“You, the great homesickness we could never shake off…”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours
After I’d left London, well-intentioned strangers tried to forge a connection in our common love for the city. I was skeptical. How could these people, who had spent mere days traveling through, love it as I did? I wanted to take hold of them by the shoulders, stare them straight in the eye, and ask, “But did you know the city? Did you see the way the city evolved and recreated itself daily? Did you know the life of the city at each hour of each day, in every season? Did you know the silence of the city when the shops closed down and the streets emptied out? Did you weep over the city? Did the heartbeat of the city sink deep into your own heart?”
But I bit my lip, and I smiled and nodded, “Yes, it is a wonderful city, a beautiful city, a city without compare.”
Even as a small child, I experienced what environmental psychologists call place attachment—the emotional bond between person and place. At the age of five, I left the wide-open fields and wild skies of Amish country and the sleepless streets of Manhattan, and an emptiness settled like a pit in my stomach. Then, my dreams were filled with the morning fog rolling up the golden hills of Gilroy, and the white sands, red roofs, and blooming bougainvillea, magnolia, and jacaranda trees in Santa Barbara.
In each of these places I craved belonging. I came carrying hope for deep, loyal, meaningful relationships, but by the end of each season, my hope had worn through. What I could not find in people, I found in place. I could let myself belong to a city; I could let myself fall in love with skyline and the ground beneath my feet and the light filtering through the trees. So I came to London, grieving relationships that had been precious to me but had grown tired and repetitive. I came to London because I was running—from disappointed hope, a gaping loneliness, a life spent on the margins.
Almost immediately I found what I had been searching for. There was a Kathryn-shaped hole waiting in London for me, and I slipped into it perfectly fitted. I found my place in this international borough where no one truly belonged. In the faces of my gypsy Romanian neighbors, the greengrocer from Bangladesh, the Indian man behind the cash register at the pound shop, the Cockney ladies who came in for tea and cake each Friday morning, the Muslim and Hindu girls dressed in saris and hijabs in the local school, I saw myself—a little immigrant orphan girl looking for a home and a family, with a hardened heart from saying so many goodbyes.
It was in this city that I came to know my Father and His love for me. It was in this city that God set me in a family and I understood myself as a daughter in God’s house. It was in this city that I learned to let my heart open and break. It was in this city that God made a way to reconcile with my earthly father. And wherever I looked, wherever I went, I felt myself enclosed in a sphere of joy that touched everything, that washed over everything with golden light. In the mornings I set my feet walking, and I returned home, day after day, filled, inspired, and amazed, my heart and hands brimming with little gifts and treasures given by my good Father who knew how to perfectly thrill and delight my heart.
On the airplane back to California, I cried the entire eleven hours home and almost daily for the next ten months. My homecoming was marked with grief; everywhere I turned I was greeted with grief. I was grieving the loss of a community that had become a true family to me; I was grieving the loss of the first place that had felt like home, knowing I would never live there again. I returned to a house of grief, my grandpa freshly buried. I returned to a church that had recently buried its fifth member that year, and within weeks of my return, A was hit by a car and taken to Heaven.
For months, the city haunted me. While London had offered treasure to me each morning, I woke in California with garish sunlight streaming through the windows and dread weighing on my heart. I saw all the days of my future stretched out before me in grey monotony, and an aching emptiness spread within me like a cancer, secret and silent but deadly. Germans call it sehnsucht, and the Portuguese call it saudade—that deep unspeakable yearning for an unnameable something, that something you can’t quite put your finger on but you know you have been missing all your life.
Amidst all this, I was hounded by senseless questions: “Do you miss it? Do you want to go back? What are you going to do now?” Oh, how do you answer questions like that, what do you do with the magnitude of all that is in your head and your heart, when the person asking wants a trite, concise, two-second answer?
So I learned silence. I learned to smile and nod and say, “Yes, it is a wonderful city. Of course I miss the city. Of course I want to go back, but God brought me home for a reason. I don’t know what God has for me here, but I know I’m not meant to go back.”
And all the words I longed to say but couldn’t say, all the stories, all the beauty and brightness died within me.
Now three years have passed, and I have returned to the city. There are miniscule changes—a new shop here or there, a new kettle, a new picture hanging on the wall. I am surprised and humbled that these people still recognize and remember me: the man at the pound shop, the cashier at the supermarket, and all the old regulars in my coffeeshop. I trace with my eye the familiar wallpaper patterns of my old room, I walk these old, familiar streets, and I hold this humming tension within me—a familiarity, yet a strangeness; a feeling of arrival, yet a foreignness.
I feel I am living a dream I have dreamed a thousand times before, like I have stepped through Alice’s looking glass and am seeing the room and its familiar objects all turned round. I am Lucy come face-to-face with Aslan on her return to Narnia: “It is hard for you, little one, but things never happen the same way twice.” Nothing feels wrong here, but the love I had for this city has lifted or changed; the golden light that sparked fire and inspiration eludes me; the feeling of home has left me.
This is what I think has happened. Last time, I arrived in London on the brink of the Olympic Games, when this city was saturated with prayer, when Christians from all nations and denominations put aside their differences to invite the Presence of God into this city. What I loved in this city was not the city itself, not the people, not the streets; not the culture or history or creativity of this place; it was not the feeling of home, not the family I found here, not even the work that God did in my heart here.
No, what I fell in love with here was the tangible Presence of God in this place. He was the golden sphere of joy that awakened me to the beauty and treasure hidden in this place. Returning to this city, the emptiness sharpens within me; what I loved in this city is no longer here. It is not that the Presence of God has left this place, but it was the hunger, the intentionality, and the unity of the church in that season that invited such a heightened measure of the Presence of God in this city.
There is a measure of sadness or grief in that realization, but there is a deeper revelation here. The unnameable something I had longed for all my days was simply the Presence of God, and that same Presence lives in the secret place of my heart. I know now that London was never my home. Heaven is my true homecoming. What I experienced the twenty months I lived here in London was simply Heaven come to earth. I found my home here because I found God here, because Heaven was here, all around me, and I had been homesick for Heaven all the days of my life. God in His goodness let me experience the tangible and undeniable reality of Heaven on earth to plant within me a holy restlessness, a holy dissatisfaction with the things of the earth.
So I have tasted and seen the glory of Heaven, and I could never settle for anything less. The task before me is simple: to live in a constant state of hunger for more of God, to raise my voice in prayer until I see the Presence of God totally and completely saturate this land, and to build and incarnate the Kingdom of Heaven here and every day.
These old words take on a fresh meaning: I am a stranger and a sojourner in this land, but I carry my home within me, I carry the Presence of God, all of Heaven, within me. I belong to no place, no person, because I belong only to God, I belong only to Heaven, which is here and now, always, everywhere, anywhere I go. My eyes have been opened, and I find my home, I find Heaven, right here, right now.