Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
--W.S. Merwin, Separation (1962)
There is a risk to being a person devoted to Christian life in community. When you’ve experienced the beauty of knowing and being known, examining your life and the world with others and coming together with fellow saints to serve and intercede, then the loneliness of moving to a new place is all the more severe.
I am learning to know the contours of that loneliness.
I went to university thirty minutes from home and have only gone to two churches in my adult life. The deep friendships I made while at university overlapped with my family and my church, and have continued into the nearly seven years since I graduated. I’ve never had to completely rebuild a community.
But now, 5,143 miles from Los Angeles, settled into Edinburgh for the next three years, my husband and I are experiencing Loneliness 101: In Which We Rebuild Community from Scratch.
I spend my teaching days fighting the loneliness of being the only American in a school of nearly a hundred Scottish teachers and 1400 Scottish students. In the evenings, there is the loneliness of all of our new friendships being in the “first date” stage, not sure if you can just call them up without an excuse. Daily there is the loneliness of all our deep, mature friendships being an eight hour time difference away. On Sundays, there is the loneliness of hearing the Word of God, but not knowing how to pray for the person next to me.
I knew that building a new community would be hard, but still, it crept up on me.
My loneliness is obvious these days. But there is another loneliness with which many of us are familiar: the isolation of being alone in a crowd. This is the loneliness of being the only teacher who is trying to ask the hard questions, the only student who wants to learn and explore, the only woman in a room full of male students, the only young adult in a room full of adolescents, the only one questioning. Loneliness in all its forms is exhausting and debilitating.
And I know that I am not the only one experiencing this. I know that down the street there are undergraduates, terrified of developing new friendships. There are new believers, unsure what a church community is supposed to be like. There are high school students who can’t seem to find anyone at youth group who will search for truth and beauty with them.
The hard work of reading, praying, seeking holiness, and adventuring is even harder when alone. The difficult work of meeting new people, of asking the questions that deepen friendship, of going out on a limb and inviting someone to start a book group with you is so exhausting (even as a born and bred extrovert) that I wonder if it’s even possible. It’s tempting to just pretend that I don’t need the community because I’m not quite sure how to build it.
And then too, there is a lie nestled deep in me that goes something like this: God should be enough; being lonely means you’re not seeking God’s presence enough.
Great. Now I’m both lonely and guilty.
But the community of saints, as inspired by the Holy Spirit gently rebukes me. From the very beginning of creation, it was not good for humanity to be alone in the garden. The man after God’s own heart, David, pled to be rescued because he knew there was “no one who cares for his soul.” And in deep agony, Christ himself asked that the disciples remain with Him and watch. Loneliness is human because community is human; I am meant to go through life with people.
Honestly though, this is not all that comforting right now; I’m still lonely.
But, it’s a first step. To build a community, I have to know that I need one. I have to acknowledge that I am lonely, that the separation from friends, family and church is an absence that is hourly present in my life. This leads me to prayer that comforts not because it is a replacement of human community but because I know that the triune God by whom and to whom I pray is the one who creates and sustains community.
So what do I do?
I pray. I pray a lot. And, I have a lot of awkward first conversations, and even more awkward first “real” conversations. I bravely try to ask a lot of questions. And I pray and wait some more, because despite some churches’ marketing techniques, community doesn’t have a magic formula. Community isn’t built overnight, and although it impossible but for grace, it is not built without our risk and sweat.