A recent study revealed an epidemic of loneliness in America. Loneliness and social isolation isn’t limited to America, though; it’s a global scourge that Pope Francis has addressed:
There are no longer close personal relationships. Today’s culture seems to encourage people not to bond with anything or anyone, not to trust…At the root of so many contemporary situations is a kind of impoverishment born of a widespread and radical sense of loneliness. Running after the latest fad, accumulating “friends” on one of the social networks, we get caught up in what contemporary society has to offer. Loneliness with fear of commitment in a limitless effort to feel recognized. (Address to Bishops at the World Meeting of Families, September 27, 2015)
St. Ignatius Loyola knew from his experience of extreme penitence at Manresa that isolation is not healthy. By turning inward and focusing only on his own thoughts and the parts of himself that he despised, he neglected to recognize God’s love for him. Years later, when he founded the Society of Jesus, he ensured that his brothers would always remain in community so as to avoid this pitfall.
What wisdom might Ignatius share with us today as we contend with this epidemic of loneliness?
1. Know your worth.
St. Ignatius opens the Spiritual Exercises by inviting the retreatant to reflect upon self-worth in light of God’s unconditional love for us. Jesuit Fr. Mark Thibodeaux elaborates upon this mediation most beautifully: “Reflect on the staggering, almost unbelievable notion that all the things of the earth were created with my benefit in mind—that God, billions of years before my birth, considered my personal needs and my unique desires while creating the universe.” (God’s Voice Within, 140) Recognize that God created you out of love for you and has placed you on earth at this time and place for a particular purpose. You are important. You are necessary.
2. Discern your mission.
Pope Francis tells us, “I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world. We have to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bringing light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing.” (Evangelii Gaudium 273) In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius offers effective methods to help us discern our personal mission in life, which will lead to us living with more joy and encountering others with similar missions as we work together.
3. Maintain a support network.
“It is absolutely crucial that I have a strong support network following close behind me, cheering me on, booing the false spirit, whispering tips in my ear, and passing me Gatorade. I will need good mentors, good companions, and a strong link to the church.” (God’s Voice Within, 73) We all need a trusted circle of friends and mentors who will keep us on track. And we need to keep our network strong by investing time in these relationships.
4. Build bridges.
Wherever he went and wherever he sent his brother Jesuits, Ignatius sought to build bridges. Pope Francis continues this tradition today when he speaks of his desire to build a “culture of encounter.”
There indeed we find true healing, since the way to relate to others which truly heals instead of debilitating us, is a mystical fraternity, a contemplative fraternity. It is a fraternal love capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbor, of finding God in every human being…and seeking the happiness of others just as their heavenly Father does…Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of community! (EG 92)
When we come into dialogue with a mutual respect for the other, listening deeply, we build bridges of trust and make our lives fuller and our communities stronger.
5. Live generously.
Ignatius missioned his fellow Jesuits to be men of service to others. Pope Francis continues to extend this call to serve today. We serve, he says, because “God created that person in his image, and he or she reflects something of God’s glory. Every human being is the object of God’s infinite tenderness, and he himself is present in their lives.” (EG 274) When we serve others, it helps us to gain perspective, inspires gratitude, and nourishes both giver and receiver, bringing us closer together.
As people of hope, we can turn the tide on loneliness. We might start by asking: What gifts do I have that God is calling me to share with others? In what way is God calling me to participate in God’s work by answering the prayers of another? Together, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can infuse joy into our communities and banish the suffering of loneliness.