I’ve heard the phrase misused a thousand times–co-opted innocently enough to state the very opposite of what the author of the poem from which it comes intended his work to convey, but I never ventured to correct the misuse, except to rant and rave in my own journaling. Once, I started to use it in a piece for a nonprofit I worked for, but decided against it.
But a couple of days ago, I was disappointed to find the phrase quoted in an essay by a man I read regularly as a part of my daily spiritual practice, and I realized I couldn’t let it pass this time without writing about it myself. It wasn’t that Buechner misused the phrase as much as quoting it out of context.
The poet to whom I refer, the great Robert Frost, obviously needs no defense from me or anyone else. It’s those of us who, for various reasons, have found ourselves in lifelong and often disappointing searches for people with whom and places where we feel fully known and loved who need protection from the callousness of the misinterpretation.
To what phrase do I refer?
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
The poem in which it appears, “The Death of the Hired Man,” was written by Frost in 1915. Almost a century later, its lesson is no less applicable–perhaps in some ways more now than ever, especially to Christians.
This phrase is most often quoted as if it stands alone as truth, and yet if it is embraced as truth, it is the coarsest of lies. If those who take you in do so because they “have” to, or because they think it’s the moral thing to do, or because they believe Jesus or the preacher or the rabbi or the teacher said to take you in is the thing, it may be a good thing, but it has nothing to do with “home.” If pity, or self-righteousness, or a sense of obligation or good-deed-doing enters into the picture, any similarity to what the “homeseeker” is in search of disappears. The prodigal son of this version would have returned, not to the unconditional welcome of his father, but to the life of slavery for which he initially prepared himself when he made the decision to turn back.
But, he didn’t. Instead, he came walking toward a dream. Though expecting — even hoping — to get off with serving the deserved consequences of his behavior (the ones conservative Christians often self-righteously feel authorized to enforce), he was met instead with open arms, bright smiles, and the erasure of his debt — imagined or real. His father took him in because he loved him, not because he had to.
You never have to go home — home is where you cannot help but go. And home is not where they have to take you in — home is where the thought never even crosses their minds, where they run to meet you on the road.
For those unfamiliar with “The Death of the Hired Man,” it is the conversation between a husband and wife, sitting on the front step of their house. Warren, a farmer, has come home to find his wife, Mary, waiting for him there — waiting to tell him that she found the hired man Silas in their barn and convinced him to come in, but she couldn’t get him to lie down. She tells Warren that there’s something different about Silas from the last time they saw him, that he’s not well.
Warren is disgruntled that Silas has returned, and doubts his motives. He’d told Silas the last time he’d done work for him that if he left in the middle of haying season, not to come back, and of course, Silas had gone anyway.
But alas, he’s back. We pick up the story here. Mary is speaking:
“Poor Silas, so concerned for other folk,
And nothing to look backward to with pride,
And nothing to look forward to with hope,
So now and never any different.”
Part of a moon was falling down the west,
Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw
And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand
Among the harp-like morning-glory strings,
Taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves,
As if she played unheard the tenderness
That wrought on him beside her in the night.
“Warren,” she said, “he has come home to die:
You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.”
“Home,” he mocked gently.
“Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.”
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”
“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
Warren — justifiably hurt and angry with Silas, whom he tried to help; Warren, skeptical; Warren, a good man who loves Silas in spite of himself — is the character who speaks the phrase quoted so often. But it is what Mary says in response, the part we never seem to quote, that tells the truth about home.
Jesus taught about it in the story of the prodigal son. Robert Frost knew. Buechner knows, too. And so do you and I if we’re honest with ourselves.
Home is something we somehow don’t have to deserve.
Sounds like the kingdom of heaven to me.
And whatever you do, wherever you are, be at home this year.