I trudged along the river shore with determination. The seagulls swooped and chattered above my head as they maneuvered effortlessly in and around the river swells. I kept my head down and continued to scan the foamy surf for bits of sand-roughened glass. I was particularly fond of the deep blue glass that occasionally washed on shore from the depths of another time. Blue beach-glass was quite rare; but today my search had been futile.
I slowed my progress and looked toward the horizon where the sun was beginning its circadian descent behind the cliffs. It was, however, still high enough in the sky to throw brilliant shafts of sunlight directly into my line of vision, and I shielded my eyes as I tried to discern the faint shape of the bridge in the far distance. I narrowed my gaze as I searched for the long, scalloped lines of the peninsular bridge that spanned the breadth of the river. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was out there, somewhere in the blinding light… stretching toward home.
Home. I felt the familiar pang of homesickness as I looked toward the western shore, and I whispered yet another silent prayer to God, and begged Him for insight into my isolation; but once again, I was met with a thickening silence.
A New Land
When my husband and I moved into the backwater country of Virginia, I was disconsolate. It was rural, and practically uninhabited (to my way of thinking). The culture was different here. People were polite but more reserved than what I was used to. For the first time in a while, I had to make a concerted effort to find friends and kindred spirits. I was no longer teaching writing, raising a family, or running a ministry—and my social connections and support system (that had seemed so abundant before) now withered into a tiny rivulet of emails and occasional phone calls. It was a brave, new solitary world for me… and I was unhappy.
I did try, though. I made a handful of valiant attempts to find activities and hobbies that would fill my days and weeks. I started a garden and managed to plant a small fig orchard. I learned about local art, antiques, and even discovered a natural flair for photography—which was all mildly diverting. And of course, I read. I read books on Catholicism and history, and I began reading books about homesteading (because, hey—I was out in the middle of nowhere). But the feeling of isolation was still there, and I began to grow more and more disillusioned with my limited endeavors… and with myself.
There were so many nights, long after my husband had fallen asleep, when I would lie in bed, staring into the impenetrable darkness, wondering what I was doing there. In my heart, I knew that God was aware of my self-imposed gloom, but that did not stop me from asking Him, over and over, “Dear Lord, why am I here? How can this be preferable to the life I left behind? How can I serve you in the middle of this isolated wilderness?”
But my unanswered queries seemed to rise into the blackness—like the tiny sparks of an open fire that are quickly consumed by the stealthy, dark mist.
My Own Sort of Exile
Tiny sparks. All my efforts, all my prayers, and all my hopes seemed like tiny sparks that amounted to nothing but tiny ashes. I could not fathom God’s plan, and I began to seriously wonder if I had been sent into some sort of exile—perhaps, never to return.
The first time I acknowledged the concept of exile, I felt chagrined. Exile was for criminals, political prisoners, or rebels. I was none of those things. And yet I was certainly living the life of an exile. I decided that I needed to find a different comparison, so I turned to my Bible, which is and continues to be my first resource for just about everything.
I read about Ezekiel, who was exiled with his wife near the River of Chebar. Once there, he experienced several spectacular visions on the river bank of the remote outpost.
Then there was Abraham, who while not specifically exiled, picked up all his belongings, his livestock, his family members, and left his homeland, for the land of Canaan, a complete unknown. Abraham did all of this without complaint.
I read about Cain, who is considered to be (and certainly was) one of the great criminals of the Bible. And yet… even though he was exiled to the land of Nod, God gave Cain a mark of protection.
Finally, there was the cosmic tragedy of the original exiles: Adam and Eve. They had defied God, and eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their just punishment was exile from the Garden of Eden, to this place we all call home.
The LORD God therefore banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he had been taken. // Genesis 3:23
As I read that passage, I felt a quasi-kinship with Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Garden. I was reasonably sure I knew at least a little about how they might have felt in their new, foreign land.
As I pondered these epic dramas (and several others), I realized that there were some consistent threads that ran through these accounts in the Old Testament. There was the thread of God’s omnipresent protection over the exiled. God never abandoned them. He was ever-present in their life-stories, willingly involving Himself in the ordinary and extraordinary events of Ezekiel, Abraham, Cain, and Adam and Eve.
I also recognized the very human theme of longing. The brave or star-crossed refugees, regardless of the circumstances that sent them into exile, longed for protection, safety, blessings, and, of course, their homeland. I could definitely identify with that. I knew what it was like to long for those things. But there was something even larger here, and I began to realize that God was teaching me something through my own exile: I was not alone.
We are all exiles, making our way through a foreign wilderness. We are aliens in an alien land, trying to find our way back home to our heavenly Father Who continually offers us everything we need for the journey. In fact, it is the central theme of the entire Old Testament: Return to Me.
Yet even now—oracle of the LORD—return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. // Joel 2:12
Exile can be a Gift
Understanding began to mend the edges of my frayed, internal fabric: my exile was a gift. It was a call from God to look beyond my current world and toward Him. He had eliminated all the frenetic energy of my old life and brought me into this hushed interval, a place of singular beauty and silence. Here, at last, He could speak to me in a still, small whisper. And for the first time in a very long time, I could hear Him in the depths of my heart. “Return to Me, with your whole heart.”
A loving God had gone to tremendous lengths to draw me into my own personal exile so that I could finally hear His appeal. He had given me so many signs, so many opportunities, and more time than I deserved to draw me away from the noise of the clamoring world. I had resisted Him at every moment of my exile, and yet He continued to beckon me and even wait on me.
My tiny sparks of sorrow had not turned into tiny ashes. They had instead been collected by the hands of angels and stored in the flames of His Sacred Heart.
God Waits for Us
I finally felt (more than heard) the irresistible appeal from a patient and loving God in the wilds of these beautiful tidelands, my place of exile. Only now my exile had shed its disguise and I saw my seclusion for what it was: refuge, a sacred space, my remote sanctuary. It was a place to seek God and listen for His voice, It was a reminder that my true home is not here.
Now, when I raised my eyes to the blazing horizon, I could look beyond the distant bridge, past the sun, and into the ether, knowing that home is where His Heart is.
But there’s more. God waits for all of us in the quiet landscapes of our souls. He waits for you, as well as me. He has orchestrated the elements of your lives, so that you also may return to Him. And since we are all unique, I know that His appeal to you may be experienced in different ways, but the message will be the same: “Return to Me, with your whole heart.”
Sarah Torbeck is a convert to Catholicism. She is a widow, mother and grandmother, as well as a contributor for Catholic Mom. She also maintains a blog, and is a member of the Catholic Writer’s Guild.