I really enjoy the more or less annual summer road trip with my family from here to Switzerland. I remember one year, stumbling bleary eyed into the Volvo at 4am, informing the neighbourhood we were off with repeated attempts at starting the engine culminating in a backfire, and then travelling along virtually empty motorways to the white cliffs of Dover. Along the way a mist had formed at ground level and it was not yet late enough and warm enough for it to have evaporated away. It settled in ditches and hollows and hovered above rivers with the sun rise piercing through it, looking, for all the world, like part of a cloud kingdom inhabited by goblins and imps.
But my most favourite part of the journey (bar lunch) is when we start winding through the Vosges Mountains of north eastern France.
As we do so, a great sense of calm and peace begins to descend on me. Of course, the scenery is unquestionably beautiful, with some of the best views emerging from gaps in road-side forests around hair pin bends (“KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD MUM!!”) The mountains are not particularly stark and intimidating like some, but instead tuck into each other and appear covered in a granddad’s green beard of trees. Sometimes the distant landscape is so patch-quilted with gentle colours that I want to run my hands over its smooth softness.
Even the houses look carefully thought out and friendly with their pastel colours and decorative shutters. It gives me the impression that people have taken care over their homes and land and therefore that somehow they care about life in general.
But maybe apart from all this, what I am really feeling is that I am very near the end of my journey and on the boarders of reaching Switzerland. I’m nearly home. The landscape appears more Swiss-like, the architecture and design more familiar and the towns often have such Swiss-German sounding names that I wonder how on earth a French person would even pronounce them! Why should Switzerland feel like a home when in fact it is not my literal home at all? Why don’t I get a similar feeling when returning to my physical home?
I think this is because I have so many virtually untainted happy childhood memories out in Switzerland. Primarily these involve my whole family’s excitement at seeing loved ones again, knowing that they will be just as overjoyed to see us too, and particularly feeling safe and secure amongst this age-old family love and generosity, such that I and my cousins could just play together with no concerns about school or responsibility or even decisions about how to fill the next moment. As the sun goes down over the Vosges Mountains and the shadows lengthen, I begin to feel as if I myself am being tucked safely in to them with heavy eyes after a long day’s play, just as they tuck into themselves and just as my aunts and grossmami have tucked me in many times before.
This feeling reminds me of a reminiscence by John Eldredge in his book ‘The Sacred Romance’. He describes Sunday afternoons in summer as a child when he would often be at his grandfather’s ranch alongside many cousins, great aunts, friends and relatives. As he sat on the step outside he could hear the elder family members talking and laughing and he felt very settled and content. He goes on to say,
‘My sense of security grew from an awareness that all this had been going on before me, that though I was part of it I wasn’t responsible for it. It didn’t depend on me. You’ve heard that children care more that their parents love each other than that they love them, and that is the reason why. It’s the assurance that there is something grand and good going on that doesn’t rest on your shoulders, something that doesn’t even culminate in you but rather invites you up into it.’
I don’t believe that even as aged adults we lose this desire for love, for security, for foundation and for a home that was there long before us. My 97 year old neighbour who died last year used to tell me that she still cried out for her mum at night. At times I think that maybe this desire comes from the simple fact that we are conscious beings and therefore aware that one day we will die. The unease that this engenders no doubt sometimes leads to a strong search for security and a sense of being looked after. (Yes, I do have a mind that is (at the moment anyway) regularly tossed between the scientific and the spiritual, not that I think they always have to clash. I sometimes wonder if anyone else out there knows how that feels!)
And yet the feeling that I get in the Vosges and that John Eldredge describes and that I’m sure most people experience at times is different than simple longing for self preservation. There is something really lovely about hearing my mum, her mum and 2 sisters talking and laughing together, It’s as if, in their bond of love and shared experience, they’re holding together another bond from which many rope-spokes protrude, including mine. They are their own little community but that community was going on long before I existed, it doesn’t depend on me but I can become part of it, rest in it, benefit from it and pass on the love and joy.
And now I know that God is a community, a bond of love between Father and Son which is the Spirit. From all eternity this community has existed in great closeness and intimacy, and has continually poured out self-giving love from one member to another, almost like a dance. Out of the joy of this love God created because love always desires to share, just as couples in love often want to extend their family and their love and so have children. And the offer of this trinity God is that we can be taken up into their family community, into the bond and spirit of love as children if we wish to be, just as Jesus has always been the Son. If the experiences we have in our own lives in our most joyful, peaceful moments are reflections of the kind of love that flows in the trinity then maybe that is the real home that we are ultimately looking for?