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The Homing Instinct

July 01, 2012

Bible Reading

On the day the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the covenant; and from evening until morning it was over the tabernacle, having the appearance of fire. It was always so: the cloud covered it by day and the appearance of fire by night. Whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, then the Israelites would set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the Israelites would camp. At the command of the Lord the Israelites would set out, and at the command of the Lord they would camp. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they would remain in camp. Even when the cloud continued over the tabernacle many days, the Israelites would keep the charge of the Lord, and would not set out. Sometimes the cloud would remain a few days over the tabernacle, and according to the command of the Lord they would remain in camp; then according to the command of the Lord they would set out. Sometimes the cloud would remain from evening until morning; and when the cloud lifted in the morning, they would set out, or if it continued for a day and a night, when the cloud lifted they would set out. Whether it was two days, or a month, or a longer time, that the cloud continued over the tabernacle, resting upon it, the Israelites would remain in camp and would not set out; but when it lifted they would set out. At the command of the Lord they would camp, and at the command of the Lord they would set out. They kept the charge of the Lord, at the command of the Lord by Moses.

(Numbers 9:15-23)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

(John 14:1-7)

Reading from Swedenborg

It is recognized that we have one state in infancy, another in childhood, another in adolescence, another in maturity, and another in old age. It is also recognized that we shed our state of infancy and its games when we make the passage into the state of childhood and that we shed the state of childhood when we make the passage into the state of adolescence, shed this, in turn, when we make the passage into the state of maturity, and shed this again when we make the passage into the state of old age. And if we reflect we can also recognize that each age has its delights and that through these, in sequence, we are led to those appropriate to the next age—that these delights serve to bring us through from one stage to another, eventually to the delight in intelligence and wisdom appropriate to old age.

(Arcana Coelestia 4063)

Kindred souls gravitate toward each other spontaneously, as it were, for with each other they feel as though they are with their own family, at home, while with others they feel like foreigners, as though they were abroad. When they are with kindred souls, they enjoy the fullest freedom and find life totally delightful.

The Lord . . . takes each angel to her or his community. This happens in various ways, sometimes with detours. When they arrive at their own communities, their inner natures are opened, and since they are in harmony with the inner natures of the angels who are members of that community, they are recognized instantly and accepted with joy.

(Heaven and Hell 44, 519)


And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to myself, so that you too may be where I am. You know where I am going, and you know the way. John 14:3-4

The paleontologist-theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said it very concisely: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” If we look at the Gospels in their place in the biblical narrative, this is surely one of the main messages they intend. A central theme of the Sermon on the Mount is that controlling outward behavior is not enough. We must reject not simply murder but also the anger that can prompt it. We are to address our behavioral problems at their source, in our hearts. Taken with full seriousness, this is an incredibly severe discipline. Put it together with the Lord’s statement that anyone who is unjust in trivial matters is unjust also in great ones (Luke 16:10), and it shines a spotlight on all the little self-indulgences that don’t seem to matter all that much, the antisocial impulses that we hide beneath a necessary screen of social graces.

It tells us that if we were to take these self-centered impulses out and look at them under a microscope, they would be alarmingly ugly—in fact, terrifying. The desire not to have someone else in the same room is no different in quality than the desire not to have that person (or that class of person) in the same world. It is essentially dehumanizing the other. We ignore this principle at our peril, because left unrecognized and unchecked, it leads straight to genocide.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that in its “least forms,” this lethal tendency is cut down to our size. It is something we can deal with. Day after day, we are given opportunities to recognize and reject such impulses. This is surely why the Ten Commandments have such a forbidding tone and why our theology lays so much stress on fleeing from evils as sins. It can sound negative, but it embodies the same sanity as the medical principle primum non nocere, “First of all, do no harm.”

The trouble is that self-indulgence feels good, and it feels good right now. It feels good because in some measure it is good—it is just not good enough, not good enough to last. Ideally, though, it points beyond itself. The Lord is constantly calling us to the pleasures of heaven, but we are so embroiled with this transitory material world that sometimes all we can hear is the call to pleasure here and now. Wordsworth said it well: “The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” We mistake the material shadow for the spiritual substance, treasure on earth for treasure in heaven.

The fact is, of course, that it is treasure in heaven that we really want. That is, we want warmth and understanding, appreciation, safety and comfort, meaning. We want something fresh and new as well as something solid and trustworthy. We want two things that are often in tension with each other—we want our freedom, and we want to belong; and in the words of our third reading, it is when we are with kindred spirits that we are most fully free.

These immaterial needs cannot be met on the level of reality, where there is only so much “stuff” to go around and where outward appearances are so often deceiving, where the physically homely may be spiritually lovely and the financially poor spiritually rich, and vice versa. How can we find where we truly belong in such capricious circumstances? Small wonder the nineteenth-century hymnologist Thomas R. Taylor wrote, “I’m but a stranger here, heav’n is my home.” Small wonder that a heartfelt melody by Antonin Dvorak inspired the haunting song “Goin’ Home.” Heaven is our home, and deep down inside, we know it. According to a Nature Bulletin from Illinois,

“We share with our dogs, cats and other domestic animals an attachment to a place we both regard as home. If one of these animals strays, or is sold to a new owner, or is carried away and abandoned, it acts lost and homesick as it struggles to grope its way back. This is easy to see in pets and among livestock on farms. Surprisingly, many such displaced animals do find their way home, often through miles of strange country.”

It could serve as a parable for our own journey, “often through miles of strange country.” It could serve as a statement of the theme of the biblical narrative—Israel following the ark in search of her homeland, a quest that the New Testament sees as leading to the “kingdom of heaven” announced by both John the Baptist and Jesus. One of the central features of our human nature is our own subtle, powerful homing instinct.

Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem “The Chambered Nautilus” comes to mind. The nautilus shell is an expanding spiral in form, with each successive chamber larger than the previous one. Holmes saw this as a parable of spiritual growth. “Year after year beheld the silent toil That spread his lustrous coil; Still, as the spiral grew, He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,” leading up to the climactic lines, “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul, As the swift seasons roll! Leave thy low-vaulted past! Let each new temple, nobler than the last, Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast, Till thou at length art free, Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!”

For the past few decades, we have witnessed the building of one “more stately” physical mansion after another. When we read Swedenborg’s descriptions of mansions in heaven, we can well believe that this is our homing instinct at work. We can also believe—we cannot help but believe—that unless Oliver Wendell Holmes’s call is heard, unless more stately mansions are being built for the souls that will live in these structures, the physical houses will be empty of all that truly matters, of all that matters forever.

It is striking that Wordsworth’s lament over our worldliness does not turn us away from the world. After those first two lines, it continues,

Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

The poet would have us turn away from our own “getting and spending” to hear the voice of Godgiven nature. Paganism may be primitive, but at least it sees some form of divinity in the surging of the sea. But no, “we are out of tune,” and we are out of tune not because we are deaf but because we are so tuned in to our own compositions.

Here again, we can see clear evidence of our homing instinct as millions of city dwellers use the freedom of vacation time by “heading for the hills,” or the shore or the woods, as soon as they can. Something inside us answers to the extraordinary range of nature’s beauties—from exquisite tiny flowers to scenes of epic grandeur, from forest silence to deafening ocean surf. We are at home in the world of nature.

This brings us close to the heart of our homing instinct: our attraction to beauty. For commercial evidences of this, we need only turn to the cosmetic and fashion industries. For the damage that can be done by its superficiality, we can turn to cases of anorexia. What we cannot afford to ignore is that physical beauty is persuasive. In a way, it amplifies emotions. The more we are attracted to someone, the more that individual’s approval means to us, and the more that individual’s disapproval or rejection hurts.

This again is a shadow of something heavenly. We read in Heaven and Hell (§414) of women who “come more and more into the flower of growing youth and into a beauty that surpasses any notion of beauty accessible to our sight. Their goodness and caring is what gives them their form and gives them its own likeness, making the pleasure and beauty of caring radiate from every least bit of their faces. . . . Some have seen them, and have been stunned.”

We treasure beauty. It may irritate us when we drop an empty peanut-butter jar and it breaks, but it hurts when we drop a Steuben vase. Lovely things should be cared for.

This is a vivid shadow of the far more essential fact that lovely people should be cared for, and that the Lord has created every one of us to be lovely. Our spiritual homing instinct is the Lord’s call to surround ourselves with beautiful people, people whom we treasure and who treasure us. Each motion we make toward what we perceive as beautiful can bring us nearer to this goal if we can see through it, looking beyond its confines to something larger and more genuine. “Let each new temple, nobler than the last, Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast, Till thou at length art free, Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!” Amen.


Break my bonds, O Lord, and raise my heart. Keep my whole being fixed on you. Let me never lose sight of you, and while I gaze on you, let my love of you grow more and more every day. - J. H. Newman

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole