England, Loneliness, Goodbyes, and Home

By Monday, December 16, 2019 , , ,

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bath or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” – C.S. Lewis

I mentioned recently that I’ve struggled with writing this year. It’s one of the many symptoms of a season of internal struggles. I think this Lewis quote eloquently expresses tensions I’ve been learning to live with. There is much that has been good, but God has reminded me again and again that I’m not home yet. I don’t know if “chronic loneliness” is an official condition, but if it is, I think I had it this year. For weeks at a time at different points, I felt completely oppressed by loneliness. My community is wonderful and loving, and I do not take that support lightly. I imagine I’d be in a much worse place now without it. Yet, on some days, my sadness seemed to physically weigh me down.

I think that unmet desires for marriage and many partings from dear friends have been two obvious triggers for this lingering loneliness. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Prov. 13:12) has described the state of my heart well at various times this year. I have hoped for marriage for as long as I can remember, and feeling unseen when you hope to be seen as someone worth pursuing unto marriage is heart-sickening indeed. Similarly, repeated goodbyes to people I love are painful. I’ve said goodbye often since moving to a fairly transient city, but it has been more constant this year, and it doesn’t get easier.

These things feel wrong. An unmet longing and a painful parting are unnatural at their core. God made us for eternity and perfection. Consequently, we are wired for pure, lasting communion with him and our fellow man. But that was all broken back at Eden, so we feel the unnaturalness of separation and of living with a deep desire that isn’t met.

In the wrestling, the Lord has been gracious to keep me and drive me to his Word. I think I have some sense of what David meant when he wrote, “Lord, all my desire is before you; and my sighing is not hidden from you,” and of what Asaph meant when he prayed, “I am so troubled that I cannot speak.” It’s passages like these that have helped me remember that it’s acceptable and even right to grieve and cry out to the Lord with honesty about loneliness and pain. Pastor Mark Vroegop acknowledges the very tensions I’ve wrestled with when he says, “Lament is how you live between the poles of a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty.” Those poles seem like opposites at first blush, but I’ve been learning to live with apparently conflicting emotions. They are one reminder of the tension all Christians live in of present pain while also hoping in a joy to come. Yes, cry out to God about how crushing the loneliness feels. But also recognize the gifts that he has put in front of you and rejoice in them as foretastes of your true home. Yes, grieve that difficult parting. But also let the pain of it remind you that one day, friends will all be together again.

There were many contrasting feelings of that sort when I boarded a plane bound for England back in October. I deeply love that country, so had no real worry about whether I would enjoy it at a basic level, but I was apprehensive of the solitude the trip would entail. Would I become too caught up in my own head? Would I face oppressively lonely nights that would detract from enjoyment? And, overall, going alone just didn’t feel ideal during the planning process. But my friend Rebekah advised me to see even that as a gift of sorts. She told me to be aware of the moments that would stir up the painfully familiar feelings of loneliness. “There probably will be times there where you’ll wish you weren’t alone,” she had told me. “And it’s okay to acknowledge that, but do also acknowledge the gift of just being there. Whatever beauty in front of you that you wish you could share with someone has also been prepared for you right then, and it’s a gift from the Lord to enjoy it for what it is.”

I was very aware of this when I strolled down Addison’s Walk, a little trail on the grounds of Magdalen College at Oxford University. It was a favorite walk of C.S. Lewis’s, and it was also where he and two friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, had a conversation that was instrumental in Lewis’s journey to knowing Christ. As the three walked there late one night, Tolkien told Lewis that maybe the myths and fairytales he loved were trying to point him to something deeper, that maybe Christianity was “the true myth” Lewis had been looking for all his life.

I understood why Addison’s Walk was a favorite of Lewis’s. It’s rather nondescript, but it’s suited to quiet ramblings, with woods on one side and a wide, green meadow on the other. It offers some retreat from the towering architecture and buzzing academia of Oxford’s city center. As I looked out on the pretty meadow and wondered what exactly was said in that fateful conversation between Lewis and his comrades all those years ago, the familiar heartsickness reared its head a bit. I wanted to share this moment. I wanted to revel in the beauty of the scenery and wonder about that historical moment with someone. 

And yet, I also felt glad and overwhelmingly thankful as I stood there on Addison’s Walk. I was reminded of how God had been refining me and making me more like himself, even through pain, and of how that work was no less significant than the work done in C.S. Lewis’s life on that same little pathway so many years ago. And when I remember that afternoon, I’m struck deeply by the reality that I’m not home yet. I see it now as a sort of microcosm of one of those “pleasant inns” Lewis wrote about. It was a glorious afternoon in a beautiful place with meaningful history, and I was reveling in it. But I was also aware of lack and of what felt incomplete. 

I’m learning to live in that tension of the now and not yet. I’m learning to appreciate it because of how it directs my gaze onward and reminds me that it’s good to feel homesick here. Loneliness, partings, unmet desires, and pain are supposed to help us remember that this life is only a “pleasant inn,” not home. This life is but a temporary resting place on the way to our permanent home, and despite the sadness I’ve wrestled with this year, I can say with certainty that I long for and anticipate that permanent home much more now than I did at the start of this year. With each tearful farewell to friends, I have thought more readily of a day when we won’t have to do this anymore (oh, Lord, haste the day!). When loneliness rears its head, I’m now more quickly reminded that there will come a day that I won’t ever be lonely again. I’m more ready now than I was. Goodbyes and loneliness are hard. But this year, they have whetted my appetite for the place where every longing will be met, where goodbyes will be no more, and where all that is wrong will be made right. I anticipate the day when I’ll be able to say with joy, as Lewis imagined the remade Narnia in the last Narnia Chronicle, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.” May it be soon, Lord.

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