May 1, 2024 at 12:37 p.m.

We are not alone

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Editor’s note: This column originally was published on May 18, 2023.

Recovery from the devastation wreaked during the 2020-21 pandemic continues to challenge all of us. The loss of loved ones, social connections, employment and trust in the professions and institutions that we rely on to live healthy and stable lives has left many with a sense of disorientation, of being uprooted in a universe wherein we wonder if we are, after all, alone.

I am not thinking here primarily of the age-old questions about aliens or extraterrestrial life forms. To wit, is there anyone “out there” who shares those features of sentient beings which include intelligence, emotions and a certain biological and physical order that provide a foundation for communication and social stability. We have experienced enough in recent years to wreak havoc about the forms and meaning of human identity even here on earth. The sense of being alone, even abandoned by our norms and beliefs, is pervasive. The fear of even looking into another human face, after months and years of living behind masks — especially the kids — is revealed every day, notably on many school campuses, where even the exercise of changing classrooms witnesses many young folk walking alone, glued to handheld screens, instead of chatting and enjoying one another’s company.

The loneliness that has led so many to forms of self-medication, aggravated by the free flow of noxious substances — pharmacological, psychological and spiritual — across undefined and uncontrolled borders of every kind, whether geographical, national, technological or mental, suggests fallout from the pandemic is as pervasive as the disease itself ever was. Pastors preside at funerals of ever-younger congregants, victims of depression and fentanyl.

The consoling words of Our Lord, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (Jn 14:18), have never been more needed or welcome. These assurances were offered by Jesus during what we call the Last Supper discourses, in which he is preparing his apostles for his imminent and shocking departure, the night before his crucifixion. They appear among the same verses in which he speaks of going to “prepare a place” for them and coming back to them so that they may dwell with him “in my Father’s house” (cf. Jn 14:2-6).

We may often be inclined to take this as a promise of having a place of peace and contentment somewhere else, ultimately in heaven. It is no surprise that these are among the passages typically read at funeral Masses and wake services, to bring consolation to those grieving the death of loved ones. Jesus, however, promises something far more immediate and practical than hopes and dreams of some “future” life in a distant place. He speaks of the imminent coming of “another advocate,” one like himself who is here and present to us right now to bring healing and justice and peace to troubled hearts and souls.

Instead of encouraging us to look to the stars for our deliverance, he promises salvation by digging into his real presence in us and among us, guaranteed by his own Holy Spirit, which is the love between him and his Father (and ours), what theologians call the “indwelling of the Blessed Trinity” in the depths of our personal lives. This presence brings the peace that the world does not know because it does not understand it perhaps as even possible.

As I just mentioned, the tendency to think of heaven as only a “place out there,” above and beyond us, evoking images of angels on clouds with golden harps, may deprive us of the reality of the accessibility of God’s presence to us here and now. At Baptism, we receive this superabundant spiritual life of the indwelling Trinity, affirmed at Confirmation, nourished by the Holy Eucharist, the real sacramental presence of Jesus himself, the same Jesus the saints behold in heaven. Heaven really comes to earth.

The “mansions” or “dwelling places” as various translations render the layout of the “Father’s house” of which Jesus speaks are in fact not “out there” but in the human heart, which God has deemed a fit place to dwell. This is why the fathers refer to our hearts and souls, our interior being, as “tabernacles of the Holy Spirit.” It is why Jesus could call his disciples “the light of the world” (cf. Mt 5:14-16). He himself is the true Light who has come into the world as he reveals to us in the Scriptures. His living light is given to all believers, to dwell in them. Yes, this is heaven alright, and it begins here and now. It changes lives and gives us an identity and a mission we could not possibly invent on our own.

Now here’s the rub. Hearing such wonderful, consoling words often puzzles us, even causing us to wince as we recognize the incongruencies in our lives and acknowledge our unworthiness. How can it be that the all-high, all-holy God would even give us the time of day to consider a personal visit to us on our calendars and schedules so crowded with matters mundane and laced with worldly preoccupations. If God really knew — and God does know! — my “bad thoughts,” the sinful “places” into which I have strayed in so many quarters, the things I have done that I am not proud of, the opportunities I missed or rejected to grow in God’s grace, how could God possibly stand me, let alone find a home within me?

Habits and addictions are very hard to break away from and they come in so many forms. The demons do not let us rest in peace but continue to haunt us, even when we have made significant progress on the path to recovery. I think a word of assurance from St. Paul is helpful here. He writes, “but God proves his love for us that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8).

God is not impressed by our sins or errant patterns. Jesus is here FOR us, to seek us out and lead us back to his heart. He is on our side as our friend in need and the very heart of God, the Holy Spirit, the love between the Father and the Son, is the same Spirit that, by the grace of God, dwells in our inmost being, dispelling the darkness of fear, cynicism, sin and despair. How then does this become real? Again St. Paul, “you must think of yourselves as (being) dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus” (Rm 6:11).

He should know! After a long and sordid history of persecuting believers in Christ, the Lord came to St. Paul and offered him the same invitation he gives us here and now. Stop fighting with a God whose love is so much bigger and generous than the spiritual wastelands we wander in, looking for love in all the wrong places. We don’t have to wait for our funeral to have welcome bouquets delivered and nice things said about us. Jesus has a word for us today: you are not alone, “I am with you always” (Mt 27:20).


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