Life is lonely. We’re born alone. We die alone.
No matter how much we’re surrounded by people, even people who love us, we experience life in a way that can only partially be shared.
You hear a song that makes your heart soar. But it does nothing for the person standing next to you. You read a book that touches you deeply. But you can’t find the words to make someone else — even a good friend, even a spouse — understand all the many ways it speaks to you.
In a deep insight into human nature, the Catholic Church recognizes this reality. Its seven sacraments are outward signs of God’s workings in the world, and six of them are given to individuals.
Water was poured on your head at Baptism. The cross was marked in holy oil upon your forehead at Confirmation. When you are gravely ill or near death, it will be your body that is anointed.
Only Marriage is a sacrament that is given to two people at the same moment, “that they might no longer be two, but one flesh.”
Marriage is the epitome of all the relationships that people have in life. In any relationship — such as parent-to-child or friend-to-friend or spouse-to-spouse — two people share their lives. They commit to each other.
Nowhere is that commitment as deep as in marriage. Spouses are more open with each other than with anyone else. They reveal more about their inner depths. They trust, and they gain support and encouragement from, each other. Yet, that sharing can only go so far.
Each partner remains an individual. And, no matter how close the partners are, each experiences life in a separate way. Each partner — like every human being who has ever lived — ultimately faces life and death alone.
And, yet, not alone.
A deep insight
That’s another of the church’s deep insights into human nature. We are alone, but we don’t have to be isolated. We shouldn’t be isolated.
We are made to live in a community. In many communities. So the sacraments, even the more private ones, are celebrations in the midst of the church community.
When my daughter Sarah was baptized, it was at our church, and many friends, relatives and parishioners attended. They joined with my wife Cathy and me as we joined with Sarah in her taking this first step of faith.
Sarah was just a few weeks old so Cathy and I — and our parish community — were making a commitment, on her behalf, to believe and live the life of Jesus. Later, as Sarah grew up, she had to decide whether to accept that commitment and that faith.
Cathy and I did all we could to prepare her. So did the parish, our faith family. But it was Sarah who, in the end, had to decide to take that leap, to belief. It was an individual choice, made within the context of the community.
The one and the many
Even Reconciliation and Last Rites have this dynamic of the one and the many.
When a priest hears my confession, he’s there as the representative of God and the community — not just the church family, but also all of humanity. In confessing, I am acknowledging that my actions have hurt others and myself. And the priest, on behalf of God and the whole community (including me), forgives me.
When my son David made his First Holy Communion, he was one of maybe 40 kids taking part in the ceremony. The church was crowded with fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, brother, sisters, cousins and grandparents.
Each family was focused, that day, on their own child, the boy or the girl who was going up to the altar to receive the Body of Christ for the first time. Yet, in a real way, in a truly Catholic way, they were there for all the other children as well. And for each other.
That’s what the Mass is. It’s all of us praying to God together.
We have our individual burdens and dreams, we have our individual understanding of belief. We have our individual relationship to God. Yet, in the church, during the Mass, we are bundling up all of those yearnings and emotions and experiences into a common multi-faceted prayer to the Lord.
And not only in that moment.
Every time that we wend our individual ways to church to celebrate Mass, we are joining with each other before the altar. And we are joining with all of the Catholics who have gone before us during the previous 2,000 years. Indeed, with all good-seeking people who have ever lived, all of humanity.
We are alone in the midst of these many levels of community. And, even though separate, we are linked together, like so many individual beads on a rosary, like so many stars in the universe.
We are alone. But not isolated.
Patrick T. Reardon
This essay originally appeared in the summer, 2013 edition of Reality magazine in Ireland.