Several years ago, I attended a Conversation Group on “Faith and Culture”.  A priest, well respected for his social justice work, pondered whether exile should be seen as a viable option for those who continue struggling with issues within the institutional Church. He described exile not as a defeat, but as an acknowledgement of our powerlessness to change present situations. Is it worth expending our energies fighting a futile battle? Can wisdom, perhaps, be found in distancing ourselves from our homeland? Can exile be used as a time to ponder and pray? A time to reflect on past and present hurts? A time to seek a more life-giving spiritual path? His words were given as a short statement within a larger discussion. But, the seed of his exile imagery remained with me.

There is a spiritual and emotional richness to the reality of exile. It’s an integral part of the grand narrative of our Judeo-Christian heritage, from the Exodus story and the Babylonian exile in the Hebrew Scriptures to the Gospel account of Mary and Joseph fleeing into Egypt for the safety of their son. The powers in authority – threatened, insecure powers that responded to their own fears by oppressing others – forced the people to leave the rootedness and security of home to become strangers in a land not their own.  There the people prayed, kept the memory of their homeland alive, and waited in hope for the day of return. By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept at the memory of Zion. (Psalm 137)

History is replete with stories of exile. The present is over-flowing with them. Heart-wrenching images and news reports of peoples in exile fill our media each day. Women, men and children are brutally expelled from their homelands in the name of ethnic cleansing. Families flee war-torn countries seeking peaceful refuge. Entire regions are displaced by drought-stricken famine, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters. The Balkans, Darfur, Afghanistan, Tibet, and Haiti all show us exile at its harshest, starkest reality.

There is a difference between exile and wanting to quit a place, leaving it for good. Quitting connotes freely breaking ties, and leaving to try something new. The decision can be an emotional one, but it is done by choice with usually no desire to “turn back”. The belief that one is pursuing the better choice gives strength in moments of doubt and uncertainty. For example, some women and men quit the Church because it no longer has meaning for them (or perhaps never had), out of anger or disillusionment with institutional religion, or merely out of apathy. The choice is freely made, with no undue hardship in the discernment. In fact, sometimes it is just a slow, drifting away with no definitive discernment made. There might be the occasional pang of guilt, but over-all nothing is missed.

Exile, on the other hand, is forced upon you by others or by circumstance. There can still be an element of choice, but even then it usually comes when we can no longer bear the burden of the circumstances and reluctantly leave the situation or community. Exile, as opposed to voluntarily “quitting”, connotes a sense of displacement and a loss of grounding. Exile is being forced out of one’s home and shut out of the life of the community.  In exile, the leaving is cloaked in sadness and a sense of deep loss for what might have been. There is a desire to see change and renewal. While there might be nostalgia for the “good old days”, there is also a vision for better, new days – a time for welcoming back.

(Next: exile – a holy retreat?)