There are different kinds of loneliness and different kinds of intimacy. We ache in many places.
When I was a young priest, newly ordained and barely beyond the loneliness of adolescence, certain words at the Eucharist touched me deeply. I was a young and lonely and words about being drawn together inside one body and one spirit would incite feelings in me to do with my own loneliness. To become one body in Christ triggered, in me, an image of an embrace that would put an end to my personal loneliness, my endless aching, and my sexual separateness. Unity in Christ, as I fantasized it then, meant overcoming my own loneliness.
And that is a valid understanding. The Eucharist is an embrace meant to take away personal loneliness, but, as we get older, a deeper kind of loneliness can and should begin to obsess us. This deeper loneliness makes us aware how torn and divided is our world and everything and everyone in it. There is a global loneliness that dwarfs private pain.
How separate and divided is our world! We look around us, watch the world news, watch the local news, look at our places of work, our social circles, and even our churches, and we see tension and division everywhere. We are far from being one body and one spirit. So many things, it seems, work to divide us: history, circumstance, background, temperament, ideology, geography, creed, color, and gender. And then there are our personal wounds, jealousies, self-interest, and sin. The world, like a lonely adolescent, aches too in its separateness. We live in a world deeply, deeply divided.
And the older I get, the more I despair that there can be a simple solution, or perhaps even a human solution at all, to our divisions. Life slowly teaches us that it is naive to believe that all we need is simple optimism, good-will, and an unfailing belief that love will conquer. Love can and will conquer, but it doesn’t happen like in a Hollywood picture, where two people who really have no business ever being together fall in love and despite having nothing in common, despite being deeply wounded, despite being immature and selfish, and despite having no shared faith or values, are able to rise above all their differences to sustained embrace and ecstasy, simply because love conquers all.
At a certain point, we know that real life doesn’t work like that, unless we die in that initial embrace as did Romeo and Juliet. Our differences eventually have their say, both inside of our personal relationships and inside the relationships between countries, cultures, ethnic groups, and religions. At a certain point our differences, like a cancer that cannot be stopped, begin to make themselves felt and we feel helpless to overcome that.
But this isn’t despair. It’s health. As anyone who has ever fought an addiction knows, the beginning of a return to health lies in the admission of helplessness. It’s only when we admit that we can’t help ourselves that we can be helped. We see in the gospels where so many times, immediately after finally grasping a teaching of Jesus, the apostles react with the words: “If that’s true, then it’s impossible for us, then there’s nothing we can do!” Jesus welcomes that response (because in that admission we open ourselves to help) and replies: “It is impossible for you, but nothing is impossible for God!”
Our prayers for unity and intimacy become effective precisely when they issue from this feeling of helplessness, when we ask God to do something for us that we have despaired of doing for ourselves.
We see an example of this within Quaker communities when people gather and simply sit with each other in silence, asking God to do for them what they cannot do for themselves, namely, give themselves harmony and unity. The silence is an admission of helplessness, of having given up on the naïve notion that we, as human beings, will ever finally find the right words and the right actions to bring about a unity that has forever evaded us.
The Eucharist is such a prayer of helplessness, a prayer for God to give us a unity we cannot give to ourselves. It is not incidental that Jesus instituted it in the hour of his most intense loneliness, when he realized that all the words he had spoken hadn’t been enough and that he had no more words to give. When he felt most helpless, he gave us the prayer of helplessness, the Eucharist.
Our generation, like every generation before it, senses its helplessness and intuits its need for a messiah from beyond. We cannot heal ourselves and we cannot find the key to overcome our wounds and divisions all on our own. So we must turn our helplessness into a Quaker-silence, a Eucharistic prayer, that asks God to come and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, namely, create community. And we must go to Eucharist for this same reason.