There are some problems so ordinary it feels wrong to suffer because of them. Around October, when 95% of the student body catches the same common cold, your peers might be understanding of you, but they won’t be too sympathetic. There will come a time, as you drown in Kleenex, that you realize it’s silly to complain. All you’ll likely hear in response is, “Me too, and I’ve got pinkeye.” Someone will always have it worse, and you might feel bad for struggling so much with a burden everyone seems to have.
Homesickness in college is often approached like this. Most people had very similar experiences on their first day: their parents helped them move in, stayed to unpack a few things, and then left, and though everyone had different thoughts in that moment, it was probably a quiet moment.
It was strange to me during my freshman year how seldom people complained of missing their families, even though I’m sure we all missed them. It seemed like there wasn’t much point in admitting something we all knew.
The most distressing part of homesickness is that it isn’t as easily satisfied as other kinds of pain—it wants something specific, and nothing else. It won’t take any movie or any dog, only your movies with your family and your dog, in particular. Maybe the choosiness of homesickness makes it a more noble suffering. Some kinds of hunger and pain will take any alleviation they find, admirable or not; homesickness is harder to quiet. It asks us to choose based on affection and love, based on things and people outside of ourselves which we cannot control. It’s a suffering that remembers—which sometimes makes it all the more difficult to bear.
The truth is, we spend our whole lives in a state of homesickness. We hear this regularly in the Catholic tradition: we call ourselves “pilgrims” on Earth, here for a few years on our way to a better destination. Because we’re short-sighted, we usually forget that. But homesickness—for our family, our neighborhood, our favorite restaurant—makes this part of the human condition painfully clear to us. If we can ache so much over a simple town and a handful of people, how much more upsetting is it that we’re separated from a heavenly city and a host of saints and angels—and from God? That pain, if we felt it constantly, would be unbearable if not for grace. We may not feel this homesickness for Heaven very often, but homesickness for human things reminds us of it, and this can turn out to be good if we let that remembrance of Heaven color our actions. Our awareness of where our home is can do a lot to change how we live while we’re away from it.
Homesickness might also give us a connection to God’s love that we don’t always recognize. Recently, I’ve come to love the story of St. John and Mary at the Cross, where Jesus gives his disciple to his mother, and vice versa. We hear that “from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (Jn 19:27).
The longer I think about that verse, the more incredible it seems—John took the Mother of God into his own house (which probably wasn’t much to look at, since he was a bachelor). She adopts as her refuge the lowly home, and lowly heart, of a disciple who loves her Son. And she adopts us in the same way. Not only are we pilgrims on the way to a heavenly home, but we become little homes ourselves where Mary chooses to live—and where God lives, too. St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that their bodies are “members of Christ” and “temple[s] of the Holy Spirit,” and when we receive Communion we become the dwelling place of God (1 Cor 15, 19).
Though we can’t fully understand the ways in which God loves us, I wonder if part of it includes a familiar longing that’s similar (at least vaguely) to the longing we feel for our families and neighborhoods. Having made a home out of us, how could God feel otherwise, even though He needs nothing the same way we do? When He considers each person, He too is searching for something particular, and nothing else—you and I.