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.”
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.
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: https://sccus.org.
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!