An antidote to loneliness and fragile faith

An antidote to loneliness and fragile faith

Martha came to my office with two central issues. One was that she was feeling chronically lonely. The other was that she was not going to church and felt she was losing her faith altogether.

Martha grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. She was the oldest of two children. Her brother was three years younger. Her mother was a housewife. Her father owned his own business. He spent most of his time there.

Martha said her parents were dominating and critical. They had high demands for her appearance. They would berate her when she did not meet their expectations.

Martha did well in Catholic school but did not like it. She was especially unhappy in high school. She was always fearful she would be ridiculed by her teachers. She did not participate in the social life her peers had. Of course, her own sense of low self-esteem did interfere as well.

Marta did two years of college and then dropped out. She had a low frustration tolerance. At the time of this appointment she was a pharmaceutical sales person.

Early in the interview she said, “Lately I have been spending a lot of time alone in my apartment.” This was partly because she was working by herself. She was in charge of her own schedule. She made her own appointments to meet with physicians and hospital staffs.

Martha found herself alone most weeknights and a good part of the weekends. At times the loneliness felt overwhelming. She lacked companionship. She felt left out and isolated from others. And now it seemed she wanted community and companionship.

More and more parishioners will tell us they are feeling alone and isolated. Although communication has become easier and faster, real connection with others is still very complicated.

In the last 20 years the rate of loneliness has doubled. One in four say they rarely feel understood. They are not close to people. They seem to lack a friend with whom they can have an in-depth sharing.

Lonely people find it difficult to pray and don’t want to go to church. They don’t want to volunteer. They don’t want to donate to charity. They don’t want to help others. They will rationalize and excuse themselves from reaching out.

Deep down lonely people want to be accompanied, as Pope Francis puts it. They want to be socially connected. They want to be accepted. They want to be listened to. They want to be heard. They want to be understood.  They want to be treated as an equal.

Pope Francis further reminds us that we encounter Christ “when we slow down and see others and listen to others and stop rushing from one thing to another and remain with someone who has faltered along the way” (EG.46).

In our second session, Martha and I talked about the Small Christian Community structures in our parish. They are a spiritual oasis where parishioners can truly accompany one another on their spiritual and emotional paths. She was attentive and receptive and curious. She voiced that a seasonal Small Christian Community could well be an antidote to her felt loneliness and fragile faith.

So, with a certain amount of fear and anxiety she registered for a seasonal small group. She was not sure what to expect and what she might experience. For years she was essentially hiding and avoiding groups. Everything was new to her.

It was the Lenten season. She hoped that she could be courageous enough to do something special for the Lenten season. She wanted to start slow. Eventually, she hoped she could share her story of loneliness and talk about the felt absence of God in her life.

Her greatest and strongest desire was that the group members would stay away from judgments. She did not want any advice-giving. That was her mother’s role for years. She wants to make her own choices and decisions.

Maybe just being there in the group could nourish her and feed her. She felt so fearful and so empty and yet so hungry for something. She was not sure what would help. All she knew was that she is a chronically lonely adult.

At the end of the Lenten season she completed an evaluation form. Among other things she wrote that the overall experience was helpful. Some of the chosen sacred Scripture passages were comforting. Others were very challenging.

Other comments were that she felt safe and trusted with the group members. She felt free enough to give expression to her pain. She could identify with the faith stories of others. She saw herself in their stories. She could identify. And this helped her to be less self-critical and more self-forgiving; to be less stagnant and more out-reaching.

She also wrote that for the first time she was making a connection between her faith and her work-life.

She came to realize that when we share our faith stories we grow in our faith. The compassion and the understanding in the group were just what she needed at that moment.

Twelve years later Martha has a leadership role in the Small Christian Community ministry. She feels connected with the faith community. In many ways she has been transformed emotionally and spiritually. She is truly a missionary disciple. She is reaching out and is a most effective evangelizer.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, former Archbishop of Westminster, England, says, “I often think these small Christian communities are the secret for the future of the church … it is within the parish community of Small Christian communities that we equip people to evangelize” (Conference of Priests in England and Wales, 2002).

Pope Francis says small Christian communities are a source of enrichment for the church; they are raised up by the Spirit for evangelizing different areas and sectors; they bring new evangelization fervor; they bring a new capacity for dialogue with the world whereby the church is renewed (E.G. 2014).

Msgr. Thomas J. Morgan is a retired pastor of the Diocese of Camden.