I wasn’t sure what it would look like, or how terrible it would be, but deep in my gut I felt something squirming. An awareness. A knowing. An intuition. I had a feeling that bad days were ahead.
I am fairly certain that my intuition that we were heading toward a humanitarian crisis wasn’t unusual. I know I am not unique in this regard. It’s connected to the recent uptick in the popularity of dystopian novels and films. It’s related to the fear and anxiety that caused this nation to elect a racist, misogynistic and xenophobic president — to latch onto his tendency to scapegoat and split the unity that formed our identity. I’ve sat in circles with other sisters many times, musing over what we might do once a time of trouble arrived.
But I never thought it would be like this, a global coronavirus pandemic. Yet here we are. The crisis has arrived, and it is serious and costly… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
Months ago, while my mind and heart were whirling after moving from rural Wisconsin to Chicago, I attempted to run a simple and quick errand: buy some shampoo. Another sister went with me, and we carried along a short list of things we needed for our new household. At the store, we found little of what we were looking for, even though the store bore a familiar name and allowed the expectation. I scanned the shelves for the kind of shampoo I like, but all the bottles were unfamiliar and unaffordable. Disoriented and overwhelmed, my body tensed with frustration and disgust. This store didn’t have anything I wanted.
In another aisle, I complained to the sister with me. And then, a man approached us, his face looking stressed. He mumbled a request. “Can you help? Can you help me buy some laundry soap? And a few other things for my family?” I barely understood him. I thought, “Why don’t people just name what they need? Why don’t people speak clearly?” I asked him… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
What is it about the nature of human gratitude that propels us to make offerings and manifest our feeling in the material world? Why do we tend to create and extend more goodness to others as a way to express our appreciation?
Lately, I am marveling in the mystery of human goodness and how it connects to gratitude. When we we say thank you, we share goodness and the goodness expands. Every gesture and offer of appreciation seems to ripple outward, increasing gladness and gratitude. And, part of what’s great is that no one ever seems to grow tired of hearing “Thank you!” There are no limits to sharing the goodness.
It’s an an ancient human phenomenon, this tendency of ours to give back and share once we’ve known a blessing. We find evidence of it in Psalm 116 as the psalmist expresses a longing to “repay” God for the goodness they have known:
Here, in our Franciscan household, we’re doing food prep and working out our menu for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving celebration. Just like many people in the United States, we’re going to create and offer more goodness to others in order to express our gratitude for the goodness we’ve experienced. We’ll savor what’s delicious and fill our bellies. And in the midst of it all, we’ll somehow increase the gratitude that warms our happy hearts.
For many, the holiday season (Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas combined) is all about goodness and gratitude. In the coming weeks, many of us will bake sweets for neighbors and colleagues. We’ll offer gifts to loved ones and host celebrations for our family and friends. We’ll send out thank you cards and gratitude letters. Again and again, we’ll create more things, and as we do we’ll share the goodness we’ve experienced.
This time of year, many people are also increasing their acts of service and charitable giving, and each time they do they are sharing from their abundance — often out of appreciation.
Here’s a few ways you could give your gratitude: GivingTuesday is next Tuesday, and it’s a great time to share your wealth and love. My community is raising money for our ministry fund. A nonprofit that I’ve been involved with since 2004, Waking the Village in Sacramento, California, is opening a new Tubman House site in January. It will serve 16 children and youth leaving homelessness behind, putting their strengths to work in pursuing education, career, and wellness. They are in need of donations to outfit bedrooms, kitchens, classrooms, and family rooms and have created an Amazon Wishlist. (One warning about charitable giving and service this time of year: please avoid making the struggles of others into your special holiday entertainment.)
For all the goodness you’re offering to others, for the ways you’re sharing your abundance and expressing your gratitude, I say, thank you! Thank you, good people, for extending the goodness that you have known to others and for warming others with gladness and appreciation!
Years ago, at a family gathering with cousins and aunts and uncles rubbing shoulders and shaking hands, I uttered words for which I was shamed and even scolded.
We were in the hills of Iowa at my uncle’s pig farm. He was the eldest uncle. His children were at least a decade older than me, if not two. The toys that lingered in the farmhouse from their youth were minimal and seemed outdated. Although I loved my cousins, they had nothing new to offer me either.
“Mom, I’m bored!!!” I whined loudly, as if my pronouncement meant that everyone ought to resolve my discomfort.
My mother said nothing. Instead, she nodded and returned her attention to the nearby adults. Likely used to my outbursts, she knew when it was appropriate to correct my behaviors, when a response was necessary.
An aunt who didn’t know me as well chimed in. She was the wife of my uncle, the pig farmer. “No one is allowed be bored here! There is always something to do!” The tone of her voice and the scowl on her face told me that I had committed a mortal sin for allowing myself to become bored, and, even worse, to complain about it.
Ever since, I have struggled to hush her judgement.
My calendar has been crammed with all sorts of activity lately, all of it great. Yet, the buzz of service has me feeling spent. My mind and soul feel clogged by distraction and jumbled by excessive input. Although what I am going through has cramped my contemplative and creative style, I suspect that the pace I’ve been keeping lately is much more like the one most Americans maintain. It’s an accidental act of solidarity for me–a Franciscan sister with the privilege of poverty and prayer–to enter into the frenzy of noise and commotion that defines modern life for so many.
And, in this visit to the place of a-lot-is-going-on and every-screen-and-electronic-device-is-adding-noise, I have discovered that the spirit is inviting me into the sacred space of boredom, a place that my aunt shunned and I was taught to fear in my youth.
In his essay, James K.A. Smith, “In Praise of Boredom,” (Image Journal, Issue 99) writes. “In a world of incessant distraction, the way out might look like learning how to be bored. A little ennui could go a long way; it could be the wardrobe we need now. We need to learn how to be bored in order to wean ourselves off distraction and open ourselves to others and the Other—to make ourselves available for irruptions of grace.”
I agree. Boredom is beautiful. It’s a grace to enter into the sacred spaces where we not sure how to be with ourselves or what to do. The opportunity of being uncomfortable in the moment and of feeling lost in open space, allows a chance to listen deeper than the complications and distractions offered by our screens and devices and the repeated human habit of seeking pleasure and comfort. Instead, in the cracks and pauses, we can become open to the Spirit stirring in our hearts and minds. We can lean in to the loving presence of God. I have come to believe that boredom is actually essential to healthy spiritual living.
A few years ago, I packed up my high school classroom and moved to the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Here, I’ve been on staff at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center and savoring the quiet and beauty of the Northwoods, while helping to offer retreats, programs, and good hospitality. Before I arrived, I heard a repeated concern that I would be “bored” in the woods, that it could be too tough for me. It’s laughable now, of course, because my life here has been anything but boring, but I can understand how city-dwellers might make such an assumption about rural life.
In a few weeks, I will be packing up again, moving back to Chicago to begin an internal FSPA ministry: living alongside our novices as a finally professed sister. And the paradox of the path of my life is that I anticipate that entering into this new phase will actually allow me to be much more bored than living and serving at Marywood. For this boredom, and the graces it could open, I say, “Bring it on!”
I am alone in my bedroom, sitting cross-legged on the floor. I have set my timer, so I know when I must move. But for now, this is all there is. I light the candle nearby, then close my eyes and move my mind — my focus — into the rhythm of my breathing. On the other side of my eyelids I sense the flicker of light, the glow of what is in front of me. I feel the subtle heat emanating from the flame. My body is barely still, yet I try to say yes to the chance to truly “be still and know that God is God” as God encourages me to do. I resituate my hips, straighten my spine. I hold my hands in my lap, and press my palms onto my knees. Slowly, eventually, stillness and silence seem to surround me. A sacred word makes its way into my mind — a word or phrase or traditional prayer, depending on the day.
Breath, light, heat, stillness, silence and words: these are my touchstones as my mind wanders, taking tours of the past or dreaming up the future. Each time a… [This is the beginning of a reflection I wrote for Carl McColman’s blogat Patheos. Continue reading here.]
Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery, hmm … but weakness, folly, failure also. Yes: failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters. – Yoda, to Luke Skywalker, “The Last Jedi”
It is good to remind myself, every now and then, that in a very real sense I am working to put myself out of a job. In two of the most important roles in my life, that of father and youth minister, I will only have succeeded if and when I am fully and finally replaced.
This has never been more on my mind than it has been this last month. Recently, I became a godfather for the first time, flying out to Chicago to stand beside my best friend and his wife as they baptized their brand new little girl. Not two weeks later, I watched as a good friend of mine was ordained a priest. And in both of these holy moments — both moments in which I stopped and praised God for the people in my life and the grace of the sacraments — my time of prayer was filled with reminders of being replaced.
The first was in the prayer I prayed for my goddaughter. Looking down into her small face and holding her tiny hand, and then later in a stolen moment of prayer after the baptismal ceremony, I found myself praying: “God, let her be the best of us. Let her surpass all of us in holiness. Let her become such a saint that we end up seeking her intercession, and may her prayers for us be even more effective than ours for her because she is that much more in your favor.”
At the ordination, in a liturgy filled with incredibly meaningful and memorable moments, the most impactful for me was watching my friend and newly-minted priest exchange the sign of peace with my spiritual director — another good friend, an incredibly gentle and holy man, a trusted mentor, and a priest who just weeks ago announced his retirement. I watched these two friends of mine embrace — one just beginning his priestly ministry, the other reaching the tail end of his — and found myself praying that my friend would be an even better priest than my mentor was.
May my goddaughter surpass me in holiness. May our new priests surpass our veteran priests in service.
What am I to make of this longing to be replaced and for those I love to be replaced as well? It is perhaps one of the most common temptations we humans face — the desire to be important. We want to be wanted; we wanted to be needed. We want people to recognize our talents and accomplishments. We love to sit at the head table at banquets and the most important seats in the assembly. Such temptations are always problematic, but in ministry, they can be especially insidious. Perhaps the greatest reason is simply for the fact that the desire to be recognized and applauded — especially for doing the work of the Gospel — is so foreign to the mind of Christ.
The Christian life is a constant call to humility, and that means seeking the lowest place. Christ constantly emptied himself — he took on flesh and claimed his place alongside the lowly and died alongside them. Christ instructed us to wash up and smile when we fast and to not let even our right hand know how much our left hand is giving. As ministers seeking to emulate this way, that means constantly dying to ourselves by always looking for places to step aside and let new ministers take up our tasks. And when they surpass us, when they do what we did even better than we did it, we ought not to sulk or pout or complain about being forgotten. We should rejoice in that God is glorified once again in a new generation.
Yet, so often we do not. As liturgical ministers, we refuse to skip a turn or take a seat and allow someone else to serve at Mass. At soup kitchens, we have to be the one to dish up, and we make the new people wash dishes in the back. We let the new girl talk at the meeting but make sure to cut her off if she starts contributing ideas that outshine our own. We sit in our place, our hard-won place, and we refuse to budge an inch.
How much better would it be if we rejoiced each time we were surpassed, especially if we had the honor of playing some special role in forming the one who replaces us? It would be all the better because being surpassed by our students is also the most natural thing in the world. If we do a good job of teaching — if we are able to pass on all we have learned to the young people we mentor — how could they not surpass us? They would have the knowledge of everything we have learned, including all the mistakes and failures we had to fight through the hard way and of which we tell the tales in the hopes of sparing them that same strife. Yet, they would also have the knowledge of everything they have learned for themselves.
In C.S. Lewis’ book “Perelandra,” Lewis imagines a foreign world much like our own but unfallen. In it, the main character meets the “Eve” of this world — Tinidrill. Tinidrill is destined to be the mother of all the people who come after her, and she has a conversation in which it is revealed to her that she will not live forever but instead will be replaced and surpassed by her children and her children’s children as the history of her world marches on. The main character, and I think most readers too, expect her to be bothered by this. But she is not. Instead, she rejoices. She praises Maleldil (her name for God), saying:
How beautiful is Maleldil and how wonderful are all His works: perhaps He will bring out of me daughters as much greater than I as I am greater than the beasts. It will be better than I thought. I had thought I was to be always Queen and Lady. But I see now … I may be appointed to cherish when they are small and weak children who will grow up to overtop me and at whose feet I shall fall.
In all our dealings with the young, or with whomever we have the privilege of preaching the Gospel, let us work to make saints far greater than ourselves. Let us work to be surpassed, and let us be filled with joy when we are. Let us decrease so that Christ might increase as these new workers in the vineyard proclaim him. As Litany of Humility (a great prayer for striving against just the sort of temptations we are discussing here) reminds us: “That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.” Amen.
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 that 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.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
as light reflecting
on choppy water
as inner gladness
as opening buds
as birdsongs echo
across valleys, hills
this is the peace that allows
this is the peace that accepts
this is the peace that invites
outreach, courage, trust, love
this peace causes commotion
this peace deepens consciousness
this peace builds community
diverse, celebrating, embracing
inner spaces open wider
minds, hearts and bodies
wildly restored and offered
into war zones as peacemakers
crossing borders and lines
we listen and love and learn
new languages, new ways
as peacemakers we share
as light reflecting
on choppy water
as inner gladness
as opening buds
as birdsongs echo
across valleys, hills
But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. — 2 Corinthians 12:9
Lent is a time I focus on my weaknesses. I don’t like feeling weak; I don’t think very many people do. Some truths I have come to understand are that God uses my weaknesses and my struggles to teach me, help me grow. He draws me closer.
Growing up, school was not easy for me. Because of Turner syndrome I was the short kid who looked a lot younger than her age, and I struggled to overcome a learning disability. I had a special education plan in school until 7th grade. Math and writing were subjects of great difficulty for me. Particularly in middle school, I remember sitting at the dining room table for hours with one of my parents (both teachers) who would attempt to help me with homework. Night after night I was frustrated (and I probably frustrated my parents too) as I attempted to complete assignments. I hated it, and I would get mad at my parents and at my teachers. Sometimes I would even get mad at God. I just wanted it to be easier.
Eventually I found things I was good at: music, history and reading. With the help of my parents and some hard work, even math and writing got easier. My junior year of high school, I experienced job shadowing at my father’s school with the special education teacher there. I remember having so much fun with the students in this self-contained class and found that I enjoyed helping them; I could relate to them. I didn’t feel out-of-place or like I had to be anybody I wasn’t as I did in my own school.
Around that same time I babysat for a family of four. I had to help the oldest girl with her homework, and I noticed she was having some of the same problems with multiplication that I did when I was her age. I immediately recognized the same frustration on her face that I had felt when I was learning multiplication. She had a hard time lining up the numbers. I had her turn the paper around so she could use the lines as columns. This was a trick my parents had taught me. It worked; she was able to do the problems after a few more examples. I wondered if she might have the same learning disability I had. When her mom came come home that night, I told her what I noticed. She said her daughter’s teacher wondered the same thing. Testing was done and a learning disability was diagnosed. The child was able to get some extra help. This was the first time I remember using my difficult experiences to help someone else. My weakness as a strength.
Those early experiences helped to shape my desire to become a special education teacher. I knew I loved working with kids, and I came to know I also had a special talent for teaching struggling students. One of my strengths as a teacher has been my ability to relate to my students’ difficulties. Not too long ago a student of mine (who has a learning disability) was frustrated with math. Sitting next to me he refused to do the work, telling me that algebra was pointless and that he didn’t need to learn it. I gave him a few minutes to settle down and helped another student. I walked back to his desk and offered again to help.
“I don’t know how to do this. I hate math,” he said quietly.
“You know, I remember feeling the same way about algebra,” I quietly shared with him. “I hated it.”
“But you know how to do it, you’re a teacher,” he told me.
“Yes I do, although it was very hard for me to learn at first. Then I discovered some tricks.”
“It was hard for you?” he asked.
“Definitely. I used to sit and cry about having to math homework when I was in school. Did you know I have a learning disability too?” I asked.
“You do? But you’re a teacher,” he said.
“Just because I have a learning disability doesn’t mean I can’t do things,” I responded, smiling slightly. “It just means I might have to learn it a different way, or it might just take me a little longer. It’s the same with you,” I encouraged. “Why don’t we try some of these problems, and I’ll show you some tricks.” He sat next to me and we worked through the problems together. He was much more positive and willing to work.
In that moment I was actually grateful for my learning disability. I was grateful to be able to relate to his frustration and to show him how I learned. I have had dozens of similar experiences. My students know that I don’t judge them when they need some extra help, because they know I understand what it’s like to struggle. God used my struggles in school to teach me perseverance, to keep trying when things got hard and to empathize with those who are “different.” If you had told the 12-year-old me as I sat at the kitchen table crying about math homework that one day I would be grateful I had struggled, I’d probably have rolled my eyes. Having worked with students with special needs for 15 years now, I can say I am grateful for my weakness. That weakness has become a strength I’ve used to help my students.
Shannon Fox, Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, became a novice in 2003. She ministers as a high school special education teacher at a therapeutic day school for students with special needs. Teaching runs in her family, as both her parents and her little sister are teachers. In her spare time (“Ha!”), Sister Shannon enjoys community theater, singing and photography. She is also a member of Giving Voice through which she and Sister Julia met.
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.
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.