It seems a gross understatement to say that 2020 has brought on more than just a horrible virus. Our inability to visit loved ones can bring on a wave of loneliness, sadness, despair, or depression. If you have a family, the loneliness is a bit less oppressive than if you are single, but it is still there. Your children cannot go play with their friends as freely and your couple friends aren’t able to come over for dinner. If you are single, your options are even fewer. Regardless of your state in life, however, loneliness has not discriminated in this grueling year.
With the promised vaccine on its way, there is room for hope. However, I think it is important to reflect on the movement within our souls this past year. With all of our normal routines and plans taken away, we’ve been stripped to just ourselves or our immediate families. We’ve even been stripped of the sacraments, the Mass, and the community that comes along with parish life. Day after day, many of us have faced the walls of our home and not much beyond that. During this time, we have no doubt experienced bouts of loneliness. I know I have. But has there been an invitation to solitude in there as well?
What is the difference between solitude and loneliness? Loneliness is a very human experience of feeling isolated and desiring community. It is not as easily fixed as it used to be, given all of the current restrictions. However, solitude is an invitation from Our Lord to be drawn into a particular relationship with Him--to be focused only on Him without distractions. If courageous enough to accept this invitation (I find myself coming up with excuses to pretend that I don’t hear this invitation), we may find an even deeper restlessness. As St. Augustine famously said in Book 1 of the Confessions: “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” This restlessness may seem exhausting, especially this year, but in reality it is a great gift. We are made for rest in Christ, and so this restlessness drives us to find Him. Restlessness, however, cannot be truly recognized if we do not accept this invitation to solitude. We may feel it knocking on our door and choose to ignore it with various activities or try to cure it some other way. But its remedy is only found in relationship with Christ, who waits for us in solitude--in the quietest place of our hearts.
Some ways that have been helpful for me in growing more comfortable with entering into solitude are finding 15-20 minutes before I go to bed to reflect with God about my day--an examination of conscience of sorts. I think about the parts of my day where God was calling me into deeper relationship-whether that be in a conversation with a friend, 15 free minutes I had where I could have said a rosary but watched YouTube instead, etc. I will imagine that He and I are having a conversation at my kitchen table (it may sound odd, but try it!) and reflect with Him about what happened that day. Most importantly, though, is spending those few minutes before bed in complete silence. This may look different depending on your state in life, but I have found that the silence is what allows me to enter into that solitude with Christ. Once this becomes a regular habit, the loneliness we experience seems more tolerable, because we know that we can enter into solitude with Christ whenever we want to. He becomes our refuge, and we can talk with Him whenever we like.
As I look back on 2020 and look forward to 2021, I hope to more readily recognize when Christ is calling me into this particular relationship and to respond willingly. If we find ourselves lonely and aching for community, I hope we remember that the key to healing our loneliness and restlessness is found in solitude, and the invitation to rest in this solitude with Christ is a standing one.
Question for Reflection: What are some ways we can grow in our comfortability with solitude or that we can respond to God’s invitation to deepen our relationship with him during this time?
For more resources on self-care during this time, please click here.
A lyric of one of my favorite Advent hymns, “O Holy Night,” shares the simple yet profound posture in which we are called to enter into the Advent and Christmas seasons: on our knees.
Perhaps many of us already find ourselves there—either out of reverence or sheer exhaustion. For many, the year 2020 will forever be overshadowed by confusion, darkness, anxiety, fear or stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps you, like me, have just wanted it all to be over. We may feel tired of the masks, the canceled events, the physical distance from our friends and loved ones, uncertain job security, or the fear for our health and for those around us. Our hands are raw from sanitizer. Our hearts are raw from stress and confusion. Pandemic fatigue is real.
Is this exhaustion, stress, and confusion similar to what the Jewish people felt as they traversed to their hometowns for Caesar Augustus’ census two thousand years ago?
“Where is the Savior foretold by the prophets?” they must have thought. “Where is the king who would overthrow all oppressors and establish God’s kingdom forever? Where is God? And why does he seem silent?”
For God’s Chosen People, continued faith and hope must have been a hard choice.
For God’s chosen people, continued faith and hope is a hard choice.
And it is precisely when we are caught up in our feelings of negativity, sadness, or desolation that we fail to see God at work. Too consumed by looking inward, we forget to look up and see the star. It is precisely for this reason that hardly anyone attended the most important event in all of human history: the birth of the Savior of the World, a child born quietly in the recesses of Bethlehem.
So where do we find ourselves? Are we grumbling that God has not done enough to fix our broken situation? Are we stressed about the logistics to get our family to the census? Are we awaiting our own version of the Messiah, making our own golden calves? Do we look back longingly, preferring the slavery of Egypt to the wilderness? Or have we abandoned our relationship with God altogether?
Finally, are we on our knees?
Mary models this posture with her very life. I cannot help but imagine that she received the news from the Angel Gabriel on her knees. “How can this be?” she asked, greatly troubled at what was said in the midst of the holy and miraculous encounter. Her fiat was only possible because of her posture of humility. This receptivity is what every Christian is called to emulate.
This posture in the presence of God is also important because kneeling is a physical reminder of reality: God is God, and we are not. Put another way, God is Creator, we are created. By kneeling in prayer, we enter into a dialogue with God in a posture of humility that reflects the true order of reality. Kneeling is also a posture of vulnerability that manifests our littleness before a great God.
This littleness is not belittling, but reveals our true dignity. We have the courage to kneel because, in a sense, God knelt first. As St. Paul reminds us, “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself” (Phil 2:7). How can we then fear to approach such a gentle and humble Savior?
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we are not in control. Mary experienced this too. She did not anticipate a virgin birth, losing her Son for three days, or watching her Son’s crucifixion. This lack of human control is the truth regardless, but it’s a reality often obscured by our schedules, appointments, bank accounts, occupations, or social events. And when many of these good things have been stripped from our day-to-day lives, we are forced to reckon with our vulnerability. We are reminded that, ultimately, our Good Father holds us and our world in existence. We fall to our knees.
Let us therefore approach Him lovingly this Christmas in this humble posture. Let us honor and reverence Him by offering to the Christ-child all our insecurities, fears, or limitations.
I invite you to offer each sacrifice, hardship, or suffering as a piece of straw to warm the Christ-child this season. To look for the guiding star each day that leads us to Bethlehem. To name throughout the day what you are thankful for rather than succumb to grumbling. To spend some time reading Scripture, attending a Mass virtually or in person, sharing food or gifts with the needy, or singing an Advent hymn. To open our hearts to God’s way of doing things rather than grasping for control on our own. To fall on your knees.
This season, may we join the shepherds, the wise men, and all the angels and saints in this humble posture filled with breathless hope, joy, and excitement to adore Christ the Lord, the newborn King, the answer to each prayer, the fulfillment of all desire.
And may we prepare a full, warm manger for the Christ-child to rest in on Christmas Day.
“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31)
The Apostles had been sent out by Jesus and reported back all that they had done (Mark 6:30). He knew that they needed to care for themselves, so they set out in the boat to go and rest. But, what did they find when they arrived? Over 5,000 people waiting to be fed both spiritually and physically. Despite their probable fatigue, they continued to minister to the needs of the crowd. Their rest was not long, but they did have time together in the boat away from the crowds. They also rested in the Lord as he spoke to them and the crowds. Self-care, therefore, does not mean long periods of time, but that which is needed to move us into fuller service for Christ.
When moments of self-care such as prayer, study and spiritual reading, appropriate times of rest and relaxation, or time with friends and family are neglected, living as an apostle who accompanies others into deeper life in Christ can become challenging. Self-care is not self-focus; it is not self-serving. Very often caregivers, especially of the elderly or infirmed, become ill themselves because they have not set apart time for self-care. It is understandable. They want to give fully to their loved ones. Those in ministry or the apostolate want to do the same for the beloved of Christ. In both instances, though, great damage can come to the caregiver—leaving them unable to care. Self-care is meant to assist in becoming more other-focused, more self-giving.
In many ways, the great founder of Western monasticism, St. Benedict, whose feast day is today, understood well what is at the heart of Christian self-care – ora et labora – prayer and work in the context of a stable community life. When either are neglected, then one is not able to give fully for the Lord. Life in community, whether in a religious community such as a monastery, or in the community of faith, gives one a stable place to be accompanied, to grow in the spiritual life, and to rest with Christ, especially in the Eucharist. Relationships can be built in trust and burdens can be shared. Peace that comes from the Prince of Peace can then be found. It is this peace, love, and mercy that we share with others as his apostles.
In the last months, a former student of mine discerned that he is called to live as a Benedictine, another discerned that he is called to the Dominicans, another as a diocesan priest, and two others that they are called to marriage. Prior to these decisions, there was much prayer, but also a bit of a lack of inner peace. Accompanied by many, these young adults came to peace in their decisions as their way to follow Christ as his apostles. Please pray for them. Pray also for those, especially in ministry and apostolate, who are not properly caring for themselves. May we accompany them to care for themselves so that they may better care for the People of God.
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
For more resources on Self-Care in Ministry, please click here.
During this Year of Mercy, I’ve been pierced by this question: how merciful am I to myself? The question echoes within me because I realize how unmerciful I can be to myself sometimes. And the degree of mercy I extend to myself, whether I know it or not, invariably affects the mercy I give to others. That is a significant truth, yet how often I overlook that!
Jesus tells us to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:39) It’s easy to take that verse at face value and think, “Just love your neighbor.” But the modifying phrase, “as yourself,” tells us we need to love ourselves in order to fully love our neighbor. We need to be merciful to ourselves if we are to be merciful to others.
Our self-love seeps into our actions and affects our relationships in subtle and not so subtle ways. If I dislike and fail to embrace my quieter and more reflective nature, then it will be hard for me to fully embrace the same in another. How can I love another if I choose to hate that which is in me? And if I make a mistake and don’t let it go, then my bitterness can affect what I do for others. If I don’t practice even little acts of mercy towards myself, what will make me give such mercy towards another?
God wants us to be kind to ourselves. He wants us to overcome those self-critical thoughts and stop holding grudges against ourselves. He yearns for us to forgive ourselves and to believe in the gifts he has given us.
Whenever we struggle to love ourselves, God is always there to receive us in our wounds. He is the Father who wants us to see the goodness within ourselves and embrace it. 1 John 4:10-11, says “We love because he first loved us.” This is where the path of mercy and service begins! For us to love ourselves ever more fully so that we can love others ever more fully, we have to continually encounter Christ and abide in his intimate love. Then our hearts will be on fire because He reveals to us who we are and shows us how to love: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (Jn 15:9). Christ enlivens us with self-acceptance and self-worth so we can go out and give to others the mercy and love by which we have been loved.
In this Year of Mercy, let us strive to be merciful to ourselves so that we can be merciful to all, asking Jesus: “Lord, help me to love myself as much as you love me.”
For more resources on the Year of Mercy, please click here.