One of my memories of growing up on a Midwestern farm is the feel of a harsh, southern wind blowing on a very hot day.
This recollection conjures up childhood loneliness, which seemed all the more real on Sunday afternoon with no air conditioning, no school and seemingly nothing to do after we changed out of our church clothes. Neighbors were a distance away, play dates few and far between. My brothers traipsed through the woods and played on the tire swing. I clung to my paper dolls and an over-active fantasy life in which I created a huge family of imaginary cousins who lived nearby.
As for real cousins, we were especially close to two. Even after they moved away to the big city, my wonderful aunt would often drive them out to see us. But often, she would say they “might” visit. Operative word: might.
I remember scanning the horizon for my aunt’s car. My brothers and I hoped so much for a visit to relieve Sunday’s monotony that we would stand at the end of our gravel lane and watch for dust clouds on the country roads that might herald our aunt’s approaching car. This was before the days of cellphones, and long-distance phone calls were expensive. Many were the afternoons we had to live with anticipation and then disappointment.
As an adult, I began to appreciate the luxury of Sundays, of morning Mass followed by relaxation and activities of my choice.
But I still recall painfully those languid, lost childhood Sunday afternoons spent waiting, actually yearning for company. The memory makes me aware of the deep, universal human yearning for love, companionship, presence. At the heart of this yearning lies our longing for God, even when we don’t realize that God is at the center of all longing.
Maybe that’s why one of my favorite psalms has always been Psalm 42: “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God.”
I think of last summer’s drought and what it must have meant for the deer that populate so many Midwestern fields. Their longing for water must have been intense, their joy at a running stream immense. The psalmist found the perfect simile for our longing for God.
In Jesuit Father James Martin’s book, “My Life with the Saints,” he writes of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata’s years of spiritual darkness. After a profound experience of God that propelled her to leave the Loreto Sisters and to begin her ministry to the poor as the founder of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa experienced what Martin terms “a protracted experience of distance from God and an extreme ‘dryness’ in prayer.”
How could this happen to a saint? Yet, this “dark night of the soul” is not unfamiliar to saints. Through this time of desolation and yearning, the woman known then as Mother Teresa completely surrendered to God and continued to see Christ in the poor. Her yearning for consolation, for a deeper experience of God, must have been intense.
Yearning, loneliness and desolation come to all of us. Often, it feels like God is silent. Have we been abandoned? Are we alone?
It’s in Mother Teresa’s actions that we find the path we should follow. Despite darkness, Mother Teresa was nonetheless committed to action in the service of others. What could be a better remedy for our feelings of loneliness than to reach out a hand to another?
All around us there are ways to see Christ through service, even — or perhaps especially — in those moments when we can see him no other way.