The wayfarer journeys like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, seeking home. I grew up in a small hamlet, known as a township in Frelinghuysen, New Jersey.
Where? Exactly. That’s what everyone asked, even those from New Jersey. I lived in this beautiful rural picturesque township for twenty-four years. At both ends of the road were dairy farms that I would walk to and gaze at the beauty of open spaces. Frelinghuysen is situated between the Delaware Water Gap (a half an hour toward the west) and New York City (an hour and a half toward the east). I grew up with the beauty of landscape and nature near the Appalachian Trail. The mighty Delaware River cut through the mountains dividing New Jersey from Pennsylvania.
On the other side, I experienced the cosmopolitan lifestyle. Seeing Broadway shows, hearing beauty at Lincoln Center, watching the Nutcracker, eating simple and rich foods—in little Italy, Chinatown, seafood in Hoboken and in the City. The museums: Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim, the Cloisters. Central Park. A day in New York City is, at times, a lifetime of experience.
When I was in high school, my sister went to college in the City. I didn’t appreciate New York City until then, spending a lot of time there. I would get stomachaches when I was a child going into the City. But in my young adult days, I relished the experience of walking the streets of NYC, riding the subway, but mostly walking all over town. Christmas was an especially exciting time, seeing the tree, the ice skaters at Rockefeller, seeing Conan O’Brian’s Late Show, visiting an enormous used book store, art, Central Park, walking miles and miles observing and collecting all sorts of life and beauty and decadence and seeing persons in the context of the city. If anything, I suffered the sin of pride in being privileged to frequent such a great city and all the enculturation.
But I always cherished rural living. Rural living was my monastery in the woods. It was my place of contemplation, adventure, and natural beauty. This is where I met God. The lure of the stars in the black sky (there was no light pollution in Frelinghuysen). In the trees. In the treks through snow-covered woods in the winter. Hunts in the back woods with my pellet gun. This was no pantheism. I knew there was a God who had given; created all these things. They were not God, but His mark was in all of these things.
Yet, the woods were also my escape. My pain was deep-seeded. My parents fought, loudly all the time. My earliest memories are of me weeping, my parents screaming at each other. There was rarely a time where my mother was not melancholy and discontent in her life. When I was in third grade, my mother was sent to a “depression clinic.” I was not myself. I retreated into myself, never to come out again or so I was convinced. There were a couple times we visited my mom there, but it was always depressing knowing she wasn’t coming home with us. At one point, she came home to visit for a few hours in the morning on a weekend. I sat at our kitchen counter. She made me breakfast, an egg Mcmuffin-style sandwich. She placed it on the plate and set it before me, clinking the counter. All I could do was breakdown into tears. I knew she wasn’t staying that she had to return to the clinic.
During that time, my grandmother came to help around the house as my dad went to work during the day. All I remember was going through the day in a haze. I shut everyone out. I would lie on my parents’ bed upstairs, saying nothing, looking through the skylight twelve feet above me. Most of the time I shut myself in my room. My grandmother reacting, “He doesn’t love me.” A reaction I later understood as her feelings of rejection that she experienced from her husband, who would go on drinking binges neglecting family.
Later, after my mother returned, she would threaten my dad with divorce. I never knew what they argued about. It never made any sense to me. My mom, dealing with depression, most likely acedia, (and discontent) wanted something more. She wanted joy. But tended to seek it in things–elevating passions above God. Her loves out of order as Augustine would say in his Confessions.
What is acedia? Classically, it is sloth. To expand on that it is spiritual apathy. It is the boredom that plagues our Western culture. We are seeking other things to fulfill our lives, while neglecting our true source of joy and fulfillment. A personality that is introverted, intuitive, a feeler, and not a planner tends to suffer from this malaise. How do I know? I too have this individualistic tendency. To be set apart from the norm. Which in a sense is perfect for a Christian because following Christ is counter-cultural. But when an individualistic tendency is directed by self, we love things we should not or fail to love. Tending to love ourselves and other things more than God and then others. The bottom line is that highly sensitive people have this predilection of sin. We can explain personality as to why one reacts certain ways. The shadow side and all of that. But sometimes the explanation glosses over the fact of our tendencies to sin in these specific ways.
As C. S. Lewis puts it, we are always seeking the Island in the West. It is never found. The island is eros (erotic love) toward someone in marriage or extra-marital. The island is a better place to live, a better house, better people to be around. These are fine in themselves (with the exception of extra-marital affairs). But our contentedness comes from God. He puts us in place for a reason, until He says to move. He never tells us to sin.
In retrospect, I have always been looking for home. In many ways, we as Christian wayfarers are exiles, bereft of our true home. In college I sought place where I was accepted, loved, even cherished. I sought home in the arms of women. At least, this is what I sought. I sought beauty and requited love from a myriad of relationships. But I was infatuated with love itself, the companionship. I was like Dante making an idol of a woman. Chastity had always been an easy virtue for me to follow, except in my heart.
My namesake (Courtenay) means courtyard. I never liked my name until college. I tried to let people call me by my middle name, but it never stuck. I wanted to run from my name that was always made fun of for “being a girl’s name.” I accepted my name in college because I learned about the concept of medieval courtly love. In the courtyard is where lovers would converse and write poetry to one another. (I had become a lover of poetry at this time.) I was in love with the idea of wooing and courting women. But I must have been too immature, too neurotic, too unfocused to have any women fall for me for a long period of time or at all. The loves were always unrequited. By the time my college career was over, I had become disenchanted about relationships. But now, I see this as Providence keeping me from unordered loves that would have become my form of worship–eros would have consumed me had I pursued it. Later, I met my beloved, which will be spoken of at a later time.
But still, my loves were out of order. I wanted love to save me. I wanted an earthly, human love to save me. But what I truly needed was divine love, which I didn’t fully understand in my heart. I knew it in my head that God was the only love that could ever mend my broken heart. But I was too attached to earthly things. All of this chaste romance: pining for the beloved, hoping for a lady who needed rescue, sharing the beauty of the world, sharing ideas about the infinite, the truth, the good– I elevated all of this in my heart. I thought this would mend my broken heart. But in turn, it caused more grief and strife within me. As Bono sings in one of his songs, “Every poet is a thief; all kill their inspiration and sing about their grief.” This was rather true with me. My best friend called me a masochist. But what I yearned for was, yes the beloved, but truly the lover of our whole being, the lover of our souls. Only Christ can heal the brokenhearted, the lost and the lonely.
I was this lost, lonely, brokenhearted person. Augustine says our hearts are truly restless until they rest in God. I set myself up for restlessness. What I should have been doing was seeking the good in prayer and fasting, seeking God’s face. I got caught up in my passions, my desires for someone earthly to love me. Eros and philia are not evil in themselves. In the right order, they are very good things. But when elevated above God, they become sinful.
So my home was not in courtly love. Nor was it at college, though it was a delightful, fun, renewing experience. Where true friendship blossomed, where the intellect was on the pathway toward wisdom. Where God gave me space to use creative gifts he had given me. But this was just a pleasant inn along the way.
I then was exiled back to Frelinghuysen. Which seems like a contradiction. Yes, I loved the woods and the beauty there, but the house I grew up in was also a place of pain. My dad was sick, and I wanted to reconcile with him. We had hardly seen eye-to-eye on anything. Hunting together was a bond. But we were like separate islands unto ourselves. I am tall; he is shorter. He was an athlete; I was somewhat a recluse and only liked playing sports for fun, but not in competition. He was very driven and successful in his career. I am much more a bookish-type, sometimes directionless person. But rather empathetic and sympathetic toward the least of these in this world. We had many similarities–mainly stubbornness in our viewpoints. We were driven, but in different ways. I love poetry, literature, writing, theology, biblical studies, C. S. Lewis, Tolkien. He loved more practical things and made his career his highest thing. We would butt heads a lot.
Rod Dreher says we cannot run from our pain, but live in the truth. Suffering transforms us by the love and grace of God. I had committed myself to serving my father in New Jersey. I would return home for a time. I hoped for reconciliation. I hoped for renewal in the family. I hoped for healing. But I was helping my dad to prepare for death.