On Star Island where six folks joined me for a writing experience called Water From the Rock, we wrote about wandering in the wilderness. In my earlier musings, I conflated that wandering with exile but as I wrote, I stumbled upon a distinction. I realized our first exilic experience is birth— expelled from the warm watery womb into a stark explosion of sensory stimuli. As we exit the literal constraint of the birth canal (or the uterus directly in the case of Caesarian birth) umbilical cord severed, we embody exile if only for a split second before we get swaddled and tucked into a parent’s arms. From there, the journey to re-connect, to re-fasten ourselves begins. The search for belonging, that existential yearning intensifies all the subsequent moments of untethering and alienation.
The Pre-Israelites who wander for forty years after escaping bondage, experience a different form of constraint in the inhospitable desert. They hunger and thirst but more so, they yearn for the familiar. They cry out for nourishment and God’s mercy: that they not die on foreign soil. Jesus wanders in the wilderness and faces temptation. Vulnerability becomes his intimate.
At thirteen when my mother moved my sister and me to Florida to be closer to our brother who would start college there that fall, the relocation ruptured everything I knew. When my brother died in late August, I did not merely roam as a stranger in a strange land; I took leave of my body. I gave it away to greedy boys notching their belts. I dragged on stolen Marlboros, quit washing my hair and shut my brain down—trying desperately to externalize the interior anguish. I could summon no words but my body became the elegy: a lamentation of turning—as Cain did—my face from God.
Recently, I read a wonderful image by a contemporary rabbinical mystic who posits that God doesn’t dwell within us; we dwell within God. If that’s the case, shame may be the state of burrowing, attempting to go unnoticed. Spiritual necrosis sets in. Instead of seeking water from the rock— sustenance that emerges where we least expect to find it—shame reverses the process as we frantically try to force the water back into the stony pores. If water from the rock implies molecular change despite our frequent perception of stone as static and immutable, then the exilic experience of shame transforms our fluidity into rigid immobility.
When we returned to Nashville after ten months in Tallahassee, there was no home to return to—not simply because the house of my childhood had been sold or the surrounding area transformed beyond recognition by developers and an interstate. The emotional terrain had vanished as well. There was no family of five left. None of the institutions: the school, the Temple, the pediatrician—remained the same. I no longer felt exiled but I wandered nonetheless.
When I moved to Ontario in my early forties to serve a congregation after an unsuccessful job search in New England, I felt adrift in the urban wilderness devoid of trees and rolling hills. I searched for a sense of community, and like my ancient forebears, the thought of dying on alien turf haunted me. Each time I traveled back to New Hampshire for a visit, I longed for the time I would not have to leave.
I identified Ontario as as spiritual wilderness because I felt alienated from the ground of being— like Cain, who caused the very ground to cry out. I had not spilled my brother’s blood as Cain had—but shame rode me anyway, spurs deep in my flank. Cantering across that desert in search of connection, unaware in the vast emptiness that flailing embodied my connection. We cannot fall off the earth; thus, I have come to know the mystic’s truth we dwell inside God.
Exile, with its profound uprootedness and detachment, triggers such deep longing— to belong—to the belly, to the womb, to reattach ourselves to the umbilical cord of God. Perhaps we must each exit a human mother so that we begin our journey as sentient beings with the imprint of longing in every cell. Birth expels us into a world disconcerting and often inhospitable, and for some, unnavigable. But if we can imagine the deserts of disappointment, the unyielding seas of grief, and the glacial poles of paradox in which we live and move and have our being, we will be no worse off than Cain who did not wander forever. He found his way to the land of Nod whereupon he married and had children who, like all of us, gestate always in the beingness of God.