I felt the pit in my stomach grow. Another weekend, no plans except studying, alone. Life as a graduate student was surprisingly isolating! How would I get through the next two years?
“God, I’m so lonely!” I prayed. “I need a community. Please.”
Community had been built into my life as a missionary on college campuses. Reaching out to others and building relationships was my job. But once I completed my time of service, I moved to a new town and started graduate school. Apart from classes and work, I spent my time researching, studying and writing – by myself!
I heard similar stories from fellow former missionaries. Some had moved back home, unsure of next steps, working an OK-for-now job, struggling to reconnect with old friends or make new ones. We had invested our hearts in our apostolate and now felt a real absence.
God had opened a door for me and I felt secure in my path, but who would support me along the way? Part of the struggle was that I wanted deep friendships and community immediately, without acknowledging that it requires time and effort.
“Part of the struggle was that I wanted deep friendships and community immediately, without acknowledging that it requires time and effort.”
I started to take small steps to begin building circles of community around me. Although my priority was school, I knew I had to place myself in the presence of others, or I would be missing out on relationships and experiences that God wanted me to have.
Here are some ways to build community – they worked for me, they might work for you too:
At work: Get to know your colleagues. Eat lunch with them regularly. After four years of college and three years of ministering to college students, I had to accustom myself to working with people of different ages. At first, I struggled to make small talk. The conversations seemed so boring! I needed a good dose of humility and multiple lessons in charity to learn how to truly love and get to know my co-workers.
At a parish: Use your missionary zeal and get involved with religious education, RCIA, choir or other ministries. During my first “post-missionary” year, I taught 7th grade religious education. There was definitely a learning curve – but the parish felt smaller as I befriended staff and families. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The religious education director affirmed me even as I told her I had no clue what to do!
At home: Schedule weekly dinners and hangout time. It’s a great way to unwind and reconnect with housemates or family during a busy week. I lived in house of Catholic women who would alternate cooking Wednesday crockpot dinners, followed by a goofy dance party. Our friendship grew along with our recipe collection – but I’m not sure that our dance moves improved!
Start a small group: Whether it’s a book club, Bible study, or faith-sharing group, participating in a group that meets regularly can be life-giving. As my Action Plan for the 2016 GIVEN Forum, I started a “Blessed is She” group after moving to Washington, D.C. I organized a brunch, advertised through Facebook and the diocesan young adult email listserv. At the brunch, I asked if any women were interested in beginning a group, and many were. Nearly two years later, the group still gathers every other week, and has grown to love and trust one another, sharing our consolations and desolations.
“Whether it’s a book club, Bible study or faith-sharing group, participating in a group that meets regularly can be life-giving. As my Action Plan for the 2016 GIVEN Forum, I started a “Blessed is She” group after moving to Washington, D.C.”
With God: I read once that loneliness is God’s way of calling us back to him. In building community, we’re also called to commune with God. We can renew our efforts to pray, start a prayer or gratitude journal, or find a spiritual director. After my missionary work, I had to figure out how to pray again. I didn’t have teammates to hold me accountable to prayer, and my schedule was totally different. Still, prayer gave me moments of peace. God was with me in my loneliness.
“I read once that loneliness is God’s way of calling us back to him. In building community, we’re also called to commune with God.”
It’s been five years since I first entered that transitional “post-missionary” phase. Seasons of loneliness continue to ebb and flow, but the desire – and need – for community remains.
Pope Francis writes in the apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate,” that “growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others.” Living apart from others is difficult, he says, and “we can grow too isolated, lose our sense of reality and inner clarity.”
As Christians we know that our call to mission did not end when we left our various organizations. And we also know that we need others to encourage us, scold us, push us, and support us in this lifelong mission. Go build your community. Your holiness, your happiness, and so much more depends upon it.