What do you do when a place is incredibly beautiful to you, and deeply meaningful, but in order to grow as a person, you must leave and settle elsewhere?
That question is one I think about a lot, especially as I have been working on settling into our current home. I have lived in a lot of places with significant meaning. My home town and county, with its rich history, river-carved landscape and Midwest/Southern influence. An Estonian city known for its deep intellectual life and long history. The oldest city in North America, and the easternmost point of the continent. A desert city surrounded by mountains. And two college towns, both near home and both extremely influential in how I live my life.
Recently, I watched a beautiful short film called Journey to Pascha, which was created by a catechumen/photojournalism student who attends my former parish in Kentucky. Although I am a proud Hoosier, I will not deny that I also love the state right across the river. I spent many summers and car trips through the state, visiting family, seeing different historic sites, and eventually attending graduate school there for two years.
I came to Kentucky less than two months after returning home from a semester in Estonia. The transition was initially difficult, but the more I dove into the life of the place, the more I loved it. When I began attending the Orthodox mission near my university, it only solidified the love. In my last semester of graduate school, I found myself surrounded by a group of people who had either made a lifelong effort to be a part of the faith (sometimes driving up to 2 hours each Sunday for Divine Liturgy), or who had found it, and wanted to spend their life in the Church. Even after graduating, and moving back home until I moved to Canada, I spent my weekends in Kentucky with people from the parish. It was, simply put, where I felt most at home.
I wanted to return as soon as possible, and when I had the opportunity to return to Kentucky for work, I did. However, as I was transitioning back to life in the US, my new spiritual father, Fr. Michael Nasser, gave me very short, but very important advice:
“Do not make an idol of this place.”
It was not even nine months later that I found out that my job would not be renewed for a second year. It was not a decision that I could control, and one that I was deeply disappointed by. I had tried extremely hard to settle in a place that I loved, and would have to either find alternate work in the city, or leave again. I did nearly everything I could to stay, even applying for things that really didn’t fit with my skills or experience, just to be able to remain. However, it was to no avail, and with few other options related to my field, I began to look elsewhere, eventually finding an opportunity in Tucson.
Ultimately, it was the right decision. In Tucson, I had the support I needed to finish my doctorate, and the strength to eventually find work that could properly support my family. Meanwhile, in Kentucky, I saw the university I studied, and worked for, gradually strip away the office in which I worked, leaving it in such a state that it did not even resemble itself. Even now, people are continuing to get laid off, or their positions are being eliminated after they retire. It is very likely that even if I had remained working there, I would not have a job.
However, the feelings of missing the place still exist. They come and go in waves, and the feelings are simply that. They can exist, but they ultimately cannot take care of a family.
However, in losing a place (even temporarily), there can be much to gain. One of the most striking stories about loss of place comes from the life story of St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalyvia. St. Porphyrios ran away from home at the age of 14 or 15 to escape to the Holy Mountain, eventually becoming tonsured as a monk with the name Nikitas. However, his stay was relatively short-lived:
While he was on Mount Athos he suffered a bout of pleurisy at about the age of eighteen and his elders sent him to a monastery outside Athos for treatment. At this monastery on Euboea he met the Archbishop of Sinai, Porphyrios, who, after observing that the young monk had been visited by God’s Grace, ordained him as a priest at the age of twenty. A little later the local metropolitan bishop made him a spiritual confessor and so the gift of clairvoyance with which God had endowed Porphyrios was placed at the service of the faithful. With this gift the young hieromonk and spiritual confessor Porphyrios helped people to escape from various snares of the Devil, to understand what was going on in their souls, to reject the deceitful claims of witches who drained them of all their money under the pretext that they could break the spells that afflicted them, to discern and heal their bodily ailments and their causes, and generally to see and understand things that would help them in their lives.
Eventually, not long before his repose in 1991, then-Elder Porphyrios returned to the Holy Mountain, settling in the same cell that he had to leave some seven decades before. He returned when the time was right, and the impact that he made as a result of leaving is not without notice.
While a person grows from leaving a place, it can be a great challenge. One of the best literary examples I can think of is that of Alexei/Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha, a novice monk, is sent by his elder, Elder Zosima, to leave the monastery, which causes Alyosha great sorrow and inner conflict:
“Let me stay here,” Alyosha entreated.
“You are more needed there. There is no peace there. You will wait, and be of service. If evil spirits rise up, repeat a prayer. And remember, my son”—the elder liked to call him that—“this is not the place for you in the future. When it is God’s will to call me, leave the monastery. Go away for good.”
“What is it? This is not your place for the time. I bless you for great service in the world. Yours will be a long pilgrimage. And you will have to take a wife, too. You will have to bear all before you come back. There will be much to do. But I don’t doubt of you, and so I send you forth. Christ is with you. Do not abandon Him and He will not abandon you. You will see great sorrow, and in that sorrow you will be happy. This is my last message to you: in sorrow seek happiness. Work, work unceasingly. Remember my words, for although I shall talk with you again, not only my days but my hours are numbered.”
Father Zossima raised his hand to bless him. Alyosha could make no protest, though he had a great longing to remain. ”
I have written before about how we shift between worlds of vulnerability and worlds of familiarity in our lives. Worlds of vulnerability bring new experiences, new wisdom and new outlooks, but those come through struggle. Worlds of familiarity exist for the same purpose, but they are often a place of re-centering, rather than de-centering.
Sometimes the same place is, for better or worse, a bit of both. As Alyosha returns to the monastery upon the repose of Elder Zosima, a series of events occurs that unravels all that he previously thought to be true. He struggles, because the world he loved is not, in fact, the world he saw before his eyes. The romance and the naive longing for a place wears off, like we often see in travel literature about places like Paris, which are quite beautiful in some places but dreary in others.
The challenge of struggling where we are, rather than thinking of someplace where we might struggle less, is a great one. But, as St. Porphyrios demonstrates, leaving that place of familiarity, even in a process of sorrow, brings us closer to home, and brings us towards our ultimate goal.