An Extrovert’s Guide to Finding Community
In the aftermath of a cannonball shattering his leg in battle, St. Ignatius of Loyola was lying in bed and wondering if he would ever walk again. Was his lifelong dream to lead an army into battle gone forever?
While lying in bed, St. Ignatius was brought two books: one on the life of Christ and the other on the lives of the saints. Desperate for something to do, he read them both. This time of recuperation led to a tremendous conversion of St. Ignatius’ heart – all because of a painful battlefield wound.
I love St. Ignatius’ story because it’s a great reminder that God works most powerfully in our hearts when we are at our weakest.
It’s true that the most challenging year in St. Ignatius’ life marked his greatest conversion and the beginning of what became his greatest work – The Spiritual Exercises – but I also think about how tough it must have been for him to question his own identity and feel alone in that struggle.
It’s been centuries since St. Ignatius’ conversation, but loneliness and questioning of our true identities remains part of the human experience. We long for good community and friendship because we were created for it.
The arrival of the cold weather always reminds me of my first winter in Washington, D.C. My now fiancé and I were long distance for the first time. He was a first-year FOCUS missionary in New York, and I was a first-year graduate student in a program with a small, eight-person cohort of classmates, none of whom were as social as I had expected.
While the winter of 2016 was one of the warmest on record, I spent many Friday and Saturday nights alone in my apartment, praying for friends to laugh, spend time, and share my heart with.
The months passed, winter turned to spring, and I grew lonelier. I began to realize that a community of friends was not going to materialize out of thin air and – despite my earnest efforts attending Catholic young adult group events, inviting classmates out for a drink before our evening classes, and attempting to reconnect with acquaintances from past summer internship – God was asking me to wait patiently for the friendships I desired.
Friends with the Saints
Like St. Ignatius, we don’t have to face these periods of loneliness by ourselves. We can also be inspired by the stories of God’s friends in Heaven, the Saints. When facing the spiritual desolation that often accompanies loneliness, I turn to books written by holy women and men with amazing conversion stories such as Thérèse of Lisieux, Francis de Salles, Gabrielle Bossis, and Teresita de los Andes.
I would sit in Adoration reading books about the saints. When I didn’t have the words to speak to God, I spoke theirs. I asked God to make me a saint like them and to seal His truths onto my heart.
In January 2017, I cold-called the Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE) seminary. I asked for the rector, hoping he could recommend an IVE priest to meet with for spiritual direction. Much to my surprise, the rector offered to take me on for spiritual direction and asked when I wanted to meet.
We met every five weeks at the Basilica and National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I talked about the loneliness I felt, I opened up about the trouble I had discerning my relationship with my boyfriend, and most importantly, I had someone who the church recognized could help me go deeper in prayer and discern God’s will for my life.
I didn’t know it in the moment, but the year I spent in D.C. without authentic friendship made me stronger in my faith, quicker to recognize blessings in disguise, and more appreciative for the friends I have now in a deeper way.
While I was in the midst of the loneliness, it felt like God was not answering my prayers. I remember asking Him: “If You sent the disciples out two by two, where is my partner in evangelization?”
But God is a generous giver, and after years of seeking out my own community in undergrad, leading ministry and Bible studies and trying to be an example for others, God just wanted me to receive.
My community in D.C. found me through a women’s Bible Study called Walking with Purpose. At the same time, a new cohort of graduate students started at GWU and were much more social than the first. Also, at the same time, my now fiancé was reassigned to George Mason University, only a few miles away from where I lived.
When God provides, he provides in abundance. As an extrovert, feelings of loneliness can be magnified on a Friday night at home. It was not easy to come to terms with feeling lonely and at times abandoned by God, but that year gave me the strength to deal with friendships that would fall apart later, the strength to forgive friends who had hurt me, and most importantly the strength to rely on God when community is hard to find.
Ad majórem Dei glóriam.
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Renee lives in Arlington, VA, and works for a strategic communications firm in Washington, DC. She loves leading Walking With Purpose Bible studies at her parish and trying new cuisines from local restaurants. She has a Master’s in Latin American Studies from GWU and a Bachelor’s in Communication Studies from the University of Miami.