Last week, many in this country were transfixed by the image of Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, an image which has attracted both praise and criticism. I am not going to weigh in on that debate.
But underneath all this talk of male and female, there is a larger spiritual issue, one that has nothing to do with gender per se: none of us is fully at home in our world. Many of us are not fully at home even with ourselves. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in the first Duino Elegy,
whom can we ever turn to in our need?
Not angels, not humans, and already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in our interpreted world.
His point is simple: we think; animals are. Our thoughts distance us from ourselves, from our world, from one another. No less a figure than St. Peter describes us as “aliens and exiles”– people who live far from our true home.
Here’s the thing: in the spiritual life, that often-painful sense of alienation is seen as a good thing; it is the constant prod to our longing for what is better and more true than the life we have created so far, the goad that drives us to undertake the hard work of building honest relationships, caring for difficult people, spending hours in prayer (often without noticeable response). Our discomfort drives us toward our true comfort, which comes from God alone.
Obviously, not all alienation serves this purpose. Often, it is the result of psychological damage or bad history, and simply needs to be healed. But those who are too comfortable on this earth, too complacent with the people they are now, rarely make the great risk of growing.
When we become aware that something is nagging at us, we have a choice. We can ignore it, or we can listen to what it is saying. It may turn out to be nothing, or it may turn out to be the voice of God leading us on. But if we stuff it down and turn away, we will never know.