The Poverty of Loneliness and the Christian Antidote of Community
by Noel E. Bordador
One of the Beatles, John Lennon, once said: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Well, during my last trip to Asia, I planned to visit India but actually never made it there because I had to attend to some family event that unexpectedly came up, requiring me to abandon my plans. One of the places I wanted to visit was Calcutta to make a pilgrimage to the shrine, the tomb of Mother Teresa, known for her heroic sanctity and dedication to the poorest of the poor. She once said, “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked or homeless. [But], the poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.” She said, “Loneliness is the most terrible poverty.” Loneliness can, in fact, kill. In a recent New York Times article (12/30/2020), “Nursing Home Patients Are Dying of Loneliness,” it underscores the fact that lack of human connection during the COVID-19 pandemic can be deadly.
Mother Teresa herself was not immune to loneliness. In a book, Come, Be My Light, it spoke about the terrible spiritual loneliness Mother Teresa felt throughout her life, yet, her antidote to her loneliness was to reach out to those who were hurting- physically, emotionally or spiritually. She once said, “…the only cure for loneliness, despair and hopelessness is love.” In other words, the medicine for loneliness is community.
We all feel loneliness some time, if not all the time or most of the time. This feeling of loneliness is usually due to lack of connectedness with others, or an interruption of intimacy, whatever the cause may be. That is just part of our human condition, or I should say, our fallen human condition. The Hebrew Scripture speaks of loneliness as having resulted from the disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Their disobedience was a breach of human connectedness with God, and a break in our interconnectedness with one other. But, this loneliness was not God’s intent when he created us. We were meant to live in an unbroken communion with God and to live in community with one another. In the creation story in the book of Genesis, God created humanity in his image: “let us make the human being in our image, according to our likeness.” In the same story where God created the first human, Adam, God also said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” And so what God does is create a companion for Adam. God does not want us to be lonely. And so each one of us were made not to be alone in this world, but to live with others in the spirit of love. We were made for one another. Each one of us were made to be a companion for one another- to share in each other’s joys, sufferings, and trials so that we go through life totally lonely and alone. We are all social animals created in the image of God. What precisely is the nature of this God in whose image we were created?
The God we worship is not a lonely God. Rather, the Christian conception of God is that God is also a social Being. God also exists as a Community. What do I mean by this? We worship one God in three persons. We define this one God as a community of three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all of them bound together in a fellowship of love. There are not three Gods but one God. Though the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct from one another, they are said to be one not only because the three share one divine nature, but that they are so united by a great bond of equality, mutuality and love that there is no conflict, inequality or injustice in that community we call the Trinity. They are “one” in love. As theologian Leonardo Boff says about the Trinity: “Each Person lives from the other, with the other, through the other, and for the other Person.”
But God is not just a Community unto himself. God also establishes community, he establishes fellowship with us; we are especially created so as to reflect in our lives the very the life of the community of God we call the Trinity. God created us to live from one another, with one another, through one another and for each other.
The primary act of the Christian Church is the gathering of the community around the Lord’s Table. When we gather for the Eucharist in the spirit of charity, our community becomes the very image of God who is a Community of love. In the Eucharist, we find the true expression of our humanity. Here around this Table, we find our very identity as one who does not live in loneliness, but one whose identity is to be found in communion with God and in community with one another. And from this faithful gathering, we go out to the world and we make, we create community, we establish fellowships of love, so that no one in the world would suffer because of loneliness. What we can offer the lonely world is community. The Church’s gift to the world is community, the antidote, the medicine to what Mother Teresa called the “poverty of loneliness.”
But our life as community is challenged in the last year. Our churches were/are closed. We could not gather in person for Eucharist and fellowship. We could not readily visit with one another in church, at home, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, or wherever there is a need. But we have been creative in terms of reaching out pastorally using technology– Zoom, Google Meet, Facetime, Messenger. These are by no means without limitations. I struggle with them. We just keep in mind that we utilize these “imperfect” methods until it is safe again for us to be with one another in person. Many, for example, have courageously found a way to drop off food at a nearby soup kitchen, shelter or a neighbor in need while observing protective protocols. Some of our churches have found ways to minister to the poor, hungry and homeless safely, albeit, with a degree of inconvenience and sacrifice. As the lesbian Anglo-Catholic socialist, Vida Scudder, once said, “Where is sacrifice, there is the Church…Their sacrifice is their Eucharist…” We continue to be community even with a great degree of sacrifice. Eucharistic community and sacrifice are inextricably linked.
What we cannot do is to retreat into a cocoon of fear and isolation, and abandon each other to loneliness. We cannot foster an individualistic spirituality. That is not Christian. That’s not what we are as people created in the image of God as Community. That is not what we are as Church.
©2021 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a queer Episcopal priest in the Philippines. He runs Nazareth House, a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality for persons with HIV/AIDS in Manila.
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