Message in a Bottle #12

It has been a week of hitting restart buttons and a week of watching painful news stories. Last weekend, just when we thought we had made all the necessary adjustments and satisfied all the essential requirements to celebrate Eucharist with 50 of you, our plans were unexpectedly scuttled.  So, we hit the restart button for this weekend and get over the pain of disappointment. The bigger and more difficult pain of this week was the pain watching George Floyd of Minneapolis begging for a little air and a little compassion, at the end of his life, and getting neither. Finding and hitting the restart button where prejudices are finally and forever extricated and replaced by mutual respect, understanding, and love is a much more urgent and necessary task. That shocking scene from Minneapolis was for me a blatant reminder of the truth: pain not transformed within ourselves is 100% of the time transmitted to others. Given that so much pain is transmitted, I wonder if we have taken the time to mourn the things that have caused us pain in life. Or, is this unresolved grief the hidden reason why blaming and transmitting our pain to others still seems like the easier option?  When we do not do our own necessary inner work (soul work), somebody else always pays the price. So, let’s just admit two things: 1) we all carry pain and, 2) we do not always know what to do with it. 

During these months of pandemic lockdown, I have been thinking of one of the most universal pains of all…the pain of loneliness. What is most particular—each person’s unique experience of pain–is also most universal–everyone in the world has experienced loneliness.

Some 16 years ago, Fr. Ron Rolheiser wrote a book entitled The Restless Heart. It is the subtitle, though, “Finding Our Spiritual Home in Times of Loneliness,” that lured me into finally reading it.  Fr. Ron could not have known in 2004 about the devastating effects of loneliness caused by a virus in 2019, yet his insights are so timely.  I’m sure you have experienced at least one of these types of loneliness.

  1. Alienation. This is the feeling of being estranged from others. It is the painful sense of not able to love and understand nor be loved or be understood as we would like.
  2. Fantasy. This form of loneliness is caused by not being in touch with reality. In our need to idealize ourselves as intellectual, as a holy person or as an indispensable colleague in the eyes of people I work with, there is often a discrepancy between our fantasy self and our true self.
  3. Rootlessness. The experience of this loneliness is the feeling of moving through life without an anchor, without absolutes, without a place to identify with. Even Jesus spoke about “the son of man having no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).
  4. Psychological depression. This type of loneliness, unlike the above four, is normally experienced only on a random or sporadic basis; it is not constant nor abiding. It is linked to events such as mid-life crisis, getting over the death of a loved one, the mid-winter blues, etc.
  5. Restlessness. Above and beyond our possessions and accomplishments there remains a constant dissatisfaction with life. It comes from the way our hearts are built. St. Augustine said, “You have made us for Yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in You.”

In the middle of The Restless Heart, Fr. Ron enumerates some of the causes of loneliness. One of the culprits is that the world is transitory (here today and gone tomorrow), but we are not.  Everything we come in contact with will eventually pass away.  Ultimately nothing endures.  Being aware of this, we live in constant loneliness.

Think of the last time you read or heard Ecclesiastes 3; it was probably at a funeral. This is the passage contrasting those 14 opposites and how God has given each an appropriate time or season (“there is a time to be born and time to die; a time to weep and time to laugh,…”). It ends with, “God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, God has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  While God has made every beautiful thing in its time, God has also put “timelessness” into our hearts so that we are never fully in harmony with this beautiful order of things.  If we are “chips off the ol’ block,” that is, if we are made in the image and likeness of God who is timeless, then timelessness is also built into us. “This universe exists in time and is ordered according to certain laws. We, however, exist partly outside of time and, thus, are partly out of tune with this order. We perpetually experience a rift between ourselves and the order of things. From this comes a certain loneliness, a certain restlessness, and a constant disquiet”(Restless, p. 84).

My hunch is that with every moment of loneliness you have ever experienced, just a nanosecond prior, you had an experience of timelessness, an experience of absolute communion with God whose image and likeness you are made in.  And just as suddenly, because a nanosecond flies by quickly, the door closed.  Is it any wonder loneliness would follow a flash of deep communion with God! What else would it be?

Fr. Ron goes on to say that the most important and most deeply rooted loneliness we experience stems from a burning desire to see God. Maybe that is why the bishops, who gathered during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), described the Church, as a pilgrim people. Desire to see the face of God keeps us moving forward and our loneliness confirms we are not there yet.  Of course, we are not just 7 billion people making solitary journeys towards God.  As much as it is a drive to see the face of God, it is equally a drive to see the face of God in every person in the world.  If nothing else, our own loneliness can and should sensitize us to loneliness of others and, thus, make us more compassionate and understanding individuals.

We are thirsting for love and community, for unity with God and others in a body, the body of Christ. Loneliness is God’s way of drawing us into that body (Restless, p. 140).

I am trying to see this pandemic as not just another cause for increased loneliness in the world, but as an invitation to draw closer to the Body of Christ.  Afterall, what is most particular, is most universal.

Fr. Phil


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