Tuesday, June 27, 2017

pearls before homesick swine

After Lot had parted from him, the LORD said to Abram: Look about you, and from where you are, gaze to the north and south, east and west; all the land that you see I will give to you and your descendants forever. I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth; if anyone could count the dust of the earth, your descendants too might be counted.
(Genesis 13:14-16)

I am from this dirt.
Speeding through the green of the Bavarian summer landscape, I suddenly felt in my heart a powerful twinge of homecoming. This land is in my blood, I thought. Or rather those words thought me. The idea struck me from the outside, rising up out of the fresh earth and grabbing me through the windows of the Deutsche Bahn. These hills housed my ancestors, this is the dust that formed the bodies of the bodies of the bodies from whom I have been formed.

I think I finally felt an inkling of what all the hoards of Irish-American classmates felt when they returned to the homeland. I know why they raved about that Emerald Isle eternally; because this sort of instinct demands a rant of love.

Surprised at how strongly home eked out of the earth here, I pulled my gaze away from the window and into my cranium (or navel). Do I, I wondered, have a right to feel this way about this land? I had just come from land colonized by a people who have felt the dust of desert and rolling scrubby hills sing to their hearts, and it has caused endless chaos, perpetually swirling violence. This land, they feel, runs through their blood. They are a part of this land, and it is part of them.

So, too, do the native peoples who live there and will not depart from it. So many are refugees, strangers, displaced in their own home. The doors of their family homes are torn away, long-ago destroyed, but they retain the key. Because home can not be wrung from our hearts so easily.

And perhaps, I think, hearing the reading at mass, this promise of Yahweh—that mysterious, ineffable, unsearchable God—to Abram makes sacred that very claim. Land holds onto us. If we are made of carbon, if our bones are made of the common building blocks of life, then how can we help but feel a part of that particular land we are made of? Perhaps this dialogue of God and human, this bequeathing of the land to Abram as divine gift, blesses that sacred claim of land upon the human. No longer does land pull us from the vertical, that call of land to our hearts does not flatten our horizon. Rather, that call of homecoming opens us up to the Divine. God has entered into our temporal love-affair with land.

Perhaps God enters into this very human enterprise to break it open, shatter its small, measly limits we impose upon it. If land is no longer Ours, but Ours-from-God, that ought to (Oughts too rarely become Is's) shatter our human conceptions of ownership. The land is not property, it never has been. The land is gift. To see land as gift as well as home ought (again the insistent ought) to break open our mean tribalism, our petty possessiveness, and lead us to rejoice in the bounty of a land that holds us.

Perhaps this is what these promises mean. Perhaps they have these universal bents. But the universal is only at first accessible through the particular; the particular experience of a unique land, a unique place: the swath of stars overhead, the dust that sticks to our feet, the smell of straw and olive trees. It is a singular gift for a singular people, and nothing about that blessing is exclusive.

Perhaps that is why walking up Tantur's gravel drive, winding like the snakes I fear are hiding in the terraced olive groves, and gazing into the cup of land which holds Bethlehem and Beit Jala also feels like home. 

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