The United States is suffering from an epidemic of despair. Despite medical advances and a growing economy, life expectancy has been decreasing. Studies conducted by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton suggest what one may already have suspected: Folks who lack meaningful work, committed relationships and stable communities are particularly susceptible to the demons of drug overdose, addiction and suicide.
Pope Francis has described the poor, lonely, elderly and disabled as the victims of a “throwaway culture” that sees people only for the economic value they provide. In response, he has called for the church to become a “field hospital” for those on the margins of society. By doing so, he is echoing the call of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Sts. Benedict, Francis and Dominic, the Renaissance Christian humanists and the Reformers to return ad fontes—to return to the early sources of Christian life to seek renewal and practice Gospel simplicity.
Early Christian sources may be able to provide us with a response to our epidemic of loneliness. For example, the Didache, a treatise also known as The Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles, is one of the earliest extant descriptions of a Christian community. According to this account, the refugees and rejects of the Roman occupation of Judea periodically gathered around a table to share what the second-century Christian author Tertullian would later term a “love feast.” At these meals, the first Christians would re-enact the Lord’s Supper, pray the Psalms and share stories about Jesus. The author of the Didache urged the early Christian community to welcome wandering prophets and encourage them to speak about whatever the Spirit had placed upon their hearts.
Pope Francis has described the poor, lonely, elderly and disabled as the victims of a “throwaway culture” that sees people only for the economic value they provide.
Scholarship suggests these “prophets” may have been men and women brutalized by the Roman occupation, people who needed a space in which they could lament their loneliness and rediscover themselves in community. These prophets may have been the first celebrants who blessed the bread and wine. Our first intuitions that God was mysteriously present in the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine may have arisen from the powerful experiences of healing transformation the first Christians encountered at these love feasts.
In response to the current epidemic of despair, we should recommit ourselves to practicing something analogous to the first Christians’ love feasts in our daily lives. When we welcome the lonely, we welcome the prophetic voice of God. We encounter Christ mysteriously present at our table. As the Catholic peace activist and modern prophet Dorothy Day said, “We’ve all felt the long loneliness, and we know that the only solution is love, and that love is found in community.”
In response to the current epidemic of despair, we should recommit ourselves to practicing something analogous to the first Christians’ love feasts in our daily lives.
The Czech leader Václav Havel wrote that the most transformative thing a people can do to inject hope into dehumanizing situations is to live within the truth, to pursue “the real aims of life” rather than being seduced by consumerism. During communist rule, in service of a “hidden movement” that would eventually give rise to “an irrepressible transformation,” Havel encouraged small communities to practice living within the truth by reading Scripture, performing Shakespeare, reciting poetry, creating music and art, and sharing meals together. Through the regular experience of truth, Havel believed, people would come to recognize the inherent dignity of every person.
Like the Czech dissidents modeling an alternative to a dehumanizing autocratic government, Francis is calling for the church to carve out spaces of hope in a culture suffering from despair. Some have already committed to this type of prophetic witness. The L’Arche movement (founded by Jean Vanier, who died on May 7), in which men and women with developmental disabilities live with housemates committed to their care, is a living example of the Gospel life the Didache describes. Like Havel’s truth-telling communities, L’Arche homes quietly, simply and profoundly model a better way. They celebrate the Imago Dei indelibly imprinted upon each household member.
L’Arche homes quietly, simply and profoundly model a better way. They celebrate the Imago Dei indelibly imprinted upon each household member.
They also offer an alternative to the loneliness of modern life by cultivating love—one post-dinner sing-along, community trip to the grocery store or birthday celebration at a time. These seemingly mundane rhythms provide a space for those discarded by modern society to flourish. L’Arche homes challenge each of us to practice what Mother Teresa called “small acts with great love.” These small acts wake us up from self-absorption and allow us to celebrate someone else’s life—inviting the single person who lives next door over for dinner with your family, shooting the breeze with an elderly friend on the front porch, organizing block parties or open-mic nights, or coaching a Little League team. They remind whomever we are celebrating that there is reason for hope, reason not to despair.
Beyond providing a service to those on the margins, L’Arche homes call a world gone mad back to sanity. Their prophetic beauty challenges our assumptions about what constitutes a life worth living. When one visits a L’Arche home, so much of what we spend our lives pursuing falls away. It is as if life is distilled: One recognizes the gift of someone reaching across the table and holding a hand, or gazing back with a smile that bears no pretense, or singing “Hey Jude” at the top of one’s lungs. It is Christ’s joy made complete in our common life.
Traditionally, Catholic theology has thought of despair as a sin committed by an individual who believes he or she is damned absolutely and no act of God can change that. But our current epidemic of despair is, in a way, a communal failure. It is a failure to identify and call forth the beauty inherent in every life. It is a failure to welcome the lonely person, the wandering prophet, to the table. It is a failure to live within the truth in such a way that someone struggling with despair is reminded of their inherent worth.
As our neighbors wrestle with despair, each of us should ask how our communities can humbly call to hope. We should ask how our joy can be made complete by welcoming the lonely into our common life. That call begins in communities like L’Arche, like the Didache community, like our backyards on a spring Saturday night, where a simple supper becomes a love feast.