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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Sunflower Seeds

Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Are We Humans Programed for “Home”?

Years ago, when I was a young nun, I came into the side entrance of our provincial house one day and saw an elderly Sister sitting on the bench by the door. Sister Ferdinand (not her real name) had dementia at a time when we knew very little about the illness. I greeted her cheerfully and asked if she was waiting for someone. “Yes,” she said with enthusiasm. “I am waiting for someone to take me home—to see my mother.” Sister was in her late 80’s and her mother had been dead for many years. I eventually coaxed her to come with me, and I escorted her back to our “infirmary” where several nurses were frantically looking for her.

Recently I was reading Jennifer Ackerman’s book, Notes from the Shore, published in 1995. In it, she blends solid science with lyrical writing to give a vivid portrait of life at the edge of the sea—particularly the Delaware Shore at Cape Henlopen where she lived for three years. I thought of Sister Ferdinand as I read the section on the migration of birds—especially the ospreys who raise their young in that area. Ackerman makes clear that young ospreys are “programed” to migrate between two places on earth: the place where they were born (I’ll call it “home”) and the place where they “vacation” during the northern winter months—usually Venezuela or Peru, some 3,000 miles away. Says Ackerman, “Young birds travel both ways alone. The migration route they follow is not learned, but acquired in the egg, carried in them by the accident of ancestry.”

A fine looking osprey on its nest.

Ackerman continues, “I know the gift of being able to find home is not allotted merely to the birds.” Other animals have the natal homing instinct or natal philopatry instinct. Think moose, sea turtle, and (of course) salmon. Even some dogs and cats have returned “home” after being “lost” many miles away—even after several years. This “strong attachment to birthplace (or home) makes biological sense.” In a familiar landscape, animals have it easier to find nesting sites, food, and to avoid predators. Biologist Ernst Mayr once said that “birds have wings not so much for the purpose of getting away to a place but for the purpose of getting home.”

Do we humans have any of this natal homing/natal philopatry instinct? Ackerman says that studies of human preferences for landscapes world wide have shown that we tend “to favor savannalike land—flat, grass-covered land studded with trees, where we had our origins and earliest home.” But somewhere in time, we humans began gravitating toward the sea. Even today, property along a lake or the ocean shore is often the most coveted real estate on the planet. She wonders too “if the residues of old ancestral landscapes don’t ride up in our minds by the same deep grooves that make the scent of hay or sunlit ferns call up an episode from childhood.”

Which brings me back to Sister Ferdinand. This elderly and mentally confused nun was longing to return to her “ancestral home,” a place associated with images of her mother, now long dead. But I was thinking, maybe she was acting out of a long buried instinct, an instinct too deep for even dementia to erase. During my mother’s final month, after a year in a full-care facility, she too said more than once, “Maybe it’s time for me to go home.” At first I thought she meant back to her mobile home, her most recent home. I reminded her, “But, Mom, you know we’re getting ready to sell your mobile home.” And she said, “I don’t mean that home…” And her voice trailed off. Maybe my mother, like Sister Ferdinand, was speaking out of some deeply buried instinct engendered in all of us by God whose powerful and relentless loving is drawing us all to our eternal home.

Prayer: I thank you, loving God, for all the places I have been privileged to call “home” during my earthly journey. Please help me to keep alive my deep and endless longing for my final home which is you, my Ever-Beckoning Holy One. Amen.

For reflection:

Have you ever had an experience (such as a place, an aroma, a song) that conjured up images from your childhood? If so, would you be willing to share one of your experience(s) with us?

Have you ever been with someone who was close to death who spoke of going home?

Are you naturally attracted to bodies of water such as a lake, a river, the ocean? Do you know why you are attracted to water?

PS: From July 6 – 13, I will be leading a 6-day preached retreat entitled “A Celebration of Hope” at Villa Pauline Retreat and Spiritual Center, 352 Bernardsville Rd., Mendham, New Jersey 07945. I’d love to meet some of you in person there! Check out their website for details:

Today’s video is the song “Going Home” based on the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony no. 9—the Largo movement. The words were written by William Arms Fisher, one of Dvorak’s students. The piece is performed here by Libera, an all-boy vocal group drawn from students in South London. I dedicate this song today for all who are nearing death and for those who are keeping vigil with them.

I invite you to respond below to anything in today’s post: the words, the reflective questions, the video. We all love hearing from you!

22 Responses

  1. Good morning, Sr. Melannie…

    Thank you for this poignant meditation of memory, longing, and home — “going home.” I love hiking the mountains, but I think I like walking the sea shore even more. There I hear the waves — the voice of God, the breath of God, the mantra of the world. But even when I hike the hills, I’ll hear the wind move amid the tops of the pines and think of waves.

    I was born in Milton, Massachusetts, but moved from there when I was thirteen. Since then, I’ve lived my life in other places, worked in other places, raised my family in other places. But for the past five years, I’ve been back in Milton, this time teaching. The other day, at the end of the school day, I got in my car and instead of taking the usual route to travel to the town where I now live, I took a circuitous one so I could see my “home.” I needed to see it again.

    1. Dear John, Once again, thank you for your words. I share your love for both the woods and the ocean. As a child, of course, I was much more familiar with the beauty of the woods since they surrounded our property. I liked that you were moved to take “a circuitous” route home rather than the usual one. I like to alter my trips home regularly, taking some of the backroads I seldom use rather than the familiar ones. I believe it’s good for the mind and the soul. Thanks for writing, John. Melannie

  2. Oh Melannie, that last line…”God whose powerful and relentless loving is drawing us all to our eternal home.” Wow! That is a truly inspired line. Thank you!

    1. Dear Rose, Thank you for pointing out a single sentence that “inspired” you. I’m always amazed what stands out for other people. It constantly reveals the power of the Holy Spirit to use simple words to touch peoples’ hearts… Melannie

  3. Blessing to all on this beautiful morning, and thank you Sister Melannie,
    As a fan of Call the Midwife, I am reminded of an episode from last season, when Sister Monica Joan, suffering from a near fatal illness, kept repeatedly calling to go home.

    Personally, I have lived fifty years away from my birth state in various US locations and beyond, but I find in quiet walks that something may spark the memory of a little girl who lived in the lane. You see, long before dead-end streets were cul-de-sacs, I grew up in the house that my great grandfather built, on a simple lane named for our family, whose extended families lived in the other eight houses there. Growing up, I took for granted that behind every open kitchen door was a great aunt with a cool glass of water or a cousin to play with. While most of these cherished family members have gone now to their eternal home, they live on in the memory of the little girl from the lane. May they Rest In Peace. Thank you, Sister, for the memory. Prayers for your upcoming retreat.

    1. Dear Joanne, What a beautiful and vivid description of your childhood neighborhood! I liked especially: “behind every open kitchen door was a great aunt with a cool glass of water or a cousin to play with.” Lovely! Thank you for encouraging all of us to get in touch with that little girl or boy who still lives inside us! Melannie

  4. Sr melannie I hope that this is not too long but it’s the story of my husband going home. He was disabled for a long time and was now in a wheelchair. when he was in the act of dying he would look at the cross of the Living Jesus on our wall and stare at it. This one time he got a crying jag on and he couldn’t stop,so I climbed up on the kitchen table and held him, he said that his father had never told him that he loved him . I held him and I know that Jesus there in that room you could feel Him there. That night when I got him to bed he said say the prayer. I didn’t know what he meant as he was raised Jewish so I just said the prayer I knew Now I lay me down to sleep and he was at peace he asked if it was time yet and I told him soon. Maureen

    1. Dear Maureen, What a touching description of your husband’s final days. Your words really moved me…Thank you for sharing such a personal story with us. What a blessing your conversation with him was for both of you, I’m sure… Melannie

  5. Good morning, Melanie. Several years ago I made a retreat with you at Villa Maria Del Mar at our retreat center in Santa Cruz, California. Although I frequently tune in to your blog I haven’t for a while. So, this morning when I opened Sunflower Seeds, I was really drawn into your message. One of our Sisters is presently “going home” quite unexpectedly. As I Listened to the song, I united myself with Eleanor as she is going HOME. Thank you for all the ways you guide us as we continue on our journeys.

    1. Dear Carol, I remember that retreat very well. Wasn’t it right near Monterey Bay? I recall how, right before Mass one evening, we witnessed a whale in the bay breaching–an incredible sight to behold… I will certainly hold Eleanor in prayer–as I’m sure many of my readers will. Thank you for your words! Melannie

  6. Dear Sister Melanie,
    I just heard the beautiful song Going Home. I’ve kept vigil with several family members and dear friends on their death beds, this song is a reminder of the time spent holding hands, praying over them and asking God to bring them to a heavenly home. Each of my family members went through long, painful illnesses and died months apart and I was the primary caregiver for them. My father died in Oct. 2015, mother in Sept. 2016, brother in July 2017, brother in Jan. 2019 and husband in Aug. 2021. I pray that I will be worthy of a heavenly home. Since my parents’ deaths I have vivid dreams of my home where I grew up.

    1. Dear Becky, My sympathy to you on all the deaths you have experienced recently. I too have been privileged to be with several of my loved ones at the moment of death. As difficult as those experiences can be, they were a great blessing for me. I find myself not quite as afraid of death as I used to be… I hope you have someone to talk to about all your losses. Ill keep you in prayer. Melannie

  7. Hi Sister! Praying for your upcoming retreat.
    I am a retired Hospice Nurse and many, many of my patients talked about “going home”
    Sometimes they even saw their loved one or even the Blessed Mother, and Jesus.
    One of my dear friends saw the hands of God reaching for her.
    Gives one hope and assurance that we have a loving God who will call each of us home one day.

    1. Dear Fran, What a special ministry you had as a hospice nurse! Thank you for sharing these touching experiences with us. I loved especially the image of the hands of God reaching for us, our God “who will call each of us home one day.” Thank you for your words… Melannie

  8. My sister, Patty, was mentally and physically challenged. On several nights before she died she would be in bed carrying on a conversation with Mom and Dad who were deceased. My sister, Peg, and I and Patty’s caregivers agreed that Mom and Dad were comforting her. When she finally died we knew they welcomed her back home in peace. Sr. Renetta Graff

    1. Dear Renetta, I remember the loving care your family gave to Patty. It was an inspiration to me! Your description of her death is beautiful. I really believe that our loved ones “on the other side of death” will help us to come home. Thanks for sharing your words with us! Melannie

  9. Thank you Sister Melanie for the beautiful Song. It will be with me all day. Your post today is a comfort as I think and pray for a nurse who is going home soon.

    1. Dear Kathleen, I take comfort in a beautiful song or hymn as you do. I often play a song on Youtube as part of my morning prayer. Sometimes the words and melody stay with me all day. We will join with you in prayer for the nurse who is “going home soon.” … Melannie

  10. Good morning. Sister Melanie, your insights and blog bring comfort even when I don’t realize I need it. There are three things today’s blog hit home with. I was very close to my maternal grandmother, more so than my mother. A few years before she passed she would often tell me, “I’m ready to go” and I would ask her, “where do you want to go-the car is outside-let’s go”. She would look at me and say something sassy. (She was sassy in a good way and fun because of it.). I can be slow. It took me several months to realize what she meant. One of the last times she said it to me, I had a sassy reply that I won’t put here, but she loved it. In her last few weeks I told it was fine if she was ready to go, I would take care of her kids. She was 95 and her “kids” were in their 60s and 70s. I miss her so much. Another thing is my childhood home. I’ve lived within a 12 mile radius of that home all my life. I’m 62. I grew up across the street from a Jesuit college in the small town of Grand Coteau, LA. All my life there has been a sense of home in Grand Coteau. I had several spiritual experiences there and when I literally step onto the property, a sense of peace engulfs me and there is a stillness I feel. We recently sold the property and I have been unsettled. I’m working through that. The last thing is the sea. I love being on a shore looking out over the water. There is a sense of God in the wide open expanse of sea and sky and sand beneath my feet. His infinite Presence surrounds me. I’m sorry this was so long. Thank for your blog. I say prayers for you and your site daily.

  11. Dear Celeste, Thank you for your comments. I liked your description of your “dialogues” with your “sassy” grandmother… And I’ve been to the Jesuit place in Grand Coteau when I ministered with them in the 90s. It is an incredible place! Yes, I too felt engulfed in peace while I was there… And your words about encountering God on the shore hit home for me and (I’m sure) many other readers. Thanks again for taking the time to write! … Melannie

  12. Dear Sister Melannie….I have spent part of my Saturday afternoon catching up on your blog, which I am behind on, as usual! As a person for whom music plays a big part in my life, I am always intrigued by your choice of the music you choose to accompany your blogs. Always perfect and enhancing the message you are conveying. I was particularly struck by this one, Going Home, as sung by Libera. I was so enthralled by their rendition that I had to look them up. Imagine my surprise to discover that they are a group of five boy sopranos! I thought I was hearing a woman! I immediately added them to my YouTube subscriber list. Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into preparing your blogs and through your insightful words to draw closer to God. Prayers always for you and your sisters!

  13. Dear Sister Melanie,

    I’ve been wanting to write for awhile to tell you how much I look forward to your Monday blog. It is a wonderful way to start the week.

    I have been a fan of this choir for quite awhile. There is nothing sweeter or more pure than the voices of young boys and this piece is one of their best.

    Close to 9 years ago, I very unexpectedly lost my husband, the absolute love of my life. He was the kindest and best of men. At times, I still struggle with profound grief and loneliness but what gives me comfort is the knowledge that he has gone home and is now supremely happy. I chose this piece to be played at the cemetery when he was buried. At times I feel his presence and know he is close by.

    Again, thank you for your wonderful messages. You are a a treasure!

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Hi and welcome to my blog! I’m Sister Melannie, a Sister of Notre Dame residing in Chardon, Ohio, USA. I’ve been very lucky! I was raised in a loving family on a small farm in northeast Ohio. I also entered the SNDs right after high school. Over the years, my ministries have included high school and college teaching, novice director, congregational leadership, spiritual direction, retreat facilitating, and writing. I hope you enjoy “Sunflower Seeds” and will consider subscribing below. I’d love to have you in our “sunflower community.” Thank you!

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