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Mary Marrocco: This is an opportunity to really listen

  • April 3, 2020

A young woman told me how she almost took her own life at 21. Not because she had no friends or family (she knew she did) but because she felt alone in her pain, isolated in the anguish she had carried so long, and convinced nobody could hear.

Strangely, her sense of isolation connects her with many, for many suffer thus.

Thank you, Catholic Women’s League, for making the theme of “isolation and loneliness” a priority this year and inviting me to reflect with you about it.  Our planned “isolation and loneliness” gathering was cancelled due to the pandemic response — but the isolation and loneliness continue. 

Current circumstances highlight the question: How can we self-isolate without becoming isolated? Or were we already isolated, and the pandemic is wounding us where we need to be healed?

This Lent, how can we bring the lonely and isolated to the heart of the Church where they belong?

There are two kinds of loneliness. People might be lonely because of loss or abandonment, capable of being in community but unable to because of their circumstance. There was a time when people knew to bring such loneliness to God. Henri Nouwen’s gem, From Loneliness to Solitude, taught us to give our loneliness over into communion, to be transformed into the kind of solitude we all must enter in our quest to become human. 

The second kind of loneliness comes from interior illness. It’s the loneliness of disconnection, fragmentation of the self and loss of meaning. Another young woman tells me her friends see no meaning in life. How can we bring our loneliness to communion, to God, when we’ve forgotten how to be in it? This is not a loneliness of circumstance, but of being shattered.

Scripture teaches us the response to inner illness: listening. The people of God are called over and over to listen, listen, listen. The greatest commandment doesn’t start with love, but with listening:  Shema Yisrael — Hear, O Israel! St. Benedict’s Rule, for those called into community, starts with the word Listen.

Now is the time; we have the way laid open before us.

At this moment, we can see that humanity has fallen ill, with a novel coronavirus — which knows no boundaries, and finally doesn’t differentiate between rich and poor. We are all in it. But perhaps humanity has been ill all along: the lost sheep is all of us. Even as COVID-19 unites us in our vulnerability, it magnifies the crisis of isolation and loneliness, which Mother Teresa years ago called the greatest poverty. It accentuates the urgency of learning again to bring our deep anguish to God, who carves out our hearts through suffering so we can find the opening to Him who alone gives fullness of life. 

Just at the beginning of “social distancing,” when we could step freely into drug stores, the person at the checkout made a mistake on my request. “I’m sorry,” she said humbly, “I didn’t hear you.  I’ve done that all day. I can’t hear anymore.”

It’s hard for us to hear anymore. Hard to hear our own pain, let alone anybody else’s, and hard to hear what, deep down, we’re always listening for.

Listening to our loneliness may not be what we had in mind to do this spring. Yet we’re given an unprecedented opportunity to listen together.

In our physical distance from each other, our ears can be wider open. We can listen not only for ourselves, but for one another.

Listen! What are you hearing? What you hear is important for us all. 

We can’t go physically to church to receive communion, but we can listen to the Lenten Gospel readings. We discover Jesus touching the wounded where they need to be healed — and where the culture needs to be healed. He touches with mud the eyes of the man born blind (fourth Sunday), whose cure revealed that everybody else was blind. He raises Lazarus from the dead (fifth Sunday) and the religious authorities want to put Lazarus back in the grave. 

It’s hard, being changed. Maybe we can never go back to “normal,” and maybe that is the word of hope. Today, people are dying, and we care. The vulnerable need attention, and we care. We are not battling each other, but are battling together. Something has exploded to show us once again who we are. 

We didn’t ask for the suffering, but we are experiencing it; we might as well take the opportunity to listen. You can’t love God in your neighbour if you don’t listen. There is no Christian life without listening.

We may be afraid to hear what’s hurting us, what’s asked of us, who we are underneath it all. Pain is a teacher, once we start to feel and hear it, especially if we can hear it together. 

When we know our pain, then we also find our way. 

“Fill your horn with oil and set out” (1 Samuel 16).

(Marrocco can be reached at