My dear friend, colleague, and comrade in ministry,
I have been thinking about you. I was in a drugstore a few weeks ago and saw it festooned with Valentine's Day items. When did that happen?!
Ever since our New Year's move to the east coast, I have been feeling like I need a seasonal-holiday reboot. Like I have a sort of jet lag that put me off by months instead of hours. We all but missed Christmas and New Year's entirely. We were so mired in lists of Things to Do, and pretty much just drowning in stress. (Did I tell you how I nearly lost all of the boys' Christmas gifts?)
Now, suddenly, the drugstore aisles are chock full of red hearts and white doilies and the worst candies known to creation...
In short, the gods of the drugstore say it is time to think about love.
And I have been thinking of you.
It was a few months ago the last time we really talked. You confessed how deeply lonely you feel, how terribly you have been wishing for the presence of a partner. Someone to come home to. Someone to face all the craziness with. Someone to embrace you after a tolling day, horrible commute, or wondrous occurrence.
I felt the pain of your loneliness myself. That specific, empty ache, as if something essential were missing from inside my own chest.
You spoke of leaving your ministry path in hopes that a more reasonable setting might leave space for finding love. I doubt I gave you even half the friendship you needed at that moment. I admit I was a little paralyzed. All I could think is how much wonderful, world-healing work you do in your current ministry. How desperately I need you as a colleague, here in the spiritual trenches. The selfish part of me was locked in combat with the nurturer. At best, I probably mumbled something as useless as the Indigo Girls song promising how love would come when the time was right, and yada yada yada.
Now Valentine's Day is upon us. And really, I have to wonder: whose miserable idea for a holiday was this? Don't get me wrong -- I am right there with you in loving love. I can be an absolute, love-struck sap. But A Day? For lovers to prove to themselves and the world how positively freaking love-besotted they are? For roses to double in price and suitors to compete tooth-and-claw for table reservations?
A day for all who are uncoupled to feel less than?
Did you know the Catholics have a patron saint of the lonely: St. Rita of Casica. Poor Rita wanted to be a nun from the time she was a little girl, but it being the 14th century and all, her family married her off to an abusive brute. Eventually he was killed in a fight, freeing her to live out her life as an Augustine sister and work wonders of healing and peace.
Rita of Cascia: saint of lost causes, widows, and lonely hearts.
Her day is May 22. Do you think we could market that?
In all earnestness, I have been thinking how helpless I feel when it comes to loneliness. Helpless to proffer advice, helpless to offer comfort that works. Mourning the death of a loved one is tough. Yet when I minister to someone grieving, I can directly look into their eyes and say with absolute certainty that time will ease their grief and make their losses easier to bear.
Not so with loneliness. Especially not the romantic sort. Who can say when that tall, dark stranger (or short, fair one) will stumble into one's life? Time doesn't heal when one is hoping for love. Often, time feels like the enemy.
I see this too even among married folks. Recently, another dear colleague/friend shared with me his loneliness in heart-breaking terms. His marriage is hollowed out; he and his spouse resigned themselves to a sort of relationship limbo. They forge on as a couple, as a family, but unable to reach one other anymore. In many ways, he is very much like you: intelligent, successful, kind, admired by all of us who know or have met him. Yet beneath his full, productive life, there is a constant, gnawing sense of being-all-alone that he fears will never end.
Not too long ago, I was where you are, feeling so alone that every night in bed it felt like I had to nurse my loneliness to sleep before I could drift off. The absence was so acute it seemed like a whole, demanding being of its own. During the day, I could send it off to forage for itself. At night, though, there was no way out: loneliness was my insistent partner.
During that period, a spiritual mentor asked me, "How is your prayer life?"
The hurting part of me resented her at that moment. I wanted to bonk her right on her caring, pastoral nose. Here I was, trapped in one of the most profoundly human dilemmas -- a human aching for human comfort -- and she was talking to me about God and prayer.
"Not very good at this time." I said. "Sun-up to sun-down is so busy, most days I just make it through."
"Then," she said, "this is a time you need others to pray for you."
I don't know if you know this about me, but back in divinity school, I wrote my thesis on the healing power of prayer -- in particular, praying for others. Might sound like a wacky choice for a Unitarian Universalist, who at that point in my life, hesitated even to use the word "God" in my ministry, let alone arrange for intercessory prayer. Many of us Unitarian Universalists, to whatever extent we do believe in a higher power, believe in some sort of force or Spirit. Nothing like a man with a beard and an omniscient brain. (I have since evolved, or more accurately, revolved, and fully embrace traditional theistic language and call that "force" God.)
Many of us UUs also are firmly rooted in science and, as you probably well know in your own ministry practice, the science of prayer is intriguing. There is evidence that patients heal more quickly when others pray for their wellbeing. In some studies this holds true, even when the prayer is remote and patients have no idea whether or not they are in the "prayed-for" group. Other studies suggest that even remotely prayed-for plants more readily flourish.
Despite the skeptics of such studies, I wondered, "What could make this so?" I didn't then and don't now believe in the kind of God that helps football teams win games. I imagine prayer's efficacy has something to do with the essential ways we are all, cosmically, connected. After all, the presence of others is healing, even for creatures as small and blissfully unphilosophical as mice. (Researchers found that mice experience pain more readily when they see their mouse friends in pain -- and they experience pain less acutely when surrounded by healthy, happy mice!)
Perhaps this same kind of empathy and connection flows along quantum, quizzical routes. I am fully willing to believe there are levels of reality that connect us across vast distances, through love and thought. And maybe in the end this is what I most mean when I speak of God.
Which is not to say to you, with an obligatory pastoral head-tile, "My friend, I'm praying for you!" (Though I genuinely do lift you up in my prayers at times.)
It is to say that the mysteries of love are manifold, as are the forms it comes in.
I know friends cannot fill the role a lover does. And as for God? My aunt used to say, "Sometimes you just need God with skin on it." I love that description. Sometimes we need that mystical reassurance that comes from being so close and quiet with another human being, we can listen to their beating heart and feel time slow down around us.
As for your career discernment, I support you fully, whatever life choices you make. Remaining here in the spiritual trenches or getting out to find other forms of fulfillment and joy. Whatever your choices, whatever your path, please know -- if not remember -- that you are, already, well and truly loved, by friends near and far. We see you for who you are: an extraordinarily beautiful and gifted person. We may not be able to fill completely that aching, empty space you talk about...but please do take our love to heart.
You need not feel more alone than you are.
It seemed that is what my spiritual mentor addressed in her own canny way, by suggesting she would have strangers pray for me.
I think she was telling me, really: "Let your heart feel every beautiful strand of love and care that travels to it, even from odd or far off destinations."
Maybe, in a better world, that is what Valentine's Day would be about? Not celebrating romantic love with awful candies, but remembering love in all its forms -- remembering to send and share it in ever wider and widening circles.
Because, with all due respect to the vocal stylings of Whitney H., I am not one bit sure that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. I am still stuck on the idea that learning to love one another is. And learning to hold our hearts open, to really feel and collect all the love and Spirit that travel our way.
So whether we are looking at our own face in the mirror -- or into the face of our One True Beloved -- we see reflected there all the strength and love and care that fill us from so many different quarters.
Yours lovingly, at Valentine's Day,
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First published at Captain Reverend Mother on Tuesday 09 February 2016.