If I had to name one of the most unique characteristics of my childhood, it would probably be the fact that, because of my father’s job, my family relocated every three or four years. We pulled up roots and moved so many times that the smell of cardboard boxes and packing tape makes me grow nostalgic. By the time I was fifteen, I had lived in more States than my mother had so much as visited by the time she was twenty-five.
When I tell people this, they often ask: “What’s it like to just leave and start all over again every few years?” I usually smile and say it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. True, there was a little heartache of parting and the headache of reassembling an entire household every once in awhile. (Why is it that you always find the box full of Christmas decorations when you desperately need to unpack the dishes and silverware?) But looking back, through all the growing pains amid the packing boxes, I wouldn’t change a year of it, because it taught me some crucial lessons.
There is something a little shaking and soul-searching about having to leave behind what feels so incredibly permanent, like a house. But leaving my houses and finding new ones so often caused me to reflect and re-evaluate what really was lasting in my life. It took quite some time, but it eventually dawned on me that I was perpetually leaving my house—but I never left my home. My home was something entirely different from where I lived. Even when my older siblings grew up and moved out, there were certain things about my home that remained permanent through the years when everything else changed: my Catholic faith and the love of my family, and the two were inextricably intertwined.
My mother is fond of saying, “Everything in life changes. Families grow up. Friends change and move on. The only thing in life that doesn’t change is God, and as long as He is in your heart, everything else will turn out okay.” Even for those who live in the same towns their whole lives, the passing of time will bring challenges they cannot predict and probably would not have imagined. But the love of God never changes, and as long as we are firmly rooted in that then all the rising and falling tides of life cannot break us. Without it, we will buckle under and grope hopelessly to make some sort of sense out of the strange trials and sufferings that we meet on the journey of life. Servant of God John Randal Bradburne—a wanderer himself, and a possible saint—once wrote a poem call “Strange Vagabond” that summarized it perfectly:
God’s love within you is your native land
So search none other, never more depart.
For you are homeless,
Save God keeps your heart.
After years of learning to cope with changes in my life, I began to gradually soak up this little lesson: that without the love of God in us, we are truly homeless. If we have it, we are at home no matter where we are or what battles we must face. After all, until we reach Heaven, we are still pilgrims on a journey. St. Augustine grasped this truth in a moment of inspiration when he wrote: “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
There was a very beautiful family I know of that faced many changes and was forced to relocate several times. But they kept their trust in the Providence of God, though sometimes they were uncertain about whether they would even find lodging in a new town. The mother of this household was a true homemaker; her heart was always focused on the Lord. The Blessed Virgin Mary knew better than anyone that it is “God’s love within us” that makes a real home. No matter what frightening changes or unexpected experiences she faced, she trusted God, and so “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” She was, in a sense, always at home, and made wherever she was home for her family. She is a perfect model for those of us in this “valley of tears” still facing years of changes ahead, as we learn to pack up at the end of each stage in our life and move on, knowing that whatever lies around the bend, God is our home.