Memories from the Future: A Word on Abandoned Houses, Nostalgia, and the Hope of the World

Grateful for this incredible piece by Nate Mills: When I was 3 or 4 I […]

Grateful for this incredible piece by Nate Mills:

When I was 3 or 4 I had an apocalyptic vision. It may not have been as otherworldly as the Ancient of Days appearing in resplendent glory like in Daniel 7, but it was unmistakably surreal. My family was taking a road trip from our home in rural Canada across the 49th parallel when, as we crossed the Ambassador Bridge into Detroit, it appeared: Michigan Central Station, blazing in decrepit glory before my eyes. I was entranced.

Abandoned since 1989, the stunning 18-story neoclassical building appeared as a monolith presiding ominously over the Detroit River. The moment I laid eyes on it I was filled with a holy dread. It was surely no ordinary thing that I had witnessed. How could something so big, so beautiful, simply be rotting away? My early childhood self was not yet well acquainted with decay, and so the Ozymandian monument of post-apocalyptic desertion loomed over the horizon, leaving me with more questions than it had answers for. Somehow, I knew that in the gray twilight between apprehension and comprehension, God was communicating something personally to me through that scene, and the image stayed always at the forefront of my imagination throughout childhood. It would be my task later in life to return and unravel the latent transmission I had received. And, as providence would have it, I could hardly have conceived of a better upbringing for such a task.

Growing up in rural Southern Ontario, I discovered early on that there was an abundance of abandoned farmhouses littered throughout forgotten corners of the lush landscape. Just down the road from my hometown, the government has been embroiled in a legal dispute since the 1970s over the appropriation of farmland through eminent domain for a proposed airport, the result of which was the creation of a ghost town practically at my doorstep. By happy circumstance, I found an outlet that allowed me to revisit the rush of curiosity and wonder that Michigan Central Station had awoken in me by exploring those abandoned structures. Many happy Saturday afternoons were spent with friends in my teenage years riding bikes down dirt roads, looking for vacant houses to explore.

All along, the piercing quality of a strong childhood memory inspired me. I was endlessly fascinated by everything about those homes. I spent hours trying to piece together the stories of the families that once lived there based on the artifacts they’d left behind. The places were saturated in nostalgic longing, offering windows into decades past that were only otherwise accessible to me through carefully curated movie sets, or in the frozen-in-time living rooms of elderly church members. Those abandoned places evinced for me the transcendental desire to find again the wonder that I first discovered in my soul that morning in Detroit. It was a quest to understand the significance of the forsaken places I was shining a light into. There was a tragic drama that characterized each house that I explored, and I wanted to know the full story, and the characters involved, in order to somehow make sense of the incongruity of the existence of those places.

As often as I explored I felt an odd weight of grief mingled with excitement, a mourning over the humanity that was once contained within those walls, and the thrill of uncovering a great mystery. The forlorn drama unfolded as I tried to inventory all that had been lost when each house was ceded back to the land on which it was built. Each scene seemed to be wrapped up in a larger cosmic theme. It was enough to sufficiently occupy my adolescent imagination, and it often did.

Thankfully my B & E spree never landed me in serious trouble with the law, and while it might have appeared to be aimless youthful rebellion, it was in reality a deeply personal spiritual undertaking. It was part of an ongoing quest to understand the perennial mystery of decay in our world that I first became conscious of the morning I laid eyes on Michigan Central Station. Only later in my college years would I reflect deeply enough on my explorations to start uncovering the truth of what they were communicating to me: the subtle yet vital connection between nostalgia and ultimate hope.

During my junior year of college, I came across another image that gripped my imagination the way Michigan Central Station had many years earlier. In an art history class, my professor selected Nicholas Poussin’s painting,“Et in Arcadia Ego” as a piece for study. The painting depicts a group of Greek shepherds who are perplexed when they happen upon a tomb in the midst of their pastoral surroundings, becoming suddenly aware of their shared mortality. Like the shepherds in Poussin’s painting, when I happened upon Michigan Central Station I had become aware for the first time that even in the green pastures of early life, there death is also. Or, as the Prayer Book records, it was a revelation that “Even in the midst of life we are in death.” It was a sober awakening to the nascent truth that is revealed through serious reflection on human life: that nothing and no one that we love in this world, however beautiful, is impervious to decay. Pretty depressing stuff. Yet, paradoxically, the awareness of the world’s impermanence reveals the presence of wells of hope for the future in the nostalgia that inevitably forms in its wake.

In a lecture from the same course, my professor relayed to the class a comment from C. S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory, where he infers that the experience of nostalgia is a precondition for conversion to the Christian faith. Lewis writes: “Our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.” That view of Michigan Central Station had been my first affliction of that old ache. It was a premature momento mori, a revelation like Poussin’s shepherds had received, that the world in its present form is not as it ought to be. By revealing the “truest index of our real situation,” I realized that by turning us backwards towards what is past, nostalgia also reveals our own desire and need for a future reunion with the Being who gives meaning to the absences for which we ache.

For the first time I saw that my strange affinity for abandoned places was a reflection of my own desire to understand the contradictory nature of the fallen world around me. That old ache was temporarily consoled when I immersed myself in the mystery of decay and the longing for restoration of lost time. I know that I have not been the only one to have had my attention captured by God in such a seemingly strange way. There are vibrant local communities around the world of people like myself who consider exploring abandoned places somewhat of a hobby and are eager to share their experience with others.

In a book documenting the sights and history of abandoned places in the Washington, D.C. area, explorer Thomas Keaton ruminates on what it is about ruins that universally excites the human imagination. He writes that

There is order in decay. It is a deeper order and therefore more inexorable than man’s feeble attempts to bring order to the world. Decay is a natural order that lays bare the futility in man’s arrangements of steel, wood, and stone, to build a fanciful roof over his head which celebrates his own glory, to manipulate his hostile environment in his own image. Decay, in effect, is a reminder of man’s own mortality, his own brief cameo in the ongoing serial of geological time.

Decay, which is everywhere around us, exposes the raw insufficiency and failure of any theology of glory that we construct with artifices of stone and wood to distract ourselves from our ever present human condition. The omnipresence of decay reveals our need for a theology of the cross that actually rescues us from the death grip of temporal decay, despite our best efforts at willful blindness. Exploring ruins allows us to see clearly the failures that we would rather not display. While public monuments tell only the stories which those with influence wish to convey, ruins act as entirely unfiltered monuments to time. That is why we are so arrested by the sight of deserted places. Their candor in a world filled with distractions from death is unsettling. Like nostalgic memories, they connect us with a part of ourselves, a time in history, which we thought we had been entirely cut off from.

The more I had explored, the more I had personally become aware of the extent to which our world is fallen through the unmediated scenes of decay that I encountered. No amount of exploration, I realized, would eventually push me through a threshold of understanding after which my curiosity would be satisfied and my quest for comprehension complete. There at the end of each exciting exploration was the same ending. The world does not deliver on its promises. Beauty is left in decay. We are left wishing for more. For this reason, nostalgia is often derided by Christian commentators as a wicked temptation to indulge in fruitless escapism into an idyllic utopian past that was in truth just as fallen and sinful as our world is today. Even with that in mind, I felt that there was something more to my nostalgic curiosity, something hidden within that transcended the temptation to wallow in sentimentality: it was a gateway to real hope.

Lewis referred to that sentiment as “the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence.” The Romantics whom Lewis is referring to were entirely captivated by their wistful longing for the past, and they relayed it in the most poetic of terms. But in their rhetorical pathos they mistook the sign for the thing signified. Lewis continues:

If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

By returning continually to the memory of Michigan Central Station, I was not looking ultimately to return to that moment itself. Even if I were able to do so, I would succeed only in carrying “ruins to ruins.” In that moment I would not find the answer to the mystery of beauty and decay, for the moment itself did not contain the mystery, only it came to me through it.

Nostalgia, then, is a lightning rod grounded in our inner self, concentrating a shock to the vulnerable core where our deepest yearnings reside. As I reflected on my curious longing to understand each abandoned house and the nostalgic longing that emanated from within, I realized that I had been attempting all along to rationalize something that was fundamentally irrational. The very existence of those abandoned homes vividly conveyed the reality that we inhabit a world that stands in need of redemption. We are longing for another home, a true home. The world nostalgia itself is derived from the greek word, nostos, which means to come home. God places in our hearts a longing to come home because there really is a home to which we can return. When we move past the curated Hallmark narratives of romantic pining over the past, we see that the longing is for the thing that those moments in time were ultimately pointing us towards: the hope that we can one day be united with God and delivered from the bondage of our sins. The memories which nostalgia brings to the forefront of our minds are so meaningful to us because they contain fleeting temporal tastes of the joy of unity with God, which we were created to enjoy eternally.

Rather than cruelly orienting us towards an irretrievable past, nostalgia ultimately points us ahead towards a future joy that transcends the sufferings of this world. Nostalgia allows us to glimpse moments where time as we experience it and eternity are indistinguishable. T.S. Eliot described such moments as the apprehension of the point of intersection between time and the timeless. Likewise, the 20th century French mystic Simone Weil wrote in her journal: “The past, not when the imagination takes pleasure over it, but as the moment when some meeting calls it before us in purity, is time colored with eternity. The feeling of reality in it is pure. There we have pure joy. There we have beauty.”

Nostalgia is not a deceptive repression mechanism of the psyche that tries to cover over our memories with a pleasant veneer; it is the deep emotional response to the glimpses of eternal joy which we experience here and now in painfully ephemeral moments. We don’t truly want to return to the moments themselves when they are recalled, we want to return to the joy that they intimated to us in our very souls: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.” Nostalgia provides hope to us as it reveals a desire for union with something beyond ourselves and acts as a barometer of our deepest longing: the hope of redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet all along those glimmers of joy are short lived, and our myopic view of suffering tempts us to abandon hope altogether. Hope, if it is hope at all, must come from outside the futility to which creation has been subjected. Hope must come in some way through transcending the entrapments of a world in captivity to time and decay. Nostalgia simultaneously reveals to us hope’s presence and its very precarious position in this vale of tears.

20th century playwright and writer, Gabriel Marcel, wrote with remarkable insight on the impasse that the world enacts between hope and time’s ineluctable march. After serving in the First World War and living through the Second in France, he had a pressing and personal awareness of the fragility of hope in the modern world. Marcel was not content with viewing nostalgia as a spiritually fruitless dead end. Rather, he thought that nostalgia, when subjected to serious reflection, actually negates the despair that it engenders by illuminating our inner depths. He writes:

I spoke of illuminations: These liberating lights are there to assure us, or to confirm in us the assurance that there, where a proud and blind philosophy pretends to convince us that there is emptiness and nothingness-there is quite the contrary-a plenitude of life, the marvelous reserves of a world where promises abound, where everything that exists is called to a universal communion, where no possibility, no opportunity can be hopelessly lost. Yet, our human structure is such that we only know this immense creative consensus by a presentiment and, alas, infinite are the resources which despair has at its disposal to blind us to the ways these regenerative illuminations can come to us.

When we are able detach from the captivity of time, and imagine that we might one day be delivered from its hands, we realize that the true grounding of hope was never meant to be found within the parameters of our temporal world. Through the intensity of nostalgia we see a glimmer of hope burst forth out of joy. Nostalgia is a providential process by which God pricks a pinhole in the fallen world which we inhabit and allows us a glimpse of it redeemed. Marcel describes such moments of clarity as the “intermittent gleaming of the indefectible fire.” It is a manifestation of the tension that characterizes the state of the world between the comings of Christ. Through nostalgia we see the rough sketch of the God-shaped vacuum that is present in each our souls. Through our own unique memories we glance at moments in which we are temporarily in true harmony and fellowship with God through the experience of joy. Those past memories merely act as windows into the future that God has prepared for us. They are preternatural portals into the redemptive acts of God’s love and mercy towards us in Jesus Christ.  Because the images through which God communicates to us in nostalgic recollection are entirely our own, we are given a partial yet infinitely personal vision of hope for the life to come in which time is no longer an enemy, a life in which we are perpetually unified, rather than increasingly separated from God and our true selves.

Of this hopeful future, Marcel writes: “We might say again that if time is in its essence a separation and as it were a perpetual splitting up of the self in relation to itself, hope on the contrary aims at reunion, at recollection, at reconciliation: in that way, and in that way alone, it might be called a memory of the future.” I would argue that nowhere is this statement more clearly corroborated than in the unique experience of hope that results from nostalgic experience. Marcel elsewhere writes that “hope always implies the superlogical connection between a return (nostos) and something completely new.” Hope comes through nostalgia in the expectancy that our fragmented self will one day be reunified, healed, and made new. When we recall a “memory” in this sense, we have been all along remembering the vision of the future which God has placed deeply within our hearts, and revealed in recollection of our own history. In Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot writes that “A people without history is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern of timeless moments.” God has always worked in and through history to redeem his people, and now that the curtain has been torn we can approach God and recall even our own infinitesimal history as a pattern of timeless moments of infinite importance in God’s ongoing redemptive work and love for individual souls.

Through each nostalgic remembrance we see our own history in timeless suspension, and are brought to the cusp of our true home for which we have hoped to return to our entire lives. It is the place where hope is fulfilled in union with God. What is this hope that comes from the joy of nostalgia? It is the redemption of beauty from the stains of time. It is in the fulfillment of our longing for home, one where decay no longer claims tragic totality over the fate of our world. It is the knowledge that our history is a tool for our redemption. It is the hope that Christ will make all things new.

Until that day, our present bodies are subject to decay. Despite our best efforts at righteousness, there is no health in us. Whatever beauty is found in us will also return “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” In the present time our memories of the future are not complete. But in Christ we have assurance of a good end. St. John writes: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” For now we see the already and not yet presence of God’s kingdom, illuminated so brilliantly in the history of each redeemed soul, and in the history if his church.

I see now that never in any of the deserted places I explored was hope absent. There is hope to be salvaged from every ruin. Through them I was able to preserve the stories of real people who were otherwise forgotten by the world. I was able to redeem what I could in my own narrow place which God gave me, and share it with those around me. I concur in sincere faith with Gabriel Marcel’s reflection that in Christ there is a “universal communion, where no possibility, no opportunity can be hopelessly lost.” So it is with all that we hold dear. God uses our impressionable childhood to convey things to us that we will be too hardened to gleam from the creation around us later in life.

Through recollection and reflection we can be confident that God has opened the door of grace to guide us back to himself each in a unique way by revealing his presence in our most intimate memories. Dostoevsky grasped the same truth when he penned the anticlimactic ending to The Brothers Karamazov. In the closing pages of the novel, panned by critics, but revered so highly by Jack Kerouac and other grace seekers, Alyosha Karamazov addresses a group of young boys after the funeral of one of their schoolmates. The pure hearted young monk says,

You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.

As I look back now on the indelible mark that Michigan Central Station left on me, I see in the fullness of God’s light how my nostalgic recollection of that memory, and the many ruins I consequently explored were always pointing me ahead to the hope of God’s coming restoration. It is true that our path to the future can be found in the past, both in our own memories as subjective guideposts of hope, and in the life of Christ as the objective reality on which our ultimate hope rests. Hope in the form of nostalgia is the light that refracts in the glass through which we see darkly as we await Christ’s coming, when not only will God restore our wasted years, he will restore our very selves when all things are made new. For now we wait, and watch for it in the pattern of timeless moments, in the intermittent gleaming of the indefectible fire.

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11 responses to “Memories from the Future: A Word on Abandoned Houses, Nostalgia, and the Hope of the World”

  1. Sean says:

    This is amazing. Thank you. I will read this several times.

  2. Jim E says:

    Wow, Nate… this is just packed with wonderful stuff. I’ve never really considered nostalgia in this light before… but this resonates as something very deep and very true. It’s an eye/heart opener, and full of grace… I expect I’ll be contemplating this quite a bit. Thank you for it.

  3. Timothy Anderson says:

    One of the best pieces of I have read in recent weeks.

  4. Austin Storm says:

    Wow, really tremendous. Thank you

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