A woman in the parish recently buried her husband after his long and losing battle with cancer. A thirteen-year old girl still cries herself to sleep each night several months after her parents’ bitter divorce. A man off the streets, recently chrismated into the Orthodox Church, is waging a tentative battle with alcoholism, trying with too little support to keep himself in recovery. The priest’s wife, determined to serve everyone’s needs but her own, is slipping slowly but surely into depression, overcome by a sense of abandonment. As Christmas approaches, each of these people is anticipating the coming festivities less with joy than with dread. Nostalgia this time of year can be overwhelming. In the experience of these and so many other people, that nostalgia can become a crushing weight of loneliness.
Gluttony, greed, anger, lust: the spiritual literature speaks eloquently to these and other passions, and it offers invaluable advice to those who are waging warfare with these particular demons. The Fathers, however, rarely speak of loneliness, which is one of the most pervasive and pernicious of all the passions. There is much wisdom to be found in their words about accedia, for example, or sloth. Yet as relevant as those words are to the problem of loneliness, it is difficult if not impossible for someone burdened by a sense of abandonment to find solace in them. Words on a page need to be translated into spoken words of grace and gestures of tenderness that will lift the burden of loneliness, and restore to the bereaved and the abandoned a genuine sense of hope.
American pop culture, with a powerful assist from the devil, has turned the Christmas season (beginning somewhere around Halloween) into a commercial romp, a mad frenzy symbolized most brutally this year by the tragic fate of the Wal-Mart employee – on “Black Friday” – who was trampled to death by holiday shoppers. Those who wish to celebrate the birth in the flesh of the eternal Son of God, the Nativity of our Lord and Savior, have an uphill battle on their hands. Everything militates against proper respect and peaceful celebration of the feast. Yet somehow we need to hold fast to its theological and spiritual significance, if anticipation of joyful celebration is not to end in the loneliness of the long-distance runner.
That may not be as difficult as it first seems. Within the parish, as within our circle of friends and acquaintances, we can start simply by looking around. Being attentive to the state and needs of other people, without being intrusive, is basic to our life in Christ. Listening closely to the voices of those we encounter, while observing their faces and body language, provides clues to their spiritual and psychological condition, perhaps especially at this time of year when so many are so vulnerable. It may help us get in touch with our own sense of loneliness and our need to find fellowship and love among those who are closest to us. The most effective care and support we can offer others comes from the depths of our own experience, especially when it involves suffering.
The invitation, then, is simply to care. Care particularly in this Nativity season for those who are going through a period – or a lifetime – of abandonment and consequent loneliness. A little poem on silence and solitude seems relevant here. It ends,
And solitude, so often faced with dread,
Reveals an unseen Presence that would bless
The solitary with the gift instead
To be alone, yet know no loneliness.
To care adequately and appropriately for those, including ourselves, who suffer the pangs of loneliness, it is perhaps enough to take the advice offered by Theophane the Recluse in his revised version of Unseen Warfare.
“Recall also to your mind Christ our Lord, Who, through His immeasurable sufferings felt Himself abandoned by His heavenly Father in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, and when you feel yourself as it were crucified in your present position, cry from your heart: ‘Thy will be done, O Lord!’ ‘Not as I will, but as Thou wilt’ (Matt. xxvi.39). If you do this, your patience and your prayer will rise on high to God’s presence, as the flame of your heart’s sacrifice. And you will prove yourself filled with love as strong as death, and ardent readiness of will to shoulder your cross and follow after Christ our Lord on any path, by which He chooses to call you to Himself. This is true life in God!”1
- Unseen Warfare, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978, p. 246. [↩]