I came to live in this country in 1999 – fourteen years ago. When I first came here, I missed England so much. In the first few months in the Monastery, I would spend much of my time remembering my former life: filled with a mixture of homesickness and nostalgia. I think I lived most of my conscious life at a point somewhere half-way across the Atlantic.
If you’ve ever moved to a new country, or a new part of this country, or made a new start in life – and left the old life behind – you’ll possibly know what it feels like to be living in the present, but also very much in the past – missing friends, missing the familiar, wondering, “Have I made the right choice?”
But living too much in the past, filling our days with nostalgic memories, remembering past experiences or relationships which have now changed, or are no more, can actually be very damaging to our emotional and spiritual lives. The Scriptures are shot through with this theme and come with a warning: Once you have begun a journey, don’t look back.
The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah recorded in Genesis 19 has perhaps the most graphic of all warnings about the dangers of looking back. Lot and his wife are told by God to escape from their city because God is about to destroy it. “Flee for your life – and don’t look back,” say the angels (19:17). So Lot and his wife run away, but as the city is being destroyed, Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. It’s a very strange story, but a powerful image.
The Hebrew word used here for “look back” does not mean glancing over her shoulder, but rather, paying attention to, looking wistfully, with yearning. Lot’s wife stopped and looked back at her past life with longing and nostalgia instead of hurrying on to what lay ahead, as the Lord had urged her.
The trouble with nostalgia, and why it can be such a challenge to the life of faith, is that it is not usually real or true. What we remember nostalgically is usually a distortion. We do not always remember that which really was. Think of the children of Israel on their long, hard journey across the wilderness toward the Promised Land. Life was so tough for them that they started getting very nostalgic for the “good old days” – life back in Egypt. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing: the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. There’s nothing here except this ‘manna’ to look at!”(Num 11:5). But they conveniently forgot in their nostalgia that in Egypt they were slaves, and brutalized by their Egyptian taskmasters.
The Early Church Fathers used this story of the Exodus as a metaphor for our own Christian journey through life – from slavery to sin to freedom in Christ. When things get tough we, too, long sometimes for our old sinful ways and habits, rather than pressing forward in the life of grace. Don’t look back!
Jesus himself is very aware of the temptation to look back. In Luke’s Gospel, after he has set his face to go to Jerusalem, he calls some to follow him, but warns them to think very carefully before they choose to follow him, because once they become his disciples, they must never look back. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God” (9:62). I like that image because, of course, and as his listeners would know very well, if you are plowing by hand, and you keep looking back, you’ll go off course with crooked furrows. Looking back distorts your vision. You have to look forward – look straight ahead of you – if you want to keep on the straight path. As Luke warns us ominously later, “Remember Lot’s wife!” (17:32).
But it is not only nostalgia that encourages us to look back. Our past can have a real power over us: perhaps something in our past which fills us with guilt or regret; something we just can’t shake off, and which we carry as a burden; perhaps a broken relationship, or something we did which we know was wrong. Christ longs to take that burden from us, through the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation. He longs to set us free, so that we can look forward and follow him. Reconciliation with ourselves and with God means learning to look ahead, to keep our eyes on the path in front of us, where we find Christ always leading us onward.
There’s a great image from the Rule of our Society about this: It says, “We cannot keep pace with the Risen Christ who goes before us if we are encumbered with guilt” (Ch. 30). Imagine Jesus walking ahead of you and saying, “Come on!” After I had been in this country for a few months I remember thinking, “It is too difficult for me to live this life as well as the one I used to have.” It weighed me down. I needed to stop looking back at the past and to move forward, following wherever Jesus would lead me.
Where are you on your journey of faith? Maybe you feel you’ve rather lost your sense of direction, or you’ve strayed off the path. Maybe you spend too much time looking back. How much of your life is spent in the past – either in nostalgia, or filled with guilt or regret?
I invite you to reorient yourself, to set your eyes once more on Jesus, to get back on the Way. Jesus is always ahead of us, inviting and encouraging us toward reconciliation, with God and with ourselves. Don’t look back at those parts of your past that you feel keep you from God, which prevent you from following on the Way. Instead, cast your eyes ahead. Today see if you can see Christ turning towards you and saying, “Come on! Don’t look back – Follow me!”