Far enough

When I think of Easter Sunday, I inevitably think of Croatia, of myself running on wet cobblestone along the Adriatic, running in a wind-swept storm while the clang of church bells sailed into my ears from the ancient town along my left. My brother was in the hotel room. Most every citizen in Zadar was, I imagined, in church, along with the rest of the Orthodox world. Until my mid-twenties, I had not been an avid churchgoer, my faith a private, yet constant and rambling thing that had woven its way into my heart when I was nine years old and, thanks to God’s mercy, never quite let go. So on that trip, and even now, I did not have the particular guilt that pricks at most Christians when they fail (or are unable) to gather on the holy days. It is both to my detriment and to my benefit that I am most able to find God when I am alone.

A friend has pointed out that I often talk about “processing with God.” She told me how much she admires that, since her first inclination is to process with others. I think this might be one of the peculiar advantages of having lived a relatively solitary life, of having felt myself so outside of normal things and people and experiences—that when God at last got a firm hold on me, the transition from processing with myself to processing with Him came naturally, if also slowly (as everything in faith seems, to me, to come slowly). I was, after all, accustomed to spending most of my time in my head, so the fact that God was ready and willing to enter the space I alone had long inhabited was and remains a welcome gift. So, too, now that most of America and other parts of the world are under quarantine, I think that it is both to my benefit and to my detriment that I am quite accustomed to spending my life alone with my God.

But there’s something about loneliness that cuts, even so. There’s a sharpness to it, different from the loneliness lived without God—a far worse loneliness, which I remember all too well, and which I pray I will never return to. A load of loneliness borne between Jesus and the self is a loneliness lightened, or mitigated, but it is a loneliness nonetheless. It is a weight I have carried from my earliest memories, and I wonder if, in our heart of hearts, we don’t all feel this way—that there is an impenetrable divide between ourselves and others, and while we can bridge that divide for a short while, it always shifts back into place. I wonder if one of the reasons why so many people seem so unsettled by the onset of this virus and the isolation we have all been shoved into is because they have never been so fully confronted with this loneliness that is common to all humanity. Ours is a loud, distracting world, and unless you are of the howling and melancholic sort (like I am), I imagine you could find a way to drown out anything you didn’t want to hear or see or feel.

Not so, anymore. Now the loneliness comes pounding down upon us the way the rain poured over me on that Easter Sunday run along the coast of Croatia—a run that remains such a perfect picture of the way I heave myself through life. It was near the end of our three-week trip. I was sleep-deprived and had no water-resistant clothes. I was full of nutella and croissants and lattes that, I am quite certain, were not made with non-dairy milk. And yet, I ran. I ran, and the rain did not stop falling, and every time the waves collided with the wall that held them back, the brine of the Adriatic doused me in the face. I ran, and the only person I remember passing was an elderly woman, who regarded me with the expression most Europeans regard Americans with when they’re doing something particularly American—that is, she looked at me like I was insane, and to her credit, I may have been. I ran, and all the while, the church bells clanged after me.

I ran, and then suddenly, I stopped. Not because I wanted to, but because the path had ended and sloped into the sea. “This far you may come, and no farther,” it seemed to say, and truthfully, it was far enough. More truthfully, it was probably too far, but in those days, I was in the habit of running too far, so I would be forced to run just as far back. I don’t remember how long I stood at the water’s edge. Probably not long because, as I said, it was cold and raining, and the spray from the waves kept hitting me in the face. But it was there or sometime after—either in reality or in imagination or in both—that a certain passage in Exodus came to mind, and it has so fused itself with my memory of that Easter Sunday that the two have become inextricably intertwined. I remembered the words of God to Moses, when Moses asked God to show him His ways, that he might know Him and continue to please Him, and God replied, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Life is exhausting, at best. These days, it feels impossible, like all it would take is one crack in the wall to send the whole ocean rushing in upon us. I think, in some ways, I am always that woman, running along the Adriatic in the rain, lonely and alone, and not really sure what I’m doing, or why. I heave myself along wet cobblestone for miles, with a belly full of bread and milk, and I can’t rightly say it does any good, except that it gives me a sense of accomplishment and helps me sit still for a while. And even then, at our most despairing and ridiculous, God still wants to be with us. In our loneliness, in our restlessness, He moves right in and walks (or runs) alongside us. Sometimes, I wonder if He didn’t wait three days to rise from the dead, so that He might know our loneliness to its fullest. And if the road we’re on should suddenly slope into the heart of the sea, perhaps it is so we will stop for a moment, catch our breath, and notice that, though the rain continues to pound and though the waves continue to douse us, the church bells, too, continue to clang.