From grade school to grad school I often heard that famous C.S. Lewis line: “We read to know we are not alone.”
As a student, I carried this thought around like an old coin. I saw in it the shining promise of reading as community. As a creative writer, I felt in it the weight of vocation -- the call to write stories that would indeed connect people in experience and identity.
These ideals were easy for me to embrace while reading and creating alongside people with the same passions. But in post-grad-school life -- outside the built-in, physical mentorship of scholarship -- books became newly crucial.
In this transient time, I longed to be led -- mostly, specifically, in my vocation. I was unsure how my artistic craft was supposed to click with career opportunities.
I’d held a job during my MFA studies -- a communications position for a Christian charity. I cared about the cause; I was able to write -- some. I had learned, though, that “communications” is a wide, wide vocational net catching everything from creative tasks to budget analysis.
Was this the space I was meant to be navigating, now?
This period of life also came with other adjustments. I had just moved to a new city. My apartment, my church, my community -- all were unfamiliar spaces.
I found myself fitting those nautical clichés for restlessness so often applied to 20-somethings: adrift … afloat … unmoored. I craved creative, person-to-person leadership, the generous guidance of a mentor talking out hefty questions over fried eggs or coffee.
But who could counsel me in this anxious state, on my rudderless little ship?
The leaders the Lord provided came in an unexpected form. In these years, he let me “take coffee” with three Catholic thinkers.
The first was Jean Vanier and his book “Becoming Human.”
Vanier -- a philosopher, humanitarian and founder of the L’Arche communities for the developmentally disabled -- spoke to me of common humanity. We’re all made up of brokenness and beauty, insecurity and strength, he reminded me. He asked what I valued -- compassion, justice, creativity? -- and told me to embrace them, love them and be awake to their presence in others.
“In this journey of integrating our experience and our values, … there may be a period of anguish,” he wrote, and advised “find[ing] links between the old and the new.”
I then knew a few steps to try: I would seek out new people asking the same questions about vocation, faith and art. I would take more people up on their invitations to conversation. I also would be open to those with other passions and dealing with other sufferings.
Next to sojourn was Ronald Rolheiser and his book “The Restless Heart.” Echoing Vanier, Rolheiser emphasized the universality of loneliness, as well as its potential to orient us toward God and ignite in us empathy for others. He pulled from Scripture and classic spiritual thinkers and from modern culture -- films, music and literature.
He laid out five types of loneliness: alienation, restlessness, fantasy, rootlessness and psychological depression. Some we all suffer from -- in some form, at some time. Others are more specific to personalities and situations.
Rootlessness was the one most keen in me then. I had a sense of everything erratic and shifting. Rolheiser used T.S. Eliot to describe the state we all desire, that “still point in a turning world.” To move toward this stillness, Rolheiser recommended commitment and fidelity -- to people, places and projects.
So commit I did. I rooted myself to my city by leaving the job I had in another. I became a freelance writer, loyal to my love for longer, in-depth writing projects. I officially joined my church. I put down what moorings I could, and opened myself to those to come.
Last to my vessel was Henri Nouwen, and his meditation on Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” Nouwen allowed me to see that old familiar parable afresh. Above my desk, I placed a copy of this famed image of grace given, resisted and received.
There, in the son with the muddied feet, I saw my frustrated, rebellious, prodigal heart. I had been rushing to vocational certainty without enjoying the Father’s care here, in the in-between. I learned how my envy of others in places of vocational certainty and success mirrored the envious, begrudging elder brother.
Finally, Nouwen invited me into my Father’s embrace. He asked me to, like the prodigal, feel the weight of his fingers on my back and sense that I am known. Not by job title or skill. Wholly.
Only from this place of belonging could I be truly hospitable with my language skills. “The community does not need yet another younger or elder son,” Nouwen wrote, “but a father who lives with outstretched hands.” Soon afterward, I became a literacy tutor as one attempt at living with arms outstretched.
I am not a priest, or even a Catholic; nor do I serve those with acute disabilities. In what felt like a leaderless time, however, the counsel of these three brothers oriented me.
I needed their vulnerable clarity of voice. As spiritual leaders, they helped me to trust God’s provision, which comes to us in unpredictable, untraditional and even unsought forms.
I read these books to know my loneliness better. I was led into its troubling contours of insecurity and selfish affirmation. I was taught to untangle its potential for creativity and humility from its harmful desires.
What the future holds for my writing -- fiction or nonfiction, paid or unpaid -- I cannot predict. Or ponder without some fear. What I can do is aim to lead as I have been led.
If all loneliness sings of our longing for God, then my small stories can call others to him. Even my odd, tragicomic plots and quirky characters can speak to readers intimately of their own troubles. They can be gestures, too, to a greater stillness beyond.
So I am moving forward in my voyage, ready to accompany and be accompanied.
Led by grace, not alone.