This Advent, let's come home

This article appears in the Advent 2016 feature series. View the full series.
My home: the rolling hills of Southwestern Wisconsin. (Courtesy of the Sinsinawa Dominicans)

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!

So begins Psalm 84, a favorite of our community's founder, Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli. As the story goes, he prayed this psalm at the dedication of every church he helped build on the American frontier — and he built a lot of them. In his final days, he again found solace in reciting the familiar words.

As a result, we tend to read this psalm with a lens that either restricts God's dwelling place within the walls of a church or altogether assigns it to the next life. God always dwells a little bit beyond us, it seems to imply. After all, the psalmist continues: "My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lord." One rarely yearns and pines for something or someone already present.

Yet Advent is upon us, and as we anticipate the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, I wonder, what do we really believe about where God dwells? Do we give more than lip service to the Christ child who searches for a home among us and if so, what does this mean for our world?

I live amid the rolling hills of Southwestern Wisconsin's Driftless region, and it's easy to believe that God would dwell here. The Creator's fingerprints are all over this place: a sunrise over the layered horizon, fog snaking through the Mississippi valley, coyotes howling in the night. How lovely is your dwelling place, indeed! Nestled within this diverse biological community is our little human community of sisters. Here, "home" is familiar and welcoming, a place to belong.

However, I am keenly aware that for too many of my brothers and sisters, home is a less comforting concept, even an unfamiliar one. It's no secret that we live in a time of social and ecological crisis that is largely of our own making. Climate change threatens the livelihood of the most vulnerable among us and one in every 10 children grows up in areas plagued by armed conflict. An unprecedented 65 million people worldwide are refugees, bereft of a place to call home. Meanwhile, the rich of the world threaten to build more walls. We're a wounded family living in a broken home.

Ecology is the branch of biology dealing with the relationships among living organisms and their environment. The word "ecology" has its roots in the Greek "oikos," meaning house, home or dwelling place, and "logos," meaning word, language or logic — the same word John uses to describe Jesus as the Word made flesh. Put them together, and ecology is the language of our household, or the story of where we live.

The landscape of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, showing our motherhouse on the "mound," which is what we affectionately call the natural limestone outcropping where it is situated. (Courtesy of Sinsinawa Dominicans)

Colonialist societies have spent centuries perverting this story. Framed by a worldview that places humans above and outside of the rest of creation and some humans above others, we have lived more like reckless tourists and less like the residents and neighbors we truly are. We've wreaked havoc upon the very biological communities that sustain us and have trampled upon the rights and dignity of countless human communities.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potawatomi author and scientist, describes the abuses her people suffered at the hands of European settlers. "Children, language, lands: almost everything was stripped away," she writes in Braiding Sweetgrass. "In the face of such loss, one thing our people could not surrender was the meaning of land. In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital . . . but to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold."

This is the wisdom we have lost in forgetting that Earth is our shared home, and it is the wisdom to which we must listen if healing is to begin. It underpins social struggles like the one at Standing Rock, and it exemplifies the loss — of culture, identity, and relationship — suffered by oppressed and oppressor alike.

Perhaps if we began to listen, we'd begin to live as if Earth were truly our common home. Perhaps then we could honestly exclaim, whether gazing over the rolling hills or into the eyes of a stranger, "How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!"

So this Advent, let's come home. Let's begin to re-inhabit our story and remember that we belong to one another.

[Christin Tomy, OP, is a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. While living and working in Central and South America, she discovered a passion for ecological work, and she currently ministers as Care for Creation Coordinator at Sinsinawa Mound.]