This is why the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.
I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.
This command I have received from my Father."
"More than 40 percent of seniors experience loneliness on a regular basis, according to a recent University of California, San Francisco study. This feeling of separation and disconnection with society, community and family impacts emotional and physical health, so much that we believe it should be addressed by physicians, nurses, and other clinicians as a treatable medical condition." (Washington Post, May 9, 2017)
I have often heard seniors complain of loneliness; I have supposed it comes with old age. Given chronic illness, less mobility, hearing loss and death of the spouse, we should only expect loneliness during our later years. "Get used to it!" I thought.
But as I approach my senior years and live in a community of older Franciscan friars, I realize many people choose to be lonely, thinking they have preferred freedom. Millions of men and women live apart from their families and cultivate no friends; they pass the time with televisions, computers and pets in pristine solitude, dying of loneliness. With no hobbies and few interests, they assure themselves that, as Americans, they enjoy more freedom than citizens of any nation on Earth. But that illusion of freedom comes with much suffering, including "cognitive decline, the potential progression of Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and obesity." (Washington Post, May 9, 2017)
This was not our Shepherd's plan for his flock. Sheep don't wander off alone, and if they do the shepherd brings them back. True, some are called to the eremetic life and the Church provides traditions and "rules" to help hermits maintain community with like-minded souls. But there is nothing innately sacred about a life removed from human fellowship, companionship and conversation.
When I was ordained 43 years ago, we often celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of a friar's simple vows, and of a priest's ordination. The friar would be about 43; the priest, 51. We didn't celebrate many golden anniversaries of fifty years. Parishes would make a big deal of a couple's fiftieth wedding anniversary, because it was unusual. People didn't live that long. We find ourselves in a new age when people can expect to work into their seventies and eighties, and be feted as centenarians.
But we have to make certain spiritual adjustments if we're to live so long. We'll see a lot more people coming and going through our life; some will die, others move away. We'll need "people skills" to meet, take an interest in, and care about new friends. We'll probably take up new interests as the technology of recreation changes. We'll have to recognize that many assumptions of a half-century ago no longer apply; and that's not necessarily a bad thing. (Some of those certainties were just plain wrong.) Retirement is not the last stage of life but a new way of life for those who choose to live. it comes with new relationships, duties, interests and activities.
Perhaps the most dangerous assumption is one we picked up in kindergarten, "When I grow up I'll get to do whatever I want!" The wording changed through the years: "When I graduate...; when I get married...; when I take a vacation...; when I retire...." But the attitude was the same: I should get to do what I want to do. We supposed that was "freedom." It assumed there would be no one to tell me differently; if there was someone else they'd agree with me. "Hell," as the atheist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said, "is other people."
When we contemplate freedom, the Catholic gazes upon the crucifix. There is the icon of a free man. His hands and feet are nailed but he is not held aloft by these torturous devices. Rather he is held by love; his love for the Father, his Father's love for him, and his love for us. Despite the unspeakable pain of crucifixion, he would not have it any other way.
The image of Christ as shepherd with a crook and staff is lovely but the truer image of Our Shepherd is the crucifix. He needs no wooden stick to persuade us to follow his path; we are drawn to him as iron to a magnet. "When I am lifted up," he said, "I will draw all to myself."
His freedom is magnetic.
Contemplating the cross we must find ourselves more eager to accept the focused, prayerful solitude that every human being needs, and the companionship that comes with our human nature. We may never attain the perfect balance between them but we can see it in Christ Crucified. Daily prayer invites us to share our faith with others; it leads us to friendship; it shows us the beauty of young people coming up and the elderly who still sparkle with life. It helps us to recognize the courage of others who bear great burdens, to offer whatever assistance might help, and to graciously to accept whatever help we need. That too is an act of mercy.
The Shepherd lays down his life for others in order to take it up again -- for others! Contemplating his cross, we do the same.