Have you ever felt alone? Desperately alone?
Yes, we can always take solace in the thought that God is forever with us, but I am talking of the aloneness that shatters these thoughts.
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The times when reason abandons us and we are left numb and adrift. The times when Christ in us and in others is nebulous, at best, when those we normally lean on feel a million miles away, and we find ourselves marginalized, alone in the desert, our own private Lent.
I’ve encountered many who have expressed these feelings, but never more so than when I visit the sick as a hospital chaplain: alone with their fear-filled thoughts behind a closed door, a curtain or, most uncomfortably, alone on a gurney in the hallway as hundreds of people, busy with so many tasks, walk past them.
Two people stand out in my memories. Let’s call the first George, whom I met while he was handcuffed to one of those gurneys in the hospital hallway, with his very nice but bored and silent police escort sitting 10 feet away.
George was a recovering addict who had served time for drug possession. Then George’s daughter committed suicide. George, feeling alone, returned to drugs to forget his pain. He was arrested and was sent back to jail.
Now George was lying in the hallway of the emergency room because he, himself, tried to commit suicide. I talked with him for over an hour, and while he did smile once or twice, his was the “alone” that shatters the thoughts of reason.
Let’s call the second person Mia. I saw her behind a partially drawn curtain in the ER. Her back was to me as she was putting things into her bag. I thought she was being discharged, and because it had been a difficult day so far, I decided to get a couple quick smiles and some small talk.
I said something stupid like, “Getting out early.” She turned and I saw that her makeup had run down her cheeks from hours of tears. My next awkward utterance was a barely audible, “Oh no.” She saw my Roman collar and ran the 20 steps between us, crashing into my chest. I held her tight as she sobbed and I could feel her tears soaking my shirt.
Mia’s mom collapsed at the breakfast table that morning after Mia’s father and brother had left for work. Her mom died at the hospital from a brain aneurysm.
And Mia actually was now in the ER because she fainted at the “aloneness” she experienced at her mom’s sudden death and the fact that she couldn’t get in contact with her father or brother. But as we embraced, I felt the aloneness of her and myself fade away.
Both these people had no support in their time of dire need, no community to strengthen them. Pope Francis tells us, “Jesus (was) unafraid to risk sharing in the suffering of others. … (Jesus) wanted to heal the leper. He wanted to touch him and restore him to the community.”
Lent is what prepares us for this monumental gift from Jesus. It is a time for all of us to leave our comfort zone, walk out into that desert and embrace the alone and the marginalized and restore them to the community — even if that person is you.
This time in the desert is where we re-evaluate what is important, where we remember why it’s important, where we rededicate ourselves to it because it is important. Relationship, discipleship, restoring community, seeing Christ in ourselves and others, reaching out to our brothers and sisters who are marginalized, this is the purpose of Lent.
The journey is not private but shared and strengthened by all. Let’s prepare ourselves for the gift of feeling alone no longer.
Andrew Dutko is a transitional deacon ministering at St. Patrick Church in Chatham, New Jersey. Currently in his last semester at seminary, Andrew’s priesthood ordination is May 11, 2019, for the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey.
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