Nostalgia the Joy-Killer (A reflection on Ezra 3.1-13)

I was thrilled to read last week about the opening of a Big House in Bella Bella, off the coast of British Columbia. The last Big House in the community was destroyed 120 years ago under suspicious circumstances, likely as a part of Canada’s attempted cultural genocide of indigenous peoples. The event was a joyful symbol of the resilience of the community’s people and culture: Even after everything, Heiltsuk (Haíɫzaqv) people are still there. In the words of Chief Coun. Marilyn Slett, “Going forward it’s a symbol of our strength and our resilience as people. I know it’s just going to make us stronger.” (From her lips to God’s ears!)

The beautiful images from this event filled my mind this morning as I was doing my lectio divina on the reading from Ezra. In the passage, the people of Jerusalem, who are newly returned from Exile, rebuild their Temple and restore the traditional practices of YHWH-worship on Mount Zion. It’s a cause of great celebration for the community, but as told in the book of Ezra, this celebratory mood wasn’t as universal as it seems to have been in Bella Bella last week: Those who remember the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple weep. 

The disparity between the stories reminded me of the problem of nostalgia.

It’s natural — and important — to remember the good times in life. And, loss is real and needs to be grieved. But too much of anything becomes a poison, and nostalgia can rob of us our present and future if we let it. Broken down into its constituent parts, nostalgia means “homesickness.” It’s worth thinking about: Where is our home? If our ‘home’ is the world of twenty, thirty, sixty years ago, we’re in trouble. 

I don’t want to belittle the very real trauma the survivors of the Exile experienced. And their tears over the new, disappointing Temple are indicative of what had really been lost. But the problem with longing for home is that you can never go back again. The Jerusalem they returned to is not the Jerusalem of their childhood. Will they let their pain over what’s been lost rob them of appreciating and celebrating what is? Put another way, can they make this Jerusalem their home as much as the old one was?  

These thoughts reminded me again of the New Testament teaching that our hearts are the Temple of God. Only the luckiest among us haven’t experienced some form of trauma in our life. Most of us have an experience of ‘before’ and ‘after’. And so the same question that was before the returned exiles is before us too: Is our ‘home’ going to be in what was? Or are we going to make our home in what is

The more of life I experience, the more I like the Greek word χαρμολύπη (kharmolype); it means something like ‘joy-bearing sorrow’. I’ve most often encountered it in monastic teaching about repentance: how the sorrow we have over our sin releases us into joy. But more and more I feel it’s about life itself: it’s possible, and for most of us necessary, to bear our sorrow within our joy, and to carry our joy within our sorrow. And as we move in an increasingly uncertain world, I think this is going to be something we’re going to need to take to heart. Are we going to let nostalgia rob us of joy, or are we going to, like the Heiltsuk of Bella Bella, allow our grief to make our joy even more beautiful?

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