In The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky's Red River Gorge, poet Wendell Berry writes: "And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home."
Learning to be at home is not easy, whether it's being at home in one's own skin or in the time and place in which we find ourselves. In our restless, striving American culture, in an age of radical change and redefinition, the very concept of home is under assault. In so many ways, we are spiritually homeless.
My thinking about spiritual homes -- those that are obvious and those that are less so -- came into focus with a trip to Vietnam last fall. I lived in Hanoi for a month and taught Vietnamese undergraduates at Vietnam National University. One Saturday, two of my students guided me through the streets of the Old Quarter where we threaded through the wild traffic of bicycles, motorbikes, pedicabs, and cars.
The sidewalks were packed with people eating street food. My students pointed out the architecture of buildings dating back to the 17th century and suggested we enter an edifice that looked older than the rest. We walked through an archway into a hidden courtyard where we were engulfed in silence. With a few steps, we had left the mad din of the Old Quarter behind. A robed monk was sweeping a walkway with a straw broom. Silk lotus flowers hung from the rafters of the entrance to the pagoda. Inside, altars honoring two heroes of the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400) were covered with offerings of incense and platters of fruit.
Everywhere in Vietnam I found reminders of the sacred in the midst of the crush of people and motorbikes and honking horns -- the little altars in the parks, the temples scattered throughout the city, the people stopping to bow their heads and fold their hands in reverence. In the center of the city's chaos were places of profound serenity.
In a poem titled, "Stations of the Sea," the Chinese-American poet Li-Young Lee writes: "And of all the rooms in my childhood,/God was the largest/and most empty." Empty carries a negative connotation in many instances, but here Lee infuses it with something approaching grandeur, an apt metaphor for a God who cannot be touched or maybe even named. In the temples of Hanoi, I stepped into places that felt like the empty room Lee invokes, places where a sense of God -- or a Buddhist state of mindfulness -- might be found in a simultaneous experience of presence and absence.
Lee speaks in his poem to our longing to locate God in time and place. The search for a spiritual home, he suggests, is a lonely one, though that loneliness and dislocation may bring us closer to what we seek if we have the patience to endure it. As the Vietnamese monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh puts it: "The kingdom of God is available to you in the here and the now. But the question is whether you are available to the kingdom."
As much as I would like to imagine I have learned this lesson, I know I resist the spiritual journey Wendell Berry speaks of, a journey of accepting what I am given and where I find myself. In true American fashion, I am always struggling for something else, something more. I cannot shake the terrible acquisitiveness and narcissism of American culture, the constant need to proclaim my status as someone who matters. I cannot still those voices in my mind saying, "me, me, me," and "I want, I want, I want."
Thich Nhat Hanh says, "Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes primarily from our inability to dwell in the present moment." In the developed world, we seem to be particularly afflicted by this illness, always projecting our needs and desires onto any experience, never content with what we have.
In Vietnam, I discovered a people who appeared to be a bit better at dwelling in the present moment, despite (or perhaps because of) the challenges of living in a developing country where services are often minimal. I was experiencing the gifts, novel for this Westerner, of a Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian culture, and a place that honors thousands of years of rich history and tradition. But I was also experiencing the overwhelming warmth and graciousness of the Vietnamese who delighted in welcoming me and sharing their country, culture, and food. For an American, this graciousness comes with a strong vein of forgiveness, and is more than humbling, given the history between our countries.
If there is a spiritual home I can turn to most consistently, it is out in nature, walking the woods in northern New England up on the Canadian border, where I am as apt to encounter a moose as another person. The silence of these wild places is like the silence of the temples in Hanoi. In the stillness I am reminded to let the voices in my mind go quiet, to stop longing for more. I am reminded to let the present moment be enough.
In her essay The Heart of Haiku, the poet Jane Hirshfield, a practicing Buddhist, writes: ". . . each day is a journey, and the journey itself becomes home." My journey to Vietnam was not one of inches but of many miles, and it was this very fact, of going so far and to a place so different, that was healing. On the streets of Hanoi, where I was such a foreigner, I felt less like a stranger than I often do in America. I found a spiritual home where I least expected to, and it made me pay attention, on my return to the United States, to the home right here, right now, beneath my feet.