Jose Maria R. Olaizola SJ, Sociologist and Head of Communications

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Jose Maria R. Olaizola SJ, Sociologist and Head of Communications

I am the head of communications in the Spanish province of the Society of Jesus. I combine it with pastoral work in a parish in Madrid and writing and lecturing in various places.

I live in a large community of 17 Jesuits in Madrid. This is a very interesting group that includes people from 34 to 86 years old and of different nationalities. Most of us are Spanish, but we also have companions from Brazil and the Dominican Republic. Two are studying and three are retired – if we ever make it – but most of us work in very different fields, which makes it very enriching.

I was 18 and all I could think about was making a successful career in law and making money. Then I was fascinated by the gospel. It was the truth of life and gave me a different understanding of God and my place in the world and the purpose of my life. I studied with the Jesuits in my hometown of Oviedo; so the Jesuit vocation came as a very natural path for me.

Ignatian spirituality is an amazing school of inner life. First, it values ​​silence as a place to listen to the world, God, and yourself. Second, everyday life becomes a special school where you learn to name all your inner feelings and emotions. Third, it is a call to complete freedom, in the sense of learning how to love and be loved without fetters and how to use and enjoy things to fulfill your mission without being enslaved by them.

After the novitiate I was studying philosophy when I discovered sociology. It helped describe the behavior of people in everyday life and how each of us interacts depending on the circumstances, the crowd, the trends, the media. It was mind-altering. It provided a way to read the world around me.

I got a degree in cultural studies, using qualitative methodologies rather than statistics, and my particular approach is the convergence of sociology and spirituality. Theology and sociology bring together questions of meaning and depth related to everyday life.

A group of high school parents invited me to share a reflection on loneliness, and it went well. In the following years, I was invited to speak about loneliness in different contexts and countries, and people told me about their experiences.

Young and old, men and women, believers and atheists — at one point loneliness was a part of every life and I found it a challenge to describe it without drama, as part of our inner music. After a few years it became a book, Dancing with loneliness and since it was published I have observed with joy that it is universal music. This is because as we grow, certain decisions, certain goals, and certain directions we take are personal and cannot be transferred. I make connections between movies and everyday life in the book because movies are a mirror that allows me to better understand both.

There come times when the people in your life – family, friends, your partner, your community – need to give you some space, even if it is challenging or risky. You have to find your way to move on. Distance is not individualism or isolation, it is not putting a barrier between you and others or rudeness. It is finding stillness and perspective to define important relationships, goals. Even fears.

I like to distinguish between loneliness that helps you grow and loneliness that bites you. This second hurts and becomes a maze. You are drawn deeper and feel more and more discouraged. The first is part of the journey and you live it with meaning and sometimes with peace.

The difference is subtle, because in both cases – a barrier or a bridge – it can come with feelings of nostalgia, longing, sadness. I would say the key difference is whether there is hope in your heart. When loneliness feels like a prison, an unwanted place from which you can’t see a way out, it’s not good. On the other hand, when silence becomes a prelude to better words, when sadness is a stage in a story that you know is not over, when you understand and accept that love or the lack of it sometimes hurts, then we can talk about loneliness as a bridge.

I’ve certainly felt lonely. I learned to enjoy solitude as a necessary space in life. I use a lot of words in my work, but words need silence in order not to be betrayed or belittled. Prayer, reading, and writing involve distance, silence, and solitude.

I have also experienced the pain of unwanted loneliness — longing for someone who isn’t there, or when you don’t feel the affection you need; when you cannot share a burden that overwhelms you, and even faith seems clouded. What I have learned over the years is to make time an ally in this battle. Don’t give too much credence to your inner voices that identify this pain with failure. Trust your own story, filled with names that remind you that this loneliness is just part of the journey. And laugh gently at your own part of the drama.

Dancing with loneliness looks at society, trying to find meaning in loneliness. I have done something similar regarding happiness in joy also in Even at nightor looking at the way we deal with the social crisis in Today is now: Solid people for fluid times. I have written books on spirituality in which I try to build bridges between faith and everyday life in modern societies such as Passion in the contemplations of paper, In the land of all. I have written about how to be a part of the Catholic Church with all its contradictions in this complex society. I recently delivered the manuscript to Dancing with time about the difficulty of becoming an adult in this society that tends to idealize youth.

I was a very happy child. I lived with my parents and two sisters until I left Oviedo to join the Jesuits when I was 18. I was a good student and loved to run and sing. Most of my friends also participated in one or the other of these activities. I have been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember.

I have a busy, exciting life today. I’m afraid I have to multitask like many people today: work in communications, be a parish priest, write, give talks. Every day is like a marathon and I have to find time and space for silence, prayer and concentration, but I enjoy this period of my life.

Since I was little, I remember praying at night, telling God about everything. Even as a teenager I didn’t miss this space. But one personal experience that changed everything was when I was 17, looking at the cross, when I first had a vague idea of ​​what it meant. Then I began to think seriously about what friendship with God really means – following Jesus and helping others. It changed everything for me.

My faith now is how I understand the world, my place in society, my struggles in the Church. I have come to terms with doubt as part of faith, not as a problem. Now for me, God is a companion to whom I naturally turn, and I know that he loves me more and better than I do myself. I laugh at myself with God and it’s so healthy – and at the same time it makes me responsible for the world, trying to focus only on the bigger problems and not on the many small absurdities that take up too much energy and time .

The lack of mercy makes me angry. Religious intransigence. Injustice. Violence. Abuse. Using victims of any kind of injustice, violence, abuse or social problems to serve ideologies. Useless meetings and people complaining all the time, always in the first person singular.

Friendship and good reading make me happy. A team that works well together with a sense of purpose. Faith and knowing that I am loved just the way I am.

I have hope. Faith invites me to believe that God will find a way to inspire humanity to greater achievements. We are in strange and dark times where everyone seems to be unhappy – partly a consequence of the enormous change that the information society has brought us in recent decades. But we will find a way to grow and improve.

I pray. I ask God: “Show me the world with your eyes.” If I could see it that way, I would be wise, devoted, and happy.

I would enjoy a long conversation with Jesus. I’d probably rather listen than talk because 2,000 years later I’m sure he still has a lot to say. Of course, that’s what I’m trying to do in prayer, but you’re offering me a scenario I can’t waste.

Father Jose Maria R. Olaizola SJ was in conversation with Terence Handley McMath.

Dancing with loneliness is published by Messenger Publications at £11.95 (Church Times Bookstore £10.75); 978-1788126243.

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