Tuesday, March 15, 2011

One is the Loneliest Number

The history of the Church is replete with pairs of saints.  Claire and Francis of Assisi; Benedict and Scolastica; Gregory and Basil; Cyril and Methodius; Perpetua and Felicity; Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier.  Even in our modern times, we see that there was a special relationship between John Paul II, who is to be beatified May 1 and Mother Theresa of Calcutta.  This pairing of saints, is not, I think,coincidental.  To live a life of virtue is to court loneliness.

I had not given this fact much thought until recently.  Though I almost constantly (and rightly so) exhort people to virtue, and though I constantly remind the kids in our formation program of the importance of swimming against the current, and though I admit to them that this is hard, I am not sure that I have ever given due consideration to the existential experience of loneliness that accompanies virtue, especially for high school students.

In about three weeks, I have talked to four or five high school students at some length about this fact.  Though the particulars of their experiences vary widely, a common theme accompanies each conversation.  They must choose between living as they know they ought and living a life that allows them to fit in.  This is about more than simple popularity.  At this point, most of these kids would be content just to have a true friend with whom they can be honest, who will be honest with them, and who strives after the same things they strive after.  More and more the are discovering that a life in Christ is a zero sum game.  It is all or nothing, and the cost can be very high.  The agony of this decision is particularly pronounced in the life of a teenager because he is also, at that point in his life, asking serious questions about his own identity.  The exhortation of Christ to let the dead bury the dead and to give up everything to follow Christ is now being realized in their lives.  A decision for Christ can feel as though it leaves them standing alone.

This loneliness, as heart-wrenching as it may be, is a good thing.  It speaks to a singularly profound longing that all of us eventually experience.  Though a bit fluffy, I appreciate the analogy provided by the person who first commented that there is a God shaped hole in each of our hearts.  This image evokes the truth that we each possess an aching to fit in, to be known, to be understood, and to be loved.  As beautiful as human love is, it is never quite enough to fill the God shaped hole.  Just as they are renegotiating all of the rest of their relationships, these teens are suddenly finding themselves on the harrowing path that leads them to solitude, and therein, the depths of the Father's love.  The pairs of saints that punctuate our history knew this, and they encouraged one another to keep on that path, even when they, like Virgil in Dante's Inferno, could no longer walk with their pilgrim friend.

This loneliness is why we need a Church.  In a Church, as a community, we encourage one another to keep moving forward.  Like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, we easily become terrified as we approach the precipice; we need someone like Sam to carry us to the edge.  We need someone to walk behind us who prevents us from turning back.  These kids are learning that intimacy with God is something that they must do alone.  But like all of us, they long for someone who will keep telling us that it is worth doing.      


  1. Father, this is excellent, and I will be sharing it!

  2. So true Father. There is such tension of being in the world, but not of it. On top of that, like you wrote, many youth are struggling with identity. They need good solid teaching on an identity rooted in Christ and Him as their final end. There needs to be a firm connection to this life and the life to come. I think that when we realize that life in Christ is constitutive of happiness in this life and the next, living the identity will be a joy. The loneliness, like you said, is natural but the more we grow in the love and grace of God the easier it is to appropriately deal with it and continue on our pilgrimage Home.


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