LENT: MAKING SPACE FOR LONELINESS
By Betsy Faber
Last year, in response to a spoken invitation to “open space in my life” during a church service for Ash Wednesday, I impulsively decided to give up social media for Lent, with the exception of my blog. This decision kicked off a rather miraculous process. Over the course of the Lenten season, through contemplative practices and a few wrestling matches with God, I gained some powerful insight.
After the holidays, in the months leading up to Lent, I found myself in an extended funk. In hindsight, I see that I was adjusting to another stage of life. Our son was post-college and truly independent and I was mourning the end of our family’s active USNA experience. I was also facing the prospect of several months at home before my husband’s and my next trip travelling. I find being home for long stretches challenging. But more than the rest,I was feeling an unmistakable and aching loneliness. I found myself feeling stuck in a boring house with a taciturn husband (my take at the time on the situation). The downside of Empty Nest and Early Retirement seemed to loom large. I began to look for external targets to blame, the most convenient being my husband. It was his fault, that I was feeling lonely, since he wasn’t being a better companion. My solution, as it has always been, was to stay busy and to schedule more time out of the house.
During the early days of the Lenten season, however, I felt God grab hold of me, smack me upside the head and speak to me in unexpected ways. Mainly because there was now space to hear. Through daily readings from my yoga teacher, conversations with friends, the sermons at church and my weekly women’s Exodus Bible study, I was hearing consistent encouragement to walk into the desert, to move toward and to embrace what I was afraid of. I felt a small but discernible shift beginning inside me.
One Saturday night, early in Lent, my husband and I were home together, but engaged in our own activities in different rooms. I suddenly felt an overpowering loneliness wash over me. In this stage of life, I had found myself in a foreign land, living with more space. The absence of travel, parenting responsibilities, a hectic job, etc. created opportunity to confront parts of myself that I have avoided for years. Without access to Facebook or other social media, my initial and automatic reaction was to become angry and to blame. My poor husband, closest in proximity, seemed the logical choice. But, I thought about the inspiration I’d received and halted the hot potato blame game. I allowed myself to feel. For the first time, I connected to a wound deep within me. Although it was frightening, I sat with it and simply prayed for healing. It might sound far-fetched, but I felt a definite and intense sense of restoration begin. I recognized that my loneliness is coming from within, it is nobody’s fault. Loneliness is part of whom I am and it’s a process to embrace. In claiming this lonesomeness, I felt a sense of freedom. It no longer loomed big and scary.
During this season last year, I felt a change within me. I understood that the road to engagement and befriending my loneliness requires acceptance and self-love. This means a gracious tolerance of myself, my friends, my circumstances, my husband and our differences. Finding companionship both with and without my husband is healthy coming from a place of respect and loving acceptance. I feel new freedom and delight in my life and marriage emerging from this authenticity. My current balance of activities, which now stems from healthier motivations, feels more joyful and genuine. Befriending loneliness means being comfortable with solitude. It means welcoming this space for God and my own spirituality. It means accepting loneliness as a natural part of life. I think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the loneliness he felt as his disciples slept.
It also means recognizing that loneliness may be signaling a legitimate need for self-care. Self-love and God’s love is also key to healing my internal wound. As my yoga teacher Lucy said recently, “Learning to be open to our difficult qualities and accept them as a part of us is the process of loving and accepting ourselves.”
Even if we do the “right” things – use the right toothpaste, develop a hobby, join a club or church, form friendships, have a family –we’ll still be lonely at times. But we might also say blessed are the lonely because it functions as a spur toward self-discovery and toward God. So blessed are the lonely who are able to look beyond their loneliness. Blessed are the lonely who realize their need and turn to God. Blessed are the lonely who develop a capacity for solitude.
For me, this process has spurred a spiritual reawakening that is exciting and deeply reassuring. I went on a Silent Retreat about a year ago and I left with a beautiful blessing by John O’Donohue, from his book To Bless the Space Between Us:
When the old ghosts come back
To feed on everywhere you felt sure,
Do not strengthen their hunger By choosing to fear;
Rather, decide to call on your heart
That it may grow clear and free
To welcome home your emptiness
That it may cleanse you
Like the clearest air You could ever breathe.
Allow your loneliness time
To dissolve the shell of dross
That had closed around you;
Choose in this severe silence
To hear the one true voice Your rushed life fears;
Cradle yourself like a child Learning to trust what emerges,
So that gradually You may come to know
That deep in that black hole You will find the blue flower
That holds the mystical light
Which will illuminate in you
The glimmer of springtime.
I’m grateful I accepted the invitation to make space during Lent. In my contemplative journey through the space and darkness, I was blessed to see that glorious glimmer of springtime. So allow yourself the space this season to acknowledge your loneliness, wherever it may be coming from. It just might be an opportunity for us to heal and connect with love for ourselves and love from God.