Loneliness in church isn’t something we often think or talk about as faith communities. After all, we exist intentionally for fellowship, for gathering and being together in and around our worship. What are we about if not community, fellowship, and friendship? The people who join us are obviously not alone, because we are all here, together.
We acknowledge that worshipping God is not something that
can or should be done by oneself, except of course for those pesky desert
hermits, especially those annoying ones who climb up on posts in their attempts
to ignore us. Stupid hermits, missing the point: God is for people, together. But I digress.
The reality is that for people who suffer from depression
and other mental illnesses – people like me – going to church is often a very
lonely experience even though we are surrounded by people. Obviously I can’t
speak for everyone living with depression, and I’ve certainly at times found my
churches to be a source of great comfort. But the fact is that the times when I
feel more tightly gripped by sadness, darkness, and despair are also the times
when I feel most isolated in the midst of my community. Maybe that’s because my
own mental illness isn’t something that I feel comfortable discussing. Maybe
that’s because I’ve heard a lot of misinformation from clergy people over the
years, or because I have trust issues that the people I confide in won’t take
advantage of me, or ‘out’ me when I’m not ready. Ultimately, maybe the reasons
aren’t that important to what it means for living the experience.
I've had a difficult year as I moved to a new congregation,
one that also happens to be very different from any other community I’ve
belonged to. It’s massive, and I’ve always belonged to small, close-knit
churches, where everyone knows who you are and the feuds can be
multi-generational. I’m not quite sure how to fit in, or if I do. To some
extent it helps that I joined smaller groups that have the added advantage of
helping me avoid the minefield that is coffee hour. To some extent I shot
myself in the foot because by avoiding the minefield of coffee hour I haven’t
really met anyone and there’s not a lot of time for real conversations about
faith and life and God.
It can be intensely difficult for people who already live
with social fragility to find themselves experiencing liminality in a space
where there is an implicit emphasis on togetherness, unity, and friendship. It
can be hard to feel like an outsider and not know how to fix it. For me
personally, it is a struggle when I’m depressed to fight the urge to retreat,
to hide, to withdraw and be by myself. I know that for many others, this is an
unavoidable urge, and I count myself blessed that I feel by myself but am not
actually by myself.
Christ, too, is no stranger to loneliness. Imagine what it
must have felt like growing up so different from everyone else. Fully human,
fully divine, different from everyone around him. We know he started looking
for answers, that he knew he had a mission, from a very young age, when he
ditched his family to stick around the temple (Lk 2:41-52). Early in his
ministry, large groups of disciples abandoned him because what he was teaching
was too difficult (Jn 6:35-66). Jesus was constantly confronted by people who
didn’t understand what his ministry was about or what he was trying to tell
him, most painfully by his closest friends on the way to Jerusalem as he tried
to tell them about his death (Mk 10:35-40).
He faced temptation in the desert by himself. In the garden
of Gethsemane, his friends fell asleep while he kept watch. Jesus knows what
it’s like to be alone. Obviously, my loneliness is not like Jesus’ loneliness:
to believe so is absurd, arrogant and grandiose. I don’t better understand
Jesus because I live with depression. But because Jesus was lonely, he
understands me. I am never alone even when I am, even when I am alone in the
middle of a crowd, because Christ is with me. I might not be able to feel it,
but I believe it with all of my heart.