Along with three others sisters in their mid-30s, I am in a busy café in St. Louis, Missouri, enjoying a lunch of sandwiches and salads. A bit ago, we prayed over our food. Between bites, we’re laughing and chatting about the work we need to do. Feeling happy and a little anxious, we still have many tasks to complete before nearly 80 more sisters arrive from all corners of the country.
It’s the final day of preparations for the Giving Voice National Gathering at Fontbonne University that the four of us — along with a team of three more sisters and two other women — have been planning since the fall of 2018. The theme for our gathering is “The Boldness and Beauty of Communion: Living Religious Life NOW!” and we have four days of prayer, presentations, discussions, workshops, art and fun planned to help us break open how our communal lives compel us to be “experts of communion,” as Pope Francis insisted. We long to be awake to…
I hear the longing for things to be as they once were.
I hear it when I sit with elders in a circle during an event at the spirituality center where I minister, when they express concern about the lack of young adults, youth and children in their churches. I hear it when I talk to catechists at area parishes and they share their hope that young adults who’ve left the church after confirmation will return once they miss the sacraments and want their children to learn the faith. I hear it when I listen to some elder sisters in my community, when they express sadness that there aren’t large groups of young women applying to join our congregation every year.
I get it. It’s normal to hold out hope that things will go back to what we once knew, what made sense to us. I understand.
Yet, I also struggle with the notion, with the longing for things to be as they once were.
I aim to lovingly listen when elders express disappointment about the era we’re in now. But I don’t tell them that I hear their grief…
I was 10 when it happened. I fell in love with silence.
I was looking for my own church. My mom would drop me off at places of worship for different denominations — Catholic, Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. I think I also went to the synagogue. I would attend a service and no one would talk to me or even notice I was there. One day I went to my friend’s Quaker meeting. It was a group of about six-to-eight people that met in the living room of a house. The worship service was purely an hour of silence. If someone felt lead they could speak a simple message, but a meeting that small was mostly filled with a lot of silence. At the end of the meeting, one of the men rose from his seat and started to shake hands. Then everyone shook hands, exchanging a peace, breaking the silence.
And an amazing thing happened. Adults looked me in my eyes. I felt seen. I felt recognized as a spiritual seeker. I found my spiritual home. I stayed and became quite active in the Society of Friends. I served on committees as a teenager and helped to plan a national gathering. I attended Quaker camps, a Quaker boarding school and eventually a Quaker college where I majored in religious studies. All along, I was falling in love with silence and learning to pray beyond words.
Today that continues. Silent contemplative prayer is part of my daily life. As a Catholic and a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, I am now immersed in a prayer form similar to what I discovered when I was 10.
Since August 1, 1878, FSPA has practiced the constant prayer called perpetual adoration. In the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, we sit in silence and pray beyond words. We adore. We give thanks. We feel our own littleness. We find a peace in our heart that remains with us long after we rise from our seats. We bring that stillness and burning love we find in adoration into our daily lives and all we do.
I have to admit; sometimes I do not want to go to my hour of adoration. Sometimes I am tired or bored. It isn’t always all sweetness and light. But that is okay. That is the practice. I get there. I settle in, and slowly I become still. Every hour is different. It is a relationship. I am spending time with my beloved. Nothing stays the same. Sometimes the hour flies by and I find I have spent the entire 60 minutes in total stillness, have not moved a bit. I might be really involved in praying for others, or start to read a prayer, get caught on a word and the whole world opens up. It is a very intimate living time that changes with each experience. Somehow it never gets old.
Thomas Merton says that “Contemplation knows God by seeming to touch him. Or rather it knows him as if it had been invisibly touched by him … Touched by him who has no hands, but who is pure reality and the source of all that is real! Hence contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the real within all that is real.”
It is this awakening that I appreciate in those moments of quiet. Here is a video in which I describe seven simple steps to practicing prayer beyond words.
May you be blessed to discover this awakening in your own life!
Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
The world that surrounds us is daunting,
too many voices speak truth
and prophetic words from false prophets
God cannot be both compassionate
and a defense through which morality props
up the unjust
But the most persuasive voices
can tailor the emperor’s clothes
to align with God’s will
or is it man’s?
So that the immigrant is still detained
the prisons overflow
race is divisive
the poor are criminalized
the natural world degraded
walls are built
And weapons are beat not into plowshares,
but into proclamations that they alone
can make us secure.
The drumbeat goes on
And then, in stillness
the God who is addressed in prayer
who is challenged and cursed and loved
Enter into discomfort, dispel rational thought
that has normalized hate, and do not tread on the surface, but abandon it for the deepfor it is therethat the truth will be uncoveredrevealing that all are created
in the image and likeness of Godall are made holy and sacred and just.
It is a profound truth,
if only because the voice that responds is feminine
as though all of the daughters and sisters and mothers
had preached a holy Gospel that for too long had gone unheard in the echo chambers of the ordained and the backroom channels of the elected and the boardroom coffers
of an ever-present greed
and the people would plead,
and the faithful would gather:
We must rise from dust and ashes to a sermon on the mount that was once proclaimed not mere allegory or callous refrain but a prophetic truth that has always been
that has always been until it wasn’t
because we had strayed so far from the road
that the Judean was left to rot and decay
and Lazarus awoke only to die again
and the fishermen did not walk on water
but capsized in the storm,
their bodies washed to shore
not as fishermen, not as disciples,
but as refugee children drowned
and the rich man walked through
the eye of the needle
and the mob picked up the pile of stones
and the loaves and fishes were hoarded away
and the other cheek was not turned to the side,
but instead a gun was drawn
and the bullets pierced those hands
that once held nails
And we wept.
For so long we wept and cried out:
My God, my God why have you forsaken me?
And in reply her voice dispelled any rumor or denial:
My child, my child it is you who have forsaken me.
For in that moment our truth had finally been revealed
For we cannot claim a compassionate God
if the God we choose is a placeholder
to uphold unjust views
or whose ears fall deaf to the cries of the poor
or who promotes a prosperity
that benefits a few and no more.
For we cannot claim a compassionate God
and proclaim the Gospel as the only truth
when that very same God is rejected by us
because he or she does not look like us
but rather the image that appears
reflected in our mirror is
the immigrant detained by us
the refugee excluded by us
the inmate who profits us
the detainee tortured by us
the gay man shamed by us
the child abused by us
the woman silenced by us
the poor forgotten by us
And all of it in my name.
So forgive us, we know not what we do.
Forgive us, even though we know
that it’s not quite true:
for we know exactly what we do.
Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, while an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois.He currently lives near Madison and is a stay-at-home dad to two creative and adventurous kids, and is an active member of the Catholic Worker community there.
I sat down in front of 15 pre-K students for our bi-weekly Bible story time, expecting more or less to follow our routine. Every Wednesday and Friday I join them for a 15-minute story session, telling toddler-friendly versions of Sunday’s scripture or the classic Bible stories that adults clean up and present to young children: Adam and Eve, Noah, Daniel and the lions’ den and the rest. After the story I field questions for a few minutes (I’m most often asked whether or not I think someone’s new shoes were cool), end with a prayer and head back up to my office to prepare for my afternoon lessons with the older kids.
But this day we did not follow our routine. This day was Good Friday, and I had brought for them a story called “A Very Sad Day” which, albeit in simple terms, described Jesus’ crucifixion. It concluded, “So the soldiers took Jesus away. They nailed him on a wooden cross and left him to die. Jesus’ family and friends were very sad. They had lost a very special person.” I closed the story and waited for questions. There were none. That should have told me that something was off … they always had questions. But I didn’t notice. Maybe it was the routine; maybe it was the hunger from fasting that day; maybe it was just the inexperience of being a first-year educator. Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the lack of questions or the looks on their faces.
I went back to my office and began to prep for the afternoon. After about 10 minutes I got a phone call. “Hello, Mr. Steven. Hi, its Mrs. C., in the pre-K room. Could you come back, please? Something is … not right. Please come down. Right away.” I went right away.
When I arrived, the class was in pandemonium. One kid was at the sand center, just dumping sand on the floor. One kid was punching a wall. Two kids were on the floor, hugging each other and crying. Another was spinning in a circle. Another was ripping up paper from his notebook. They all looked upset. I turned to Mrs. C. with a quizzical what-in-the-world face. And she looked at me and said, “They’re really upset. About Jesus.”
I gathered the kids on the story carpet, and started asking what they were feeling.
The chorus of tiny voices responded “Mad. Sad. Why?”
I struggled to understand what exactly was going on. “I don’t understand. Our stories have had death in them before. You know what death is. We had that whole conversation when Charlie’s grandpa died.”
“This is different.”
“Because Jesus is the best. It’s not fair. He didn’t do anything. He’s the best.”
“The best at what? Tell me what you mean?”
“He’s the best.”
“But,” I continue, “is this a surprise? You guys come to Mass. Haven’t you heard the parts at the end about when this happens?”
They blink, uncomprehending. I guess not.
“But I know we’ve talked about this before. I mean, look, there, that crucifix on the back of the wall. That’s a statue of Jesus. Did you not know that statue was about this story?”
“That’s Jesus!!” one little girl screamed. The tiny voices descended into a clamor of shock and outrage.
I felt myself losing control of the situation so I quickly interrupted them all. “Well, wait … wait. If you haven’t heard this story before then you haven’t heard the next one either! Do you know what happened next?”
They sat in quiet and skepticism before asking the question “No … what happens next?”
“Wait here!” I leaped up, gave a nod to Mrs. C. and sprinted, as fast as I could, faster than I thought I could, up the stairs to my office. I grabbed the toddler Bible and headed back down, faster still. I didn’t want to keep them waiting, not another second. Another teacher saw me running and asked where the fire was. “Christ is Risen!” I yelled over my shoulder, and plummeted back into the room.
I sat back down in front of the kids. “This is the story of the first Easter. Jesus’ friends buried him in a cave. They rolled a huge stone across the doorway. But when they came back, the stone had been rolled away …” When the story ended they clapped. They cheered. Several pairs hugged each other. One started crying in relief. It was like watching a tiny team of NASA scientists pull of a moon landing.
When I finally I walked back up to my office, I lowered myself into my chair and started to think. When was the last time this story had affected me like that? When had it stopped affecting me like that? How had I become someone who not only didn’t see this story for what it was — the greatest possible tragedy, the boldest possible comeback — but I had become so accustomed I couldn’t foresee how it would sound to new listeners. All year I had told these young students — many from non-Catholic homes, many who had never heard these stories except from my telling — that Jesus was their friend, that he was the best possible man, that he was the nicest possible person. And then I had killed him, without warning, and I didn’t expect them to react?
“I’m sorry God. I’ve stood too close to you for too long and have become careless in your presence. I’m living next to a waterfall, and I’ve ceased to hear the sound. Help me hear again.”
We live in a world, in a nation, in a culture, where many have not heard the stories of Jesus. This is true even within the church. In my religious education classes it is not uncommon to have high school students who can barely relate to any stories from the Gospel. This can be frustrating at times. But it’s also an opportunity — an opportunity only missionaries get. We get to tell the story of Jesus to listeners for the first time.
Just last week I was with 10 high school students in religious education, and none of them had heard the story of the woman caught in adultery.
“You’ve never heard this story? It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. Here it is. So, these religious scholars, right, they think they’re holier than everyone else. And they don’t like Jesus taking that away from them. So they lay this trap for him. They bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery …”
At the end of the story, they are silent. “Jesus did that?” one asked.
“Yes, Jesus did that,” I said.
“But that’s so … so … cool?” questioned another.
“Yes,” I said. “He is. Very. He did stuff like that all the time. Is it any wonder so many of us love him?”
“Tell us another one!” a third student said.
To explain these stories to listeners for the first time can be a challenge. It can be especially frustrating when dealing with Catholic students, to think they’ve made it through 10 or more years of life and not understand the basic story that underpins the faith of the church of which they are a member. But mostly it’s a privilege. To explain to people why you fell in love — why you are in love — with the God who saved you? There is no greater honor nor is there a greater delight.
But you have to be careful. You have to be sure that you don’t stop hearing them. Because if you do, if you cease to hear the story in the re-telling, then the love goes out of your voice, and it’s not the same story any more. Then you can get blindsided when you hurt people with your careless retelling or, worse yet, you bore them. Then you fail to do justice to the story and thereby to the man and the God.
So my Lenten prayer for you is that you are able to hear Jesus’ story for the first time … again. There truly is no more powerful story in heaven or on Earth, if only we have the ears to hear it.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
My stomach felt like an empty pit. There could not possibly have been anything left in the tank. I had already been on the toilet for 10 minutes, but I had not built up enough confidence to walk away. Diarrhea for reasons beyond our control is bad enough. This time it was, I admit, completely self-inflicted.
A few days earlier, I had started a bread-and-juice fast for the season of Lent. Three times a day, at normal meal times, I had a simple piece of bread (preferably multigrain, as my body begged for nutrients) and a glass of fruit juice. I was also drinking lots of water, and it was going straight through me. Fasting always sounds like a brilliant idea before… [This is the beginning of an essay recently published by America. Continue reading here.]
Originally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. He now is studying in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. (Photo credit: www.jesuits.org)
Oh God, who desire not the death of sinners,
but their conversion,
mercifully hear our prayers
and in your kindness be pleased to bless these ashes,
which we intend to receive upon our heads,
that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes shall return to dust,
may, through a steadfast observance of Lent,
gain pardon for sins and newness of life
after the likeness of your Risen Son.
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
(Prayer for Blessing and Distribution of Ashes)
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
dust, I am
we all are
a fragment of a larger whole
floating through the open air
only visible to the naked eye
when illumined by light
some days I am
certain I was once
a piece of His flesh
and now I am floating
trying to reunite
with my maker
my true home
most days I am
like a fragment
of an ignored
or crumb of
yet the grace
the dust of me,
of us all
is an offering
able to unite
to give life
may this true love
“I have a home here because I know people care for me.” These are the words of my friend and housemate, Tikelah, also known as Miss T. Miss T had a home with her grandma as a young child. Since the age of 10, she has been jumping around from temporary house to life on the streets of Durham to a whole slew of group homes, desperately searching for a place of care to call home.
I have the gift of making a home at the Corner House along with Miss T and six others. We are a strange sort of family, rooted in our belonging in Jesus, committed to learning how to love and care for one another. Our ages range from 2 to 67. Some of us live with developmental disabilities, and some of us do not. All of us are bearers of Christ to one another and gift-givers in our little shared life.
What does it mean to be a community of care? How can we deepen in our care for one another in a world so caught up in efficiency and the self-protection of individualism? These are the current questions of my heart.
It is significant to me that the origin of the word “care” comes from Germanic and Old English words for “grieve” and “lament.” To be in a community of care has something to do with bearing one another’s burdens and crying out alongside one another. A community of care shares a togetherness in suffering. This is the kind of community to which Paul gestures when he says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn,” (Romans 12:15) and “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” (Galatians 6:2).
I used to live in a Catholic Worker hospitality home committed to sharing daily life with some folks living on the streets in Durham. We would often repeat to one another, “abide, don’t fix.” I know well the impulse to see a problem or pain and immediately yearn to fix it, eliminate it or somehow make it better. We live in a world that is quick to celebrate cures and explanations, so often abstracted from the solidarity of relational care. This leads to all sorts of depersonalized policies and “solutions” for injustices that separate us, including such things as race, disability and poverty. A community of care is one in which being together is paramount. Something happens when that commitment to “be together” journeys through pain. The communion is transfigured and a new horizon of love opens up.
In our home, we have three residents who have lost their mothers and other close family members in the last several years. The sadness of these losses remains strong. Almost every single day, the grief bubbles up. We are learning the surprising gift of abiding. Even with the intimacy and intensity of our life together, the lurking traps of trying to avoid the pain or say something to make it all better (which isn’t actually possible) are present. We so badly want to take away the pain of those we love. There is such a temptation in the midst of relational care and responsibility to think we control the quality of life together through doing or saying the right thing. Praise God we aren’t in control. We are learning the beauty of releasement as we sit together and discover our own capacities to listen to one another. We are uncovering the vast depths of love and knowing that emerge from open-handed, steadfast presence with one another. It can actually be quite surprising what we learn of each other and ourselves and God when we stop trying to fix the hurt we see.
I wonder how contemplative practice might orient us to abide, rather than fix, in our care for one another? As we discover our own depths and become more aware of God’s direct, loving, active presence in our lives, we come face to face with our own wounds. In silent practice, in particular, we are confronted with our personal loneliness, fears and anxieties. Through a commitment to showing up to some form of contemplation–resting in the God who is the ground of our being–our relationship with these deep wounds shifts. Perhaps the control they once wielded over our patterns of behavior and thought life softens and we can see them for what they are. We can receive Jesus’ invitation into freedom.
“Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, wounds, failure, disgrace, death itself all have a hidden potential for revealing our deepest ground in God. Our wounds bear the perfumed trace of divine presence.” – Martin Laird, “Into the Silent Land”
As we come to recognize in our our pain the “perfumed trace” of God’s transformative presence, our relationship with others and their own pains is changed. We begin to see the nonsense in fixing, and the beauty of abiding. And within abiding, there is room for deepening, always closer and closer, drawn into the merciful heart of Jesus. Whatever the journey of becoming more freely and fully who we are created to be entails, we are invited into it together, as a community that enters into pain before trying to do something about it. This is the slow, patient work of care.
The root of our care is God’s care for us. In the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, God reveals the mysterious depths of care. In Jesus, God became a human being and identified with our human woundedness. God cried out with us and entered into our pain and loneliness and fear. God doesn’t know what it is to “fix” from a distance or to be absent from our pains. God is too simple for that. In Christ, we discover care in God’s steadfast, abiding nearness, transforming the blockages of sin into doorways for new life.
Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia recently met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.
The 2015 movie Spotlight shows the painful and vital role of the outsider in exposing the systemic sex abuse perpetrated by clergy throughout Boston, and the U.S. Key outsiders, including the Jewish editor of the Boston Globe, the Armenian attorney representing survivors of abuse, and, most importantly, the survivors themselves, unlocked this horrific cover-up.
One of the most telling scenes in the film is when abuse survivor Phil Savianotells his story of abuse to the Spotlight reporters at the Boston Globe. One of the reporters notes that he seems eccentric, too passionate and perhaps unstable.
Of course he was. He was abused, traumatized by a priest. He understands the church in a way an insider, who benefits from the system, never will.
The implication in Spotlight, is that Phil may be an unreliable source because his demeanor is not that of a slick communications professional or soft-spoken pastor. And more importantly, his story went against the dominant narrative of the church in Boston. It is just so easy to dismiss someone who has no power, who goes against the grain of an institution from which so many not only personally benefit, but identify with on a core level.
This week, Pope Francis will convene a 4-day summit with bishops from throughout the world on the sex abuse crisis that continues to traumatize Catholics.
On matters of official church teaching, the all-male hierarchy has the final say. This suggests a power imbalance. And as with all power imbalances, the question of whose voice is legitimized in dialogue should be raised. Who do we believe, in the church and in society? Whose voices matter? And why?
Throughout church history, it is often an outsider whose voice is most genuine and prophetic, and who sparks change. This is because outsiders often hold little to no power, and can truly understand corrupt and unequal structures. Outsiders, due to their vantage point, are a gift, and should be embraced by all who want a more just church and world.
I recently wrote a piece about Roy Bourgeois in the Patheo’s blog Sick Pilgrim, which I hope creates dialogue about the roles of outsiders and women in the church. Roy was a founder of SOA Watch, an incredible movement for demilitarization and anti-imperialism, for which he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The movement was widely supported by many Catholics. Then, after 40 years of practicing as a priest, Roy was excommunicated from the church because he refused to recant his support for women’s ordination.
Remarkably, Roy became an outsider due to following his conscience before he was excommunicated, but, as I write in this article, his understanding of the church became much clearer after being emphatically pushed out.
Roy was silenced. His voice was not welcome because it threatened the power of the all-male clergy, challenged the dominant narrative, and suggested that women could help heal the church. And for many of his previous supporters, this was enough to ignore him. The Vatican legitimized his ostracism, and if you personally benefit from the institutional church, then it removed the burden of having to bother with women’s inequality anymore.
I think it is nearly impossible for most people to understand the full picture of an institution from which they benefit, whether it is their job, their social life or their vows. This is why outsiders are a vital asset to all groups and societies. History always shows us that it is outsiders who bravely step into the public sphere, shine light on the truth and guide our way forward.
As the discussion of systemic abuse continues this week at the Vatican, let’s pray for outsiders, for whom we are all indebted. It is through their courageous lives and the grace of God that institutional culture changes. Let’s pray for their strength to turn pain and betrayal into action. For it is only through action that they, too, can be free.
Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.
Sitting alone in a living room on a dark winter night, I am staring at a screen once again. With a TV buzzing in the background, I scroll down through tragic headlines, past photos of smiling babies and occasional political rants. The warmth of the laptop upon my legs and its glow across my face create a cozy feeling perfect for a winter night.
Then, I notice the status update of an acquaintance from years ago; a little cry for help that sends a ripple of worry through me: Been feeling lonely and wanna meet some people. You guys have any ideas?
In the Gospel of Mark, there is a story about the movement of Jesus’ heart: In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat, Jesus summoned the disciples and said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and having nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way …” (Mark 8:1-3)
Today, two millennia later, the great crowds are online. Now, we rarely sit on hillsides and absorb the wisdom of prophets and teachers. Instead, we stare at screens and connect virtually. We often ignore those who are in the same room or neighborhood. Instead, we share and retweet the insights of like-minded friends living in other time zones.
By each act, our needs and desperation glare out at us, reflecting back at us like images in mirrors. In the gap between these flat surfaces and real-time — lived human experiences — we meet our longings for intimacy and connection; for closeness with others, God, and our true selves.
I am fascinated by how technology influences our processes of building relationships with one another today. I am especially curious about how the changes impact the way we serve, love, share and care for others. With more ways for us to connect, are our communities stronger? Healthier? How are we living out the Christian call to create inclusive communities and care for one another? Does our modern tendency to connect more through screens and devices than through human contact, touch, influence our spiritual health?
The Incarnation — God taking on human flesh — insists that our human bodies are holy, sacred. Sitting around tables and sharing bread and wine is sacramental. Praying side-by-side and sharing air and space is communion on holy ground. We are made to be together, united as one.
Yet, we often are not. In fact, there is a rise in the number of people who are considered lonely. To give you a sense of just how alone we feel, in the 1980s, 20 percent of adults were chronically lonely; a 2010 study told us that 35 percent of people over 45 are now chronically lonely. It’s even more grim for millennials. As noted in Stop Being Lonely by Kira Asatryan, “nearly 60 percent of those aged 18 to 34 questioned spoke of feeling lonely often or sometimes, compared to 35 percent of those aged over 55.” (p 28).
And, it turns out that loneliness is slowly killing us. If you are chronically lonely, your blood pressure increases, your immune responses decrease, and you are likely to gain excess weight and suffer from insomnia, headaches and anxiety. Researchers tell us that chronic loneliness increases mortality by as much as 26 percent. It is such a serious public health problem that a year ago the UK appointed a Minister for Loneliness.
We are social animals, we are meant for each other. We are called to be in community. It’s actually all science, as the research of John Cacioppo highlights.
So, what are we supposed to do? I’m not sure. I am still learning, making my way forward into serving and living in this mess. But I am certain that we are called to build connections, community.
It comes down to this: we all need to have strong connections to exist and be healthy. This is the way God designed it; nature helps us know it. Actually, scientists theorize that loneliness has a biological function; it is an innate drive that works to help our species survive. The emotions and symptoms of loneliness exist to motivate us to reach out, to get closer to the tribe … the community.
Been feeling lonely and wanna meet some people. You guys have any ideas?
My scrolling pauses and I contemplate how to respond compassionately, kindly. I know that responding to the needs of others expressed online doesn’t have the same effect as responding in-person or over the phone, that whatever words I might type could go ignored or unread.
Yet, I feel compelled to serve and care. Is this pity? Like Jesus, when he looks upon the hungry crowd?
I recognize the scale and scope are vastly different, but the question remains: how do we respond to an expressed need? What is helpful, appropriate, meaningful, real? In seconds, I settle on an action and type “Have you ever considered trying MeetUp.com to see if there’s a group in your area that you’d like to join?”
My heart sinks some and prays a bit of blessing and hope for that person. I feel uncertain about what I’ve done; unsure whether it was enough, if it really made a difference at all. It’s hard to know what’s the compassionate, Christian way to act in this modern, technology-infused world.
I return to scrolling, reading. I don’t ever follow up to see if the person is feeling better. And I don’t feel any better, either.