Hoping for Company
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We have family coming for Christmas, and I’m pretty excited about it. One of the hardest things about moving to Cincinnati has been not having family nearby. And, of course, the pandemic has exacerbated that. We haven’t had family come to visit in almost 2 years and we are feeling it. So the energy is ratcheting up in the DeVaul house as we prepare for company. And it’s a good energy. There is some nervousness, of course, because how could there not be? It’s a good energy.
Once when I remarked to a family member that I wished they’d visit they said, “I’m afraid we’d irritate you,” to which I responded, “Of course you’d irritate me: We’re family. I want to see you.” That story probably doesn’t make me look great. But it’s true. I’m irritable and not always the easiest company and also I love and miss you and want to see you. I love you and I’d rather be irritated by you than left alone.
This isn’t just the extrovert in me talking. I don’t mean to say I always want people around or that I prefer any company to solitude. I have learned to love the quiet moments and the time to myself. It’s just that the last 21 months have left me missing a lot of people. Missing their presence. Missing their hugs. Missing when they get on our nerves. Missing their company. I bet you know what I mean.
We humans are built for relationship and connection, and not just with one or two people. Our bodies and souls actually want to feel the sense of sharing life with a host of people. But for many of us – myself included – it took a pandemic and months of isolation to realize just how deeply we needed simply to be among people, how important it was for us on a daily basis that we weren’t really alone. I took so much for granted. I definitely did not realize how connected to community I was. I thought I was alone a lot while surrounded by beautiful people living connected, intersecting, and interweaving lives.
It occurs to me that I have spent the majority of my life thinking similarly about faith. I long believed that Christianity was about me and my beliefs and my faith - my relationship with God and what I would need to think or do or believe so that I could be the right kind of person and go to the right place when I die. I did not understand that faith is something shared with others, that belief is something we live into together. For God and the saints, eternity is happening right here and right now – I don’t have to wait until I die – I am already participating in eternal life now, already experiencing the company of Heaven.
I grew up in a faith tradition that did not think much of praying to or through or with the saints. We prayed to God, after all. Everyone else was just a detour. We looked skeptically at those people who talked to Mary or Joseph or St. Anthony. As a self-righteous seminarian, I once confronted a classmate about this – because I knew that he had some practice of devotion to Mary, and it made me uncomfortable. (These are the kinds of things seminarians get worked up about.)
I remember telling him I didn’t need to talk to Mary because I could go directly to God. He said, “Well of course you can. But let me ask you: Do you ever ask your friends or family to pray for you?” Without batting an eyelash I said, “Well yeah.”
Let me interrupt my own story here to tell you that this was mostly a lie: I was not good at asking people to pray for me. I was good at keeping my real concerns and fears to myself and specifically not asking people to pray for me. But it did happen from time to time and in principle I understood the beauty and importance of asking people to pray for me. So back to the story.
My friend said, “So you ask other people to pray for you when you don’t have to. Ok. And do you believe Mary is alive with God in Heaven?” Again, without thinking hard I responded that of course I did. “Well, then,” he said, “why wouldn’t you ask Mary, who is alive and part of the communion of saints with you, to pray for you just like you’d ask anyone else?”
I had no answer. I was too busy having my understanding of prayer be blown to bits.
See, I had always thought I was alone in my prayer. That at best it was just me and God, and at worst it was me all by myself shouting into the void. What I began to learn that day and have been learning ever since is that I’ve never been alone in it – in any of it. Prayer, faith, life – we are not alone. Christianity is impossible to do alone: because we are always connected to one another in ways unimaginable, and because we are always surrounded by a great cloud of saints who have never stopped being a part of our daily lives.
We have never been alone.
But we have been lonely. I have been very lonely, and I will be again – maybe even today. I think maybe there is always some loneliness to be had. But also there is company. There is the reality that we are in this together even when we don’t feel it, that we are surrounded by love even when we don’t know it, that our lives are saturated by God’s presence even when we don’t see it.
Family, friends, church, even those who have died and are alive in Christ – we belong to each other totally.
Having company, by the way, is not about getting back to normal. We cannot unlearn what we have learned about ourselves or each other these last months, so there’s no going back. Having company now is about remembering the ways we can belong to each other even after loss.
I am excited for family to come this Christmas. I look forward to how they will make me laugh and how they will irritate me. I’m excited to be too cold while looking at the zoo lights with them. I’m excited for the hugs. I’m not excited because it will feel normal. I’m excited because we have grieved in missing each other, and now we get to experience the love that comes alongside the grief, and ushers us into the next part of our shared life.
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