Pursued in plain sight
It seems that anyone who has experienced a strong conversion or faith awakening can look back at their old life and see how God had been pursuing them in plain sight all along.
I discovered her memoir when I was in graduate school over fifteen years ago. Absorbed in my own work at the time, consumed with my own reputation as a promising young scholar, and disillusioned that neither my work nor my reputation were bringing me fulfilment, I had no joy. Then I found Dorothy.
Something greater than this
During those years, I was hiding the light from what little faith I had more and more frequently under a bushel basket. It was certainly not fashionable to call oneself a serious Christian in my academic department. Many of my peers stood out as incredible witnesses to Christ, but I was weak and cared more about impressing others than pleasing God. Besides, serious about Christianity I was not. I wore my Catholic-Christian identity like a coat I could slip in an out of; it was not a skin that had been grafted onto and into my own.
Within the pages of her little book, Dorothy Day opened my eyes to something greater than myself and the dull, hollow emptiness I felt. Her response to transcendent beauty in the form of her newborn daughter, and her response of selfless work and charity awakened something within me. Her beautiful writing style made me fall in love with this book and with her.
Misplaced Solutions to Loneliness
Fifteen years ago, I understood loneliness from the perspective of a whimsical, wandering seeker; one who had never been quite in sync with the people around her. I longed for deeper, enduring connections than the ones I knew. I had always felt different and isolated; other people were mysterious and hard to understand. Despite being an extrovert surrounded by family, friends, and a fiancé, I felt lonely most of the time.
In those days, what impressed me most about Dorothy Day was her uncompromising principles that informed and drove her radical work ethic, her steely resolve to being a disciple, all combined with a tender, maternal heart. And she was serious about community and service and was constantly surrounded by people to take care of. I wanted to be what I thought was just like her. I wanted to do something big and important, something that would leave a legacy, something that would consume me and take away my loneliness or at least dampen its sting. I believed the answer to overcoming the pain of loneliness was to dull it with the busyness of what I considered noble, worthy work.
I didn’t see that this life I imagined still entailed absorption in work and an obsession with my own reputation. I couldn’t see that this was not the solution to my loneliness. I suppose I imagined that the satisfaction I would feel from stoically carrying on in my loneliness would in itself assuage the pain.
But here on the other side of conversion, I now read the memoir with new eyes. From it I glean new insights on loneliness and life rooted in love.
Learning to love through the loneliness
Christian loneliness is a kind of suffering, and no life is ever immune to suffering. Women, perhaps due to their maternal nature, are more strongly drawn to others, to community. Women tend relationships carefully, like prized garden plants. Relationships are weighty, hard-earned things, so weighty that we can be tempted to cling to them at all costs.
But sometimes choosing God and His ways means choosing against other relationships. It may mean walking away from inappropriate relationships, just as Dorothy Day had to choose between her common law husband and the Church. Discipleship may mean losing the friendship of a person who disapproves of your insistence on being obedient to the Lord and all that implies.
The duties and circumstances of a life of obedience often pull you out of your social circles. Every mother of young children has experienced the isolation that accompanies a life caught up in caring for their little ones. Every mother of adult children experiences the loneliness of her children leaving home; every widow the loneliness of losing her spouse.
A life spent loving Jesus, striving to trust Him completely and to follow Him wherever that might be, will cross paths with loneliness. Loneliness is one of the messy by-products of a life of love, life in Christ. But love — of others and of God — is also the balm which soothes the pain of loneliness.
Dorothy explains her choice of title thus:
Tamar [her only child] is partly responsible for the title of this book in that when I was beginning it she was writing me about how alone a mother of young children always is. I had also just heard from an elderly woman who had lived a long and full life, and she too spoke of her loneliness. I thought again, “The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community. The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our brother, and living close to him in community so we can show our love for Him.” (The Long Loneliness, p.243; HarperCollins; 1997 reprint)
In the postscript, where Dorothy reflects back on the serendipitous twists and turns of her remarkable life she reflects:
[T]he final word is love. At times is has been, in the words of Father Zossima, a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire.
We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.
We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. (The Long Loneliness, p. 285-6; HarperCollins; 1997 reprint)
Dorothy Day spoke of a different kind of loneliness than the one I had described all those years ago. Hers was not the empty loneliness of the prodigal son still lost, but the resolved loneliness that one comes to accept in this unharmonious, imperfect world. It is the loneliness of longing for the love that is God, the loneliness that follows saying ‘no’ to the easy path so you can say ‘yes’ to the good one. It is the loneliness of homesick exiles, the loneliness of immortal souls sojourning in a mortal world. It is a loneliness that draws love out of yourself and into the other; a loneliness that bridges humanity.
It is a loneliness I can live with because it is not an end in itself; it is merely a reminder of our true, great end: life eternal in Him, in Whom we will never want for love, in Whom we will never be alone.