A time away from the everyday can be a very good thing. It probably almost always is. I have been on summer break since July 15th. I was up in Boston, then went to Washington DC, to Philadelphia, to Gettysburg, to Cooperstown, to Lake George, and tomorrow will continue on to Weston, Vermont. In some places I have had wonderful visits with family and with friends. In other places, I have been on my own, seeing places I have heard about all my life but never visited before. I have been people-watching and hearing snippets of conversation, moving and heartening and startling.
Times like this also open up things deep inside. These are things that I think are not hiding from day-to-day. But they are truths that have learned over the years to have ‘still small voices,’ and so are not easily heard in the midst of the busy days and big noises of ordinary life.
The truth whose voice I have heard now is saying something I have rarely said aloud to anyone, anywhere, at any time. I am now not sure why that is the case, because this voice is saying nothing unusual in human terms, nor out of place in almost any life.
This voice is saying what long ago I realized: I am alone. Despite a wonderful family of origin, despite so many long-standing and valued friendships, despite thousands of people whom I have tried to serve in the name of Jesus: despite all, I am alone. That is what life feels like, and always has. And never, ever, have I accepted that or embraced it, or succeeded in really coming to terms with it.
I have been in some big public places so far on this summer journey – at Camden Yards in Baltimore, at the National Art Gallery and the African American Museum in DC, at Gettysburg and the Baseball Hall of Fame. All those places have been filled with families, with parents and grandparents and sisters and brothers together. Laughing, teasing, fighting, crying, hugging, remembering, being . . . together.
I am not so foolish that I do not know that ultimately, in some of the most profound ways, all these people remain alone. Nor am I so inexperienced as to forget that some proportion of those fellow humans are having a hard time being together. They are suffering, and causing one another to suffer. I have talked with people in the midst of that pain again and again over the years. But I have also talked with men and women who have known that suffering, intensely, and found it followed by renewed joy; either in the rediscovery of love, or in the passage through pain to finding new love. And when it is right, they have told me, there is no better thing in living.
You would think wouldn’t you (I would!) that in the years since I left priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church with its requirement of celibacy, that in those almost 14 years I would have moved from alone to together. I have covered (typical for me) that lack of movement by saying things like, “I haven’t found a woman crazy enough to want to be with me.” Defense by humor. Sometimes it works, or at least it seems too. But it never works internally.
A wise friend in conversation helped me recognize the truth that the formation I received in seminary, which foreclosed the possibility of singular human love, existed for years outside me as a wall. But when I moved around the wall, I looked and found that it stands inside me still, and prevents as effectively as ever.
I have belonged to much and to many. But I have not belonged to one. My heart has loved and yearned more than once, but circumstances inward and outward have always precluded the growth of that love. I have not had the experience of joining with one to bring another (and others) into the world, and to love them with a love as long as life and as fierce as grace. In that lack, I am less than I could be. Or so it seems to me.
I do not allow this lack to rule me. I do not allow it to prevent me from offering all I can to those whom I serve in the name of Christ. But it echoes deep within. Sometimes that echo chamber rings in a way not to be ignored. This summer’s journey, a rich and beautiful one, has that echo as its musical theme.
I do not ask pity certainly. Around this storied globe there are innumerable more important and vital human stories being lived and borne and told. I chose the life I have lived, and I have striven thus far to live it in fullness. Nor do I write to attempt to force my circumstances to change, to find that elusive one now. Rather I write because this is true, and it is good that truth be expressed and shared. Alone I may remain. Or not. But alone or not, I have learned to remain as open as possible to the whole of life. The wall within me still stands. But it needs a re-pointing that it will not receive, and some of the bricks have fallen. If more fall, they might be used to build a bridge instead. Or at least to begin.
“Mother and Child,” Mary Cassatt (1905),
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.