The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his." Hugh of St. Victor (Thanks to my good friend Jim Wood for this quote)
Several hours before the Super Bowl was to begin it was reported that the acclaimed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead by a friend. The apparent cause of death was a heroin overdose. The Academy Award winner was the father of three and only 46 years old. I always admired the breadth of his work, as did so many of his peers, given the out pouring of early tributes on social media. But he also brought profound depth to his craft. Tom Junod wrote ofin Esquire online:
He often played creeps, but he rarely played them creepily. His metier was human loneliness — the terrible uncinematic kind that has very little to do with high-noon heroism and everything to do with everyday empathy — and the necessary curse of human self-knowledge. He held up a mirror to those who could barely stand to look at themselves and invited us not only to take a peek but to see someone we recognized. He played frauds who knew they were frauds, schemers who knew they were schemers, closeted men who could only groan with frustrated love, heavy breathers dignified by impeccable manners, and angels who could withstand the worst that life could hand out because they seemed to know the worst was just the beginning. (Read more: Philip Seymour Hoffman's Final Secret - Esquire )
"His metier was human loneliness...the necessary curse of human self-knowledge." I think we often unconsciously avoid self-knowledge because of the the inevitable loneliness that accompanies such reflection. It is not accidental that precisely after Jesus hears God's confirmation of his identity at his baptism, He is led to a "lonely place" both literally and figuratively (Mark 1:9-13). The three great temptations Jesus faced during his quarantine as recorded both in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 (the misuse of the material/sensual world; living for status; and the improper use of power) all present themselves on one level as remedies to human isolation and need. Epicureans have their versions of the three as do contemporary Christian Pharisees, and every group in between-but the temptations are still at heart the same. In one form or the other each is a temptation to take a short cut from the hard work of life and the soul; each leads one away from truths about our selves; truth only found in the desert, alone.
There is a strange dichotomy to life. We are here and much of it is beautiful. There are all kinds of ways to connect and belong. We are members of families and factions; we cultivate friends, the arts, and the land; we pledge allegiances to countries and sports teams; we join associations, churches and clubs; we identify with political parties and causes. But in spite of all these connections, we can still be residents in a place that does not quite feel like home.
The idea of exile is a central one in Scripture. The "exile" of Israel from the land after the destruction of the first temple in 587 BCE is the great disaster out of which so much of Jewish faith and practice emerge and the Hebrew Scriptures are constituted. Exile later becomes a spiritual idea for Christians:
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth, or people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Hebrews 11:13-16
This idea of being both a resident and an exile at the same time has been something I have felt most of my life but over the last months this tension has become more of a space of grace and comfort. For the alone (ness) that poets and saints see, suffer and breathe, can be a departure point where we can begin to find our true home. Yes it can be a place of despair, but it also can be a place of illumination. Accompanied with grace , alone(ness) can lead to a loving detachment which gives us the freedom to enjoy this life and grieve its tragedies without being defined by either. The existential crisis necessitates something or someone transcendent in order for us to know and be known.
It is not wrong to belong to a place and love it; and it is good to evolve to the point where one becomes a world citizen and sees all of humanity as the children of God. But beatitude only comes when we realize this world is not our ultimate home. And with this "happiness" comes the freedom to love and serve the world and those in it as a pilgrim who deeply cares but whose roots are in another place.
I do not want to romanticize a gifted man's tragic death-the pain won; the same pain which Hoffman channeled so masterfully to entertain us. I am thankful for his art and hope peace has found him. Later that day I watched the Super Bowl along with 100 million others who were hoping to be entertained. I was not really rooting for either team and it was hard to maintain sustained interest. I was present to the game, but my allegiance was transitory. Even when my team* is playing in the "big game," the joy is fleeting when they win and the sting of loss tends to lasts just a little longer than the joy. There is an analogy here somewhere.
I am not saying life is a game, but it might be a quest that is most true when it is in motion.
*The Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowls IX, X, XIII, XIV, XL; XLIII. Only team with six wins. Yes I am rubbing it in.