Love and the Long Loneliness
Growing up, being Catholic was pretty easy– I went to Catholic schools, my family was Catholic, and many of my neighbors were either Christian or Catholic. I attended a Catholic college, where nearly every building on campus had a chapel in it. To be Catholic was part of my identity, allowing me to consistently and easily integrate into many iterations of the Catholic community.
When I graduated from college, I was thrust into a secular world. Far from my family and my Catholic university, I began teaching at a private, non-religious school in New York City. In many respects, this school was very attentive to identity– racial identity, sexual identity, and cultural identity. However, I was surprised to find that the identity that had largely defined my educational experience– religious identity– was not only left out, but often dismissed as too controversial to include in discussions of what makes someone who they are.
Until that time, being Catholic made me part of a community– at my school in New York, it was what made me different from the community. At work, I was nervous for people to know I was Catholic, while simultaneously secretly desiring that I could talk about it freely, hoping to find people who thought similarly to me. Sometimes, I would hear things like “I hate when Christians…” or “Well, religious people believe…” I never knew how to respond– If I didn’t defend the faith, was I letting the misunderstandings of my religion continue on? If I explained the ideas, would I be pigeon-holed as one of the “religious people” who were so often dismissed at my school?
I spent months feeling lonely, isolated, and confused about how to “be Catholic” in a place where Catholicism wasn’t built into the structure. I worried what people thought of me, felt like I couldn’t find community, and anxiously assumed that there was no one in the city who could understand my circumstance. By the spring semester of the school year, I had decided that I would not continue at the non- religious school and would instead move to a place where I knew I had more community– Chicago.
Once I decided to leave, I made a few rules for myself so that I’d leave on a “good note”: don’t participate in workplace gossip; don’t create stories about who people are– instead, allow people to be complex; look for the goodness in each person I encounter, and have mercy for any weakness I perceive. Essentially, my rules were based on Jesus’ commandment to “love my neighbor as myself.”
After making these rules for myself, my inner turmoil began to loosen up– I was less afraid of “being myself” around my co-workers, and I made more friends at work. I integrated into the school community on my own terms, since I figured that I could do so without consequences. What I found, however, was that there were almost no consequences to me being my Catholic self, and that, even when people were wary of my religious background, they were quite accepting of me and respectful of my ideas.
Retrospectively, I realize that a lot of what isolated me was my fear of those around me, as opposed to the people themselves. I was not particularly forgiving of those who said things about Christians– I simultaneously feared them, wanted to please them, and labeled them “anti-Catholic.” But those people were a lot more dynamic than that– they were earnest in many things, and were ultimately accepting of me. I wanted “being Catholic” to mean “being accepted.” I realize now, however, that “being Catholic” is an action– a practice of mercy, openness, and love.
When I moved to Chicago, I brought my rules for “being Catholic” with me. Since I was teaching at a Catholic school, it was easy for me to work Scripture into my English lessons, to pray with my students, and to open up religious discussion whenever it seemed important (even if that meant in the middle of a Spanish lesson). Having the freedom to do that was really important to me, but it was crucial to reinforce those lessons through action. In some ways, my time at the school in New York made me better at truly
“being” Catholic than anything else in my Catholic education and experience. I was out in the world as a disciple of Christ, and while that could be done in my Catholic environments, it was just as (if not more) important to live that way in a non-religious setting.
This fall, I’ll be moving to Southern California to complete a masters degree through a state university. I am scared to (once again) leave the Catholic communities (the high school where I teach and my super awesome parish) that have made Chicago feel like home for me. But I also know that my master’s program, and the community that I’ll be part of while living in Southern California, are places where “being Catholic” will mean more than being part of a parish or Catholic school. To be Catholic will mean to love– whether that be through inviting people over for coffee or a meal, praying for understanding and openness when I find people I don’t “gel” with, and always speaking lovingly about people, even when I’m frustrated.
In The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day writes:
“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
Love comes with community– when you love, you create community. I know it takes time to create what feels like community, and that’s ok– even though there may be some “long loneliness,” I know that when I love, I’ll never be loving alone. I find strength in the idea that Christ created what would ultimately be a Catholic community through his words, actions and ultimately through his love– I can try to do that, too. And sometimes I’ll be lonely, or feel isolated, just like Christ did. But by being his “realest” self and by loving totally and completely, Christ brought God’s love most fully into the world.
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Laura Machado lives in Chicago. She teaches high school English and Spanish and is a catechist for middle schoolers at her parish. Laura grew up in Southern California. She likes to read, go for walks, and do yoga.