saying is true: "There is no going home." There is only going back in your mind to the place you remember as home and being nourished by what it gave you.
When my wife and I first attended Calvary Church, Memphis, in 1977, it had a presence of the holy unlike any church building I had ever experienced. An older, British professor, under whom I did my doctorate, went with me once to a noontime Lenten preaching series and was struck by it too. "This is a church that has been prayed in," he said.
Years after I had moved to Pennsylvania, the newsletter of the parish chronicled changes of a startling sort. A new Reconstruction had invaded my old, Southern parish with a vengeance.
I have been back to Calvary a couple of times in recent years. The old saints I remember were buried years ago. The younger saints I knew have dispersed to other churches. New people, new clergy, new lighting—no warmth, no life, no Spirit. Sadly, the church had outlived the feeling of being a place that had been "prayed in."
So what do we do, those of us who are Christians and who have a profound sense of "home" and a longing for it in our hearts?
1. We labor on, knowing that none of the places we call home in this lifetime is our true home. "For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (2 Corinthians 5:1). For the Christian, we know that our true home is in heaven, and that all the places that seem like home in this lifetime are both a foreshadowing and a longing for an ideal, heavenly home that God has placed in our hearts.
2. While we are here, we have to create sacred spaces for ourselves and others. We have to create spiritual "homes," places that have been "prayed in"—where we and all who will join us can experience God in a deep and life-changing way. These are places of Word, Sacrament, prayer, music, liturgy, fellowship, and healing. They must be places of profound welcome and life-changing challenge—places of joy and excitement, and places of rich wholeness and deep peace.
3. In short, until we come to our heavenly home, we must be about the business of bringing our heavenly home to earth—both for ourselves and those who are only just awaking to the stirrings of a homeward call in their lives and are uncertain how to get there.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:8-16)