An earlier version of the appeared in Feminism and Religion, September 27, 2018.
In the late 1920s, a young woman wrote the word “HOME” in resounding letters across the bottom of a photo of a herself and her husband smiling lovingly and confidently, with their infant propped in between them on a rattan chair. I recently came across that photo and was immediately struck by the writing on it. It was not an identification of the address, but a declaration that this family, whoever they were, had come HOME. I always wondered what happened to them a few years later when the Depression hit. Were they able to keep their home? Were the among the millions made homeless? Did they put all their possessions in their car and drive west, hoping for a better life?
As I looked at the photo, I thought of humanity’s ancestors for whom “home” was a sacred place. As discovered by Marija Gimbutas in Europe and elsewhere by others, small statues of the Goddess were frequently found by the ovens inside family dwellings, and temples included rooms for both sanctuaries and workshops for making bread and weaving cloth. Houses and temples were extensions of one another.
Clearly, the photo showed that the yearning for a revered place where one experiences belonging, is accepted and loved, and feels a connection to the land, is among the deepest in the human soul. For some “home” may mean their shelter and surrounding land, or be a whole village or city, or, for some, be many places they have lived or visited. Ultimately, the whole planet is our common home to be revered and loved. I hear this longing in the continuation of ancestral ways for centuries after a family or community has migrated as well as in so many expressions of love for the whole Earth.
Yet, today, millions of people are living for years as refugees in camps, crossing treacherous seas in tiny boats, dying of thirst in the desert, and sleeping cold and hungry in our streets, or living in houses while knowing that any moment they will be beaten, humiliated, or killed there. The importance of hospitality has been forgotten, for if home is sacred then it is a place of sanctuary that must be shared with those who come to our doors in need. “Home” has become “housing,” a commodity increasingly only available to the wealthy. “Home” is a prison for those women who are confined inside its four walls by the idea that women should not work or be seen in the outside world.
If these are the results of the devaluing of “home,” how do we bring back the sacredness of these places of safety, celebration, and nurturing for all? How do we again make “home,” whether our family dwelling, community, or the Earth Herself, central to the order of the universe and right relationships among all beings?
To take that first step towards realizing a world where “homes” — personal, community or planetary — are sacred, let’s go beyond simply thinking about what a planet without the catastrophes mentioned above would be like and contemplate about who we, ourselves, might be in such a world. Real transformation, I have found, happens from the inside out, as long as it is followed by effective action. How might you be different if…
…you had never had the fear and guilt of knowing that ours may be the last generation before much of the life on Earth becomes extinct. You and everyone you know have always lived in a balanced and sustainable way.
…you have always had comfortable shelter that has been an oases of harmony, peace, and nurturance and where you felt you belonged. Domestic violence is unthinkable and unknown.
…you have never worried about someday being homeless or knew that, while you are warm, fed, and safe, millions are not.
…if you choose to migrate, you know you will be welcomed for who you are and what you can bring to your new community.
However far away such a life might seem, you are probably already doing many acts to make “home” sacred. Maybe you are making your house or apartment more environmentally sustainable and simple to focus on the people rather than the objects within. You may have an altar or other spiritual practice space. You may work to end homelessness or to help house refugees. You may in some way protect our waterways and public lands. Maybe you have created rape crisis centers or domestic violence shelters where the trauma of others’ can be healed or community gathering spaces where people come together.
We must also remember the importance of those small, everyday acts that can profoundly re-value “home” in our own and others’ attitudes and beliefs. What can seem inconsequential to us at the moment may unfold over years and years, reverberating beyond our imagining. These acts happen when we truly have made the sacredness of “home” part of our souls and daily lives.
Outside my door is a lilac bush, perhaps the descendant of one planted by Sarah, who lived in my house when it was first built in 1870. For 150 years, everyone who has lived in the house, as well as the thousands of 19th century millworkers, 20th century factory workers, and contemporary commuters who have passed by, have enjoyed the delicate color of the flowers and inhaled their fragrance. The lilac declares that this home is a place deserving of beauty and connection to the abundance of nature. It has, for all these years, been a stunning statement hidden in plain sight that this small house and yard are sacred. If that family did have to leave their home, I hope they finally lived in another home again and maybe planted roses or colorful hydrangeas all around it, as they, too made their new home sacred.
We carry within us the wisdom and values we need to make our world the planet we need it to be. Sometimes we may find it in inheritances from our past, like the concept of “home” as sacred. But we must make their insights fit our time and birth our own ways, and help future generations do the same. May we together, make our whole world our global “home” and move our lives closer to our dreams.