“Nostalgia: Going Home In A Homeless World” by Anthony Esolen
If there’s a topic that doesn’t get a lot of air time in confessional circles, it’s the significance of space and place. Spaces do mean, that is, ‘places’ in their relationship to people, and times carry and convey meaning. In his book Nostalgia, Anthony Esolen wants to emphasize that places necessarily bear theological meaning, particularly correlating our earthly home with our heaven-on-Earth home to come. In other words, there is something about this world—our home and the homes therein—that lead and prepare us for our eternal home with God. In this discussion, he plumbs the spiritual depths of spatiotemporal existence and a panoply of related matters.
Nostalgia is a remarkable reflection on the place of home, where home—both the notion and the place—are where human cultures flourish through shared memories, rituals and routines and are profoundly evocative of and ever-straining toward our eternal home. “Marriage is not marriage without the promise of eternity. Home is not home if it is only for a time. All these truths are one”, he says.
This is not a page-turner. It was intended to be considered and ruminated upon slowly. It is meant to stimulate roots for the rootless; to set a pilgrimage for the modern tourist. Esolen weaves in scores of poetry excerpts that not only halt the reader’s tempo, but also prove to be the only genre—like the Psalms—sufficient to convey the paradigmatic meaning the author intends. So, too, Nostalgia carries on a lively, if not sophisticated, conversation with the Greek epics, classical literature, and brilliant essayists throughout the ages, again, halting the pace and beckoning the need for rumination, that is, “to ponder the relationship between man’s return to childhood and his going forth from time into eternity” (xvi-xvii).
By “childhood” the author means everything that gave us a sense of “home” and where the Earth, this place, and the homes/places herein, orient our hearts and minds to true our home—with God our Father and Jesus our brother in the familial love of the Holy Spirit. No “home” is more like home than the Christian family and the Church, and no time more so than during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. But the Earth teases out these things for us in countless ways, too. It is our rightful home acclimating us for our home-to-come.
Home is an orderly place. Nature is orderly; the cosmos is orderly—all these speak of the orderliness of our heaven-on-Earth home in Church and forever with Christ, ordered by the word and the sacraments, the calendar and liturgy. Esolen notes that the Greeks saw this and it could not but give rise to their quest for ultimate reality. Absurd is the modern obsession with chaos, with the randomness of natural selection, and dystopianism. It all leads, like so many things today that emerge from the cult of humanitarianism and its blindly optimistic anthropology, into a cul-de-sac—nowhere, no place. It certainly does not lead home and we, once very much at home in the family (such that it was), the world (such that it is), and the Church (such that it has been) and the distinctive cultures thereof, feel homeless, adrift, without a place that we know, that place we are coming to know. That, in large measure, is why the modern person feels so restless and uncomfortably comfortable with cosmopolitan, transient living, championing the religion of progress, yet never progressing somewhere, never attaining some goal. It’s just another cul-de-sac.
The same applies to vacuous notions of living for “the future”. Mere belief in “the future”, charges Esolen, “is a pallid and frail mimic of that longing for an eternal home. It does not lay the foundation. It does not build the spire” (43). Simply put, it does not show us the way home. There is a deceit to the future, to the notion of progress and change. It has no home and it isn’t on a pilgrimage, a journey, because it leads somewhere. “Progress” has no home in principle.
Notions of the place of home also means being at home with history, with humanity, and above all with faith in God at home with us. No faith, no culture, no home. In the Christian faith, specifically in the Scripture-saturated liturgy, homeless man finds tranquility and security—the biblical Shire, the changeless Christ, as opposed to the danger and insecurity that mark consumer culture.
Never one to march lockstep to political correctness or multiculturalism, but rather heap aspersions upon both as wrong and wrongheaded, Esolen rigorously engages with today’s hot topics while guiding his readers into juxtaposing considerations of traditionary and progressive mindsets, religious and secular commitments, humanizing and dehumanizing ideals. He boldly criticizes the one acceptable societal obsession, if not idolatry—education, particularly our children’s education. In one remarkable and yet liberating passage he writes:
The local school might be an extension of the family and its role in educating young people; it might be like a library that extends the holdings in the private home, or an organizing team that extends the reach and perfects the beauty of an informal gathering of young people playing ball. But if it attempts to supplant the family, or if it works against the common moral understanding of the parents, then it would be like a drug that at its best might enhance the function of one organ while causing the whole body to sicken. Families are more important than schools. Schools are for learning. Families are good in themselves. I dare say that the success of home-schoolers suggests, if anything, that the farther our schools remove themselves from the proximity of families, the oversight of families, and the time-transcending character of families, the more pathological they become and the less they serve either the function of schools or the good of families. We are left with something similar to the paradox of the over-organization of sport’s leading to fewer and fewer players. Bloat as well as shrinkage can lead to atrophy. [xxxiv]
Sections like this and others on technology, time, children, clothes, sex, architecture, and abortion from within Nostalgia make Esolen a pariah among anti-humanists, but for that reason alone such excerpts should be read aloud and discussed among couples, parents with their children, educators, coaches and the like. Gems like this abound—home is more than place, but never less than place, and place can be a settling sentiment (while eschewing sentimentalism) with a custom, a story, a person, a thing. What is leading us home; that is, to our true and lasting home? What do we know, experience and create that consciously (or unconsciously) was intended by us or God to acclimate us to that place?
Resolutely Catholic, Esolen’s appeals to the beliefs and practices of the (pre-Vatican II) Church of Rome may challenge some Modern Reformation readers. Notwithstanding his Tridentine commitments, most of the author’s Christian proposals are universally applicable or translatable into Reformational categories. While he omits Lutherans and Anglicans from communions that acknowledge the real corporeal presence of Christ in Holy Communion, he does favorably and frequently quote the works of Lewis and set the Puritans in favorable light.
Nostalgia will abide and, in some ways, haunt the minds of its readers. To be sure, it is not for everyone and presumes a modicum of familiarity with classical education or great books. Still, for those less fainthearted and willing to venture into perhaps daring waters, Nostalgia will open numerous paths to the places we’ve called home en route to our eternal home.
John Bombaro (Ph.D.) is a Programs Manager at the USMC Headquarters. He lives in Virginia with his wife and children.