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Feeling lonely? Try Lent

Fr. Lou DelFra | Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Most of us know that we enter into the 40 days of Lent, in part, in imitation of Jesus, who before beginning his public ministry entered the desert for 40 days, where he was tempted by but ultimately overcame Satan. I always begin each Lent with this image of Jesus battling in the desert. Perhaps imagining Jesus duking it out with Satan provides a bit of a spiritual adrenaline rush as my own 40 days begins; but, like most adrenaline rushes, it wears off soon after.

So here we are, halfway through Lent, with some Lenten resolutions perhaps already by the wayside while others are badly leaking. We stand in need of some motivation, a halftime pep talk, a reinvigorated purpose for persevering in the Lenten promises and self-denials to which we committed with such determination way back on Ash Wednesday.

Recently, I discovered one such source of mid-Lenten motivation. I found it in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 5, verse 16. The verse reads simply: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray.” Despite their simplicity, those words leapt off the page and clung to me throughout the day, stirring up something in my soul that I struggled to grasp. It seems Jesus didn’t enter the desert just once at the beginning of his ministry to battle with Satan, defeat him and then get on with his life. Rather, says Luke, he “often withdrew to lonely places to pray.” Why this continual disruption of the normal rhythm of his daily life? The question is important to our purposes because if Jesus had to constantly withdraw to the desert, might there not be some motivation for us, in the middle of our forty days, to persevere in our withdrawal and disruption (giving up sweets, meat or whatever) as well?

“Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray.” For someone who, according to the Gospels, so fully reveled in the company of others and was so fully immersed in a life of active service, it’s a curious and almost counter-intuitive description. I think in the past I have conveniently misread the line, choosing a more comfortable reading than perhaps is warranted. I usually have interpreted it to mean, “And Jesus would frequently get so tired by his service and the busyness of life, that he needed to withdraw from time to time in order to rest and reenergize.”

But there’s a problem with this reading. There are many times when Jesus needs precisely to rest and reenergize, which Luke describes differently, without that stark phrase “withdraw to lonely places.” The most conspicuous is after the feeding of the 5,000 people, an obvious point when Jesus would have needed a break. Luke 9:10 reads, “After they had fed the crowds, Jesus took his disciples with him, and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida.” He goes with friends, and there’s no mention of that haunting phrase “lonely withdrawal,” with all its Lenten connotations of separation, self-denial, discomfort and longing. No, when Jesus needs to rest and rejuvenate, he normally withdraws with his disciples.

So, I wonder if Luke is being very deliberate about his word choice when he says, “And Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray”? If Luke is being deliberate, then I wonder if Jesus is not engaging in a continuous spiritual act of Lent in these moments. That is to say, I wonder if he is not momentarily withdrawing to lonely places precisely to feel lonely. Not so that he will become depressed and gloomy, for which the Gospels give no evidence, but so that he can recall and stay in touch with one of our most basic human realities (especially before his death and resurrection). A reality that was hammered home during his initial 40 days in the desert: that at some level, we are cut off from home, separated and alienated from God, from one another and from creation. And that if we don’t have times and seasons when we get in touch with this uncomfortable, agitating reality, we actually become less human, less attuned to an important part of the human condition.

The near-instantaneous connection Jesus has with the alienated, the lonely and the sick throughout the Gospels never ceases to amaze me. From walking into a town square in Samaria and conversing with the troubled woman at the well, to calling out to the alienated thief Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree; from trespassing the purity laws to touch the leper, to standing up for the entrapped woman caught in adultery – when Jesus senses someone who is separated, his compassion wells up and impels him to connect, intervene and save. How is he able to respond so consistently, so fully, so lovingly, to these outcasts?

I wonder if it is not because “often” he himself “withdrew to lonely places” to stay in touch with the deep human reality of our alienation and the even deeper longing to be reconciled. Perhaps this is a reason, in the dog days of Lent, to persevere in our resolutions and discomforting self-denials – so that we too can, so to speak, withdraw momentarily to a deserted place, experience an emptiness or a hunger, recall that we all live with our deepest desires as yet unfulfilled and realize a disturbing percentage of our planet still lives with their most basic desires unfulfilled. In doing so, perhaps we might become more conscious of our longing for God and respond more compassionately when we encounter the lonely and alienated in our lives.

This week’s column is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, director of Pastoral Life for ACE and member of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.