“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” – Isaiah 41:10.
My continued prayers are for the health and well-being of you and your loved ones.
There are moments in our daily lives that give us pause. God willing, those moments progress into reflection and, ideally, into written thoughts, or at least an extended conversation. For the purpose of your spiritual health, I would like to share such a moment of mine.
Earlier in May, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued a report on loneliness, a somewhat unusual topic for the nation’s top public health official to address. What stood out to me about the report is the language used to describe the incidence of loneliness today (i.e., a national public health “epidemic”). According to the report, loneliness is more complex than we realize; it is linked to an increased risk for anxiety, depression, heart disease, dementia, other health issues, and even early death.
As your spiritual father, a faith leader, and a student of public health, it deeply saddens me to see that loneliness is so widespread and severe that it now is understood in terms of a virulent disease. Worse, many among us – even our friends and loved ones – may be suffering silently and we may not even know it.
The report went on to identify several recommendations: Greater communal spaces such as parks and playgrounds; improved accessibility to public transportation; paid family leave; limiting the presence of digital media in our lives; and further research into loneliness, among others. Many if not all of the recommendations have merit and deserve careful consideration.
What the report doesn’t say, however, is what people of faith know in their hearts: Faith in God means grace for others and peace for self. If loneliness is the problem, participation in a faith community is crucially and fundamentally part of the answer. Through humility in the face of our struggles; through submission to something greater than ourselves; through the daily act of making Christ’s purpose our purpose, despite the cost, we understand we are less in control than we realize but are loved more than we can imagine. We also discover we are not alone; we are part of a faith community that reflects Christ’s love and welcomes us, supports us, and values us.
This, my beloved, is what faith yields for us and others. When we are united in Christ, the answers we seek can quiet the mind, comfort the heart, and lead us toward the good in the world. When we ignore Christ, we quickly find that the brokenness of the world is overwhelming. Left to our own devices, the answers we embrace for coping and surviving soon reveal themselves to be inadequate or counterproductive.
Today, our homes are much less places of comfort and safety and much more bunkers to which we retreat. Consider that work-from-home jobs have become more prominent leading to diminished social interaction in the workplace; that virtually any product can be shipped to your home in days; that a variety of streaming services offers bottomless entertainment choices; that any kind of food can be delivered right to your doorstep. In the desire to evade the rigors of daily life, we end up alone at home content with material abundance but beset by a spiritual poverty.
It’s all too easy, whenever we encounter complex problems, to feel daunted. But I remind you that, while problems are complex, solutions are simple. Think of a time when you were a young child where you just escaped the clutches of danger. What happened? Almost instantly, your parents hugged you so tight that you were literally breathless. In this same spirit, and given the severity of the problem of loneliness, I implore you to do two things.
First, hug Christ tightly so that He sees what His love means to you. Venerate your holy icon of Christ, pray humbly on your knees, accept communion with gratitude. Knowing the fullness of the Holy Spirit is cause for small celebrations every day because, among other blessings, it gives us the courage and peace to confront daily struggles, however great or small.
Second, hug your family, friends, and neighbors tightly—literally or figuratively. Invite the neighbor you may not know well for dinner, give your time freely to those in need, share in the burden of a friend’s pain. Always remember fellowship is a gift, especially for those with not enough of it in their lives. Remember also that Christ’s love is too precious to keep for ourselves; it must be shared always. When that happens, even in simple and modest ways, we (both the giver and the receiver) discover the most powerful inoculation to loneliness: A life of meaning, purpose, and belonging.
These two acts, my beloved, rejuvenate our souls and those of others. Most importantly, they remind us that we are children of God living a shared life. Through a shared life, hope—the most human of desires—ceases to be syrupy prose found in greeting cards that we may turn to for momentary inspiration. Rather, it becomes a yearning for something transcendent where love, unity, and peace, are certain.
Of course, through a lack of understanding of the nature and incidence of loneliness, our good will can easily be taken as naïve intention. Tragically, loneliness is a debilitating and unforgiving condition. If asked, a lonely person may not volunteer his true feelings. Despite our best efforts, a lonely person may not be as resilient as we wish. If you feel chronically alone, empty, or depressed, I pray you will not hesitate to reach out to a member of our clergy, your fellow parishioners, or me: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you remember nothing else, remember that God knows you, loves you and, through these imperfect words, is speaking to you. In a spiritual context, a human person, by nature, is never meant to be alone in the same way that God is not alone—He is a communion of three Divine Persons. God is communal by nature, and so are we.
If the fundamental responsibility of parents is to keep their children safe, so is the sacred responsibility of the Mother Church to keep all of us safe. I believe this to my core and my continued prayers are for new and creative ways of acting to engage the faithful and faith seekers so they know they are not alone and are safe from despair.
To this end, the clergy of our Holy Metropolis are here for you always. But the laity can and must support the clergy and the best way to do that is by continuing to receive and share Christ’s love. For there is no greater solace in life than to have Christ walk with you, shoulder-to-shoulder, encouragingly whispering in your ear “It is I; be not afraid.”
With paternal love in Christ,
Metropolitan of Chicago