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Loneliness Is Good If It Leads To Solitude

alec vanderboom

A few days ago, my blogger friend Leila wrote an "I'm Sorry" letter to all of us Moms of Large Families who live outside the glorious enclave that is the Phoenix Diocese. I've suffered from "support envy" in the past. As an adult convert to the Catholic faith, I'm extra dependent upon the emotional support of my church family. My family and graduate school friends started with the "You are totally crazy!" comments as soon as I got pregnant with child number two. (Number 2, people!)

For a few years, I hung out with a calm, supportive group of young Catholic families in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia (a southern suburb of Washington, DC). We moved to the area with a 2 1/2 year old and a 1 year old. I felt so much love and support in my new unfamiliar role as a young Mother.

Then we lost our car. (Oh, the joys of poverty). I made a few multi-hour trips on the subway to attend my regular Mothers Rosary Group in Arlington, Va. Pretty soon those trips became impractical. I found myself alone in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. The Catholic faith was the same, but the community felt totally different. My former rosary group was filled with military families and families involved in politics. These families "hit the ground running" --looking for social connections and new friends. It was easy to fit in as a newcomer both to the area and to the Catholic faith.

My new community was filled with the trauma of poverty. There were mostly new immigrant families and a few rural families who were coping with the radical changes of insane property values, horrid traffic, and stressed community systems. Large families attended Sunday Masses at multiple Maryland parishes that were only few miles apart. Steadily attending Mass at a single church to create a stable community was an unusual act in this City Community. I almost missed a First Communion once for my daughter's friend because a Large Family that I saw at my church for Daily Mass for over three years, chose a different church for their second grader's First Communion and yet a third church for their youngest child's Baptism a few months later.

During our five years in the Diocese of Washington DC we meet wonderful fellow parents but it never developed into a large cohesive into a supportive community like in Arlington. Instead, it was more like I developed individual friendships with different families. That sense of being alone only intensified after we moved to the Diocese of West Virginia, a state with less than a 5% Catholic population.

The loneliness was good for me. Left alone, I had the space to develop an intimate and more individual relationship with Christ the King.  As new Catholics, Jon and I had to invent our own holiday traditions. We had greater freedom to experiment with prayer, homeschooling, and Catholic education. With no one around us to copy, we had to copy the Holy Family directly.

After 8 years of loneliness, my Catholic family is quirky and strong. We pray the rosary. We attend Adoration. We teach the basics of First Communion. We do these things, not because these rituals are convenient or popular, but because these are the hidden strengths that keep our family well-nourished, spiritual strong, and emotionally stable.

We are open to the secular world, because most of the people we interact with on a daily basis are non-Catholics. We are able to see the good in other faiths and other perspectives. At the same time, we have a daily reminder that our Catholic faith is an undeserved gift. Being a weird minority in a non-Catholic world gives the gift of constant humility.

Because we were raised outside of a Catholic bubble, my husband and I are pretty calm about our children's spiritual future. We made a lot of sinful mistakes in our past. God still claimed us as his kin, cleansed us, and set us right. Every human being's spiritual journey is as unique as a thumb print.

Loneliness can lead to Solitude--Solitude is a priceless gift in our Faith. No matter how strong a Faith Community is for someone, the biggest struggles --Death, Cancer, the Uncertainty of Premature Labor--all leaves us grappling alone before God. Loneliness gives us practice. Practice, in the spiritual life, is never wasted time.

Loneliness also gives me contrast. I'm a better friend, a better Mom, a better wife, a better Carmelite community member, because I've been lonely. True spiritual connection is prized when its rare.

Loneliness also got me more in touch with myself. As an extrovert, my inner life was something vastly unknown until my late thirties. I was raised to be too much of a social chameleon--I cared too much about what other people thought, said, or did. I translated that co-dependent thinking easily into my religious life. "Oh what do you think Jesus wants us to do in X,Y, and Z situation." Being left alone for years with just the text of the Scriptures, some writings of the saints, and an occasional treatise from the Pope was the best thing that ever happened to me. Living without an emotional support network, was similar to St. Jerome hanging out in a cave in the desert. Great inner growth happens in solitude.

It looks like we will soon be moving to a new vibrant Catholic faith community. Frankly, I still feel little shocked. At Swim Team Practice, there is a Mom of 7 who is eager to hold my fragile, premature baby. It feels odd and a little self-indulgent to ask a stranger to hold my child so that I can give my arms a rest, or go to the bathroom alone.

I'm grateful for help. Community life is a gift. In the end, however, our vocations are our own. Everyone has tough nights when they feel alone and tired and discouraged. Even Jesus, had his moments in the Garden. We Catholic Moms who go solo in the world, more often than not, have a special grace. We get more practice relying on Him, instead of relying on one another.