There are different kinds of loneliness, just as there are different visions of intimacy. We ache in many places, just as we dream various dreams of consummation.
I remember as a young priest, just ordained and barely beyond the loneliness of adolescence, saying mass and feeling very deeply these words from the Eucharistic Prayer: “Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.. I would say those words back then and they would excite my romantic imagination and incite feelings and fantasies that had to do with the fulfilment of my own personal loneliness. To become one body in Christ connoted, for me, that embrace that would put an end to my endless aching, restlessness, and sexual inconsummation. The need for unity in Christ, as I felt it then, had to do with my own personal distance from others.
That was the loneliness I felt then and that was what, by and large, I most wanted from the Eucharist (which I have always believed to be an embrace). I’m no longer a young priest and, although I cannot confidently state that I am beyond the loneliness of adolescent (who is?), I feel those words of the Eucharist quite differently now. When I now pray that Christ should make us one body, it is not so much my personal loneliness that I want overcome as it is something much wider, something beyond just me and my own aches and inconsummations. What I now feel more strongly is how painfully separate, and separated, we all are from each other and how seemingly hopeless are the divisions among us.
I pray the Eucharistic prayer now and what I feel, first of all, is not my own romantic and sexual separateness but how torn is our world and everything in, myself included. How separate we are! How divided! So much makes it difficult, seemingly hopeless in fact, to ever be one body, one spirit – history, circumstance, background, temperament, ideology, gender, race, geography, and religion, among other things. There is a loneliness and inconsummation in the whole world. The world aches, as did my adolescent self.
Moreover, the older I get, the more I despair of any simple solution to this. There will not be world community, world peace, and one body simply because we sincerely desire it. The divisions among us, like the issues that separate a man and a woman who can no longer fight through the things that divide them and are asking for a divorce, are too overpowering. We too, as a world, cannot find a way any longer to embrace that will heal all the hurt and stop the divisions. We need an embrace from beyond, a vision from beyond, an intimacy we cannot give to ourselves.
Jesus, dying on the cross, is that embrace, that vision, that intimacy. We look at a cross and we see the secret. That is what real reconciling embrace looks like. We don’t understand it, we see it. And what do we see there?
A man, a God, hangs naked, exposed, vulnerable, defenceless, silent, with his arms stretched wide, open for an embrace, and with his hands also stretched open with nails driven through them. Yet strangely, in all that, we don’t see bitterness, defeat, and anger. Paradoxically, we see their opposite. This is what real trust, love, and metanoia (which means un-paranoia) look like.
And I say “look like” because we don’t understand this, we see it. We don’t understand intellectually how giving oneself over in betrayal teaches trust and how vulnerability and powerlessness are the real powers to bring about intimacy. But we see this when we look at the cross of Jesus. It is no wonder that so many people, millions of people literally, wear a cross as a symbol of love, trust, and hope. Unconsciously, they know, however dimly, what theology can never quite make clear to us, namely, that what divides us from each other can only be bridged by the cross of Christ and that our hope for intimacy and community is not in ourselves but in an embrace that is beyond us. In a cross this is not understood, it’s seen – mystically, not rationally.
So, as a priest, I stand daily before an altar and pray the words: “Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.” What I pray for is precisely that what we see in the cross of Christ might be actually given to us, namely, an embrace from beyond ourselves.
In the cross lies the answer to our loneliness.