Some readers might appreciate the fact that I was born in South Carolina. For some other readers, I think especially of our Europeans and others across the internet globe, South Carolina means little. It is “Deep South” in the U.S., with its own distinctives. Perhaps one of its striking characteristics is that it has a strong sense of place. I know many Americans who do not have a sense of place – but they are not usually natives of South Carolina.
I have been absent from the state since 1988, but I always return with a sense of home. My hometown no longer houses my parents. They have moved away for medical reasons. I have cousins and extended family there, but my parents’ absence clearly affects my sense of place. I suppose (and I am in no hurry to find out) that when we lay them to rest beneath the sod of my home county (next to my fathers’ parents and near many others whom I know) that the sense of place will become fairly fixed.
Several years back I was invited to celebrate the liturgy in the Church where my parents (who are now Orthodox) attended. It is located in a small community that I have known all my life. Many of my ancestors lived in or near that very place. The nearby city is growing and will eventually swallow up the Church and the community where it stands. But today, it seems an odd place (rural) for an Orthodox Church in the South.
But the overwhelming sense that I had as I stood at the altar of this small Church was that I was made of dirt from very nearby. I thought, as a priest, of so many things that had brought me to that altar, things for which I should give thanks and offer the sacrifice of praise. It was a powerful liturgy.
The Scriptures are utterly marked by the sense of place. The Patriarchs literally transformed the land that God gave them as they prayed and worked, lived and died. It seems that every significant event caused a name to be assigned to a place.
We rarely give names to places for anything other than commercial reasons. Our subdivisions compete to see who can sound more English County than the next. Thus we may live in “Foxcroft” (regardless of the absence of foxes), or “Manor View,” though there be no manor nor view. And on it goes. We have virtual names, all too often, given to suggest something that is not there. Thus names do not name a place – they obscure it.
As you leave South Carolina and move further West (you can tell that I’m from South Carolina because I think of living in Tennessee as being out West), there seem to be more Native American names that survive. Thus Tennessee, where I now live, is named for a river (the Tennessee) that, I believe, is an Indian name for two brothers (the Holston and the French Broad come together to form the Tennessee). It makes sense. But there is plenty that does not make sense – such as a continent named for a mapmaker who had nothing to do with America.
But we can only live in particular places at particular times. With so much in our life that seeks to pull us away from the particular and to live in virtual space – a great part of our spiritual struggle is the effort we must make to be somewhere in sometime.
Tonight, as I write, I am in Aiken, South Carolina, home to my wife’s family and my son’s fiancee. It is also home to nearly 35 years of memories as I have traveled here, first to convince a young woman to marry me, and later to visit her family. It is a lovely place, one that I will continue to visit if only to remember who I am and where parts of my family are from.
Tomorrow I’ll go home to Tennessee, for although I was not born there, I live there. And it is there that I must learn to be somewhere, sometime and always in the presence of God. Where do you go to go home?