I recently had a priest write me an email about a parishioner of his who is feeling loneliness quite acutely. This person used to be in a relationship, and now, as she has chosen to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church on sexuality, she misses the intimacy of her past relationships.
We know from Genesis that “it is not good for man to live alone,” but as has often been said, there are worse things than loneliness. My favorite quote from C. S. Lewis often comes to mind when I find myself in the dumps because of loneliness:
If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.
Loneliness is the biggie–the one aspect of living out the call to chastity that is oh, so difficult to bear. The sex can be lived without, though naturally with difficulty. It’s the lack of companionship that’s the really difficult part. What I have found necessary is tolive my life on a daily basis. As Christ said, why worry about tomorrow, for today has enough troubles of its own? I find that living the single life, on a daily basis, can be quite rewarding and fulfilling. It’s the contemplation of a looming, long life of perpetual singleness that overwhelms one so easily, so when the temptation comes of thinking about myself as a single octogenarian, I try to settle down focusing on what today brings. (And then I try to imagine myself in light of one of my favorite great uncles who was a bachelor his entire life. As an octogenarian, he was one of the most joy filled people I’ve ever met in my entire life. Being like Uncle Arvid is the goal.)
In the meantime, as an early quadragenarian, just a little over halfway to reaching my uncle Arvid’s age, loneliness is a poignant reality I live with to a varying degree each day. I have found the worst thing that a lonely person can do is to sit about the house, moping. I’ve been known to spend an entire day in bed (and this can still happen from time to time), but over the years, I’ve learned the obvious: this isn’t ever helpful or productive. When I get in a funk, I make a concerted effort to get out of the house, usually calling up some friends to go grab a beer or a cup of coffee. (OK…usually beer). Thankfully I have a large network of friends so it’s a rare moment of loneliness where I’m forced to be by myself. In such times, getting out of the house, whether walking my dog, or going to a favorite bookstore, or walking about taking photos, (one of my instant happiness producing activities) generally helps the intense feelings of loneliness be more tolerable.
From a spiritual standpoint, I’ve tried to view loneliness as a strange gift from God. I choose with my will to view it in this light, and it has helped loneliness be more palatable to me. Henri Nouwen, who we now know lived with attractions for other men, wrote remarkable words on loneliness in his book, the Wounded Healer:
But the more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon–a deep incision in the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding.
Therefore I would like to voice loudly and clearly what might seem unpopular and maybe even disturbing: The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.
When we are impatient, when we want to give up our loneliness and try to overcome the separation and incompleteness we feel, too soon, we easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know with a deep-seated, intuitive knowledge–that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. This truth is so disconcerting and painful that we are more prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence. Thus we keep hoping that one day we will find the man who really understands our experiences, the woman who will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfill our potentials, the book which will explain everything, and the place where we can feel at home. Such false hope leads us to make exhausting demands and prepares us for bitterness and dangerous hostility when we start discovering that nobody, and nothing, can live up to our absolutistic expectations.
Many marriages are ruined because neither partner was able to fulfill the often hidden hope that the other would take his or her loneliness away. And many celibates live with naive dream that in the intimacy of marriage their loneliness will be taken away.
Viewing loneliness like the beauty of the Grand Canyon isn’t very popular, but I find Nouwen’s view of the subject inspiring. Thomas Merton’s view of the Israelites time in the desert in his book Thoughts in Solitude has also helped me come to terms with the loneliness I feel from time to time:
The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had traveled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.
I have a dear friend who is a consecrated virgin. She and I have talked about the loneliness of the single life, and as someone a few years older than me, I find her insights from walking the journey ahead of me invaluable. I still remember distinctly a conversation we had about her view of her relationship with God. It is a very personal and intimate relationship with God, in a sense of Christ being her constant companion and friend. She literally plans her day, talking with Jesus with an assurance that He’s there beside her all the time. To an outsider looking in, they might assume she’s crazy when she says, “OK, Jesus, what should we do today?” Personally, I like the idea of going grocery shopping with the Messiah.
That being said, obviously there is a lack of the physical comfort and presence of another human being. No matter how close we may feel with Jesus, I can’t get a hug from him when I’m down. I often think of C. S. Lewis wrote in one of his letters: “It is quite useless knocking at the door of Heaven for earthly comfort: it’s not the sort of comfort they supply there.”
Certainly others can be the “hands and feet of Christ,” but no one can really salve the pain of loneliness of the single person. Or, for that matter, the married man or woman who feels loneliness within his or her marriage. As Mother Theresa said, “the most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
So the question, naturally, is what is our response to loneliness?
Well, besides the obvious, (drinking craft beer with friends), I’m still trying to work that out. These books have been invaluable for me in trying to figure out a healthy and creative response to the suffering of loneliness:
Elisabeth Elliot has catapulted herself into the pantheon of my favorite authors. She’s definitely in the top ten for me, and has to be listed as one of the most influential writers who have shaped my thinking.
Here’s a favorite passage from one of her books, with an admittedly lachrymose title: The Path of Loneliness.
Acceptance of discipleship is the utter abandonment of the disciple, the surrender of all rights, to the Master. This abandonment, in all cases, will mean pain. Christ listed some of the troubles His followers could expect, so that they would not be taken by surprise and thus discard their faith in Him. He didn’t offer immunity. He asked for trust.
As we have noted, Jesus published no false advertising. He was offering the kingdom of heaven–bliss, eternal life, fullness of joy. But He spoke of the small gate and the narrow road. He promised suffering, not escape from suffering. You cannot take up a cross and at the same time not take up a cross, or learn how to die and how not to die.
And another passage:
There are many things that God does not fix precisely because He loves us. (Emphasis is Elliot). Instead of extracting us from the problem, He calls us. In our sorrow or loneliness or pain He calls us—“This is a necessary part of the journey. Even if it is the roughest part, it is only a part, and it will not last the whole long way. Remember where I am leading you. Remember what you will find at the end—a home and a haven and a heaven.”
As Lewis said, “we’re like blocks of stone, out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect. The suffering of this world is not the failure of God’s love for us; it is that love in action.”
Elliot says later that, “It is possible both to accept and to endure loneliness without bitterness when there is a vision of glory beyond.”
I feel that this misses the mark in some ways, despite how valuable I think her writing is. For me, the most compelling reason that makes suffering endurable is not the “glory” that might or might not come, but the fundamental belief that suffering is an invitation to love. Any later glory is ultimately irrelevant to a flesh and blood man whose only basis for belief in our coming glory is rooted in faith. My neighbor is someone I don’t need faith to believe in–I can shake his hand and help dig his car out of the snow. A faith that believes that our suffering, whether it be loneliness or something else, is something that can be used to gain salvation for those we love, as Colossians 1:24 tells us, is the strongest reason, and also I believe the most beautiful reason, for accepting, enduring and embracing suffering.
Interior Freedom by Jacques Phillipe has also been very, very helpful for me. A friend felt led by God to send that book to me several years ago, and though it is a short book, it is dense with wisdom and I took a long time to read it. It has helped me immensely. One of the best sections from the book is this:
It is natural and easy to go along with pleasant situations that arise without our choosing them. It becomes a problem, obviously, when things are unpleasant, go against us, or make us suffer. But it is precisely then that, in order to become truly free, we are often called to choose to accept what we did not want, and even what we would not have wanted at any price.
There is a paradoxical law of human life here: one cannot become truly free unless one accepts not always being free! To achieve true interior freedom we must train ourselves to accept, peacefully and willingly, plenty of things that seem to contradict our freedom. This means consenting to our personal limitations, our weaknesses, our powlerlessness, this or that situation that life imposes on us, and so on. We find it difficult to do this, because we feel a natural revulsion for situations we cannot control. But the fact is that the situations that really make us grow are precisely those we do not control. There are many examples.
I think this applies so clearly to the loneliness of life, and to all those aspects of human suffering over which we have no control.
I’ll have to finish my recommended book list tomorrow. But I’ll close with another quote from C. S. Lewis from another letter of his:
Well, thank God (for there is still part of me, a tiny little infantine voice somewhere amidst all the strong, confident natural voices, which can just thank Him, or perhaps only thank Him for being able to wish to thank Him) we shall not be left to the world. All His terrible resources (but it is we who force him to use them) will be brought against us to detach us from it—insecurity, war, poverty, pain, unpopularity, loneliness. We must be taught that this tent is not our home. And, by Jove, how terrible it would be if all suffering, including death itself, were optional, so that only a very few voluntary ascetics ever even attempted to achieve the end for which we are created. A propos—dare we gloss the text ‘Strait is the way and few there be that find it,’ by adding “And that’s why most of you have to be bustled and badgered into it like sheep—and the sheep-dogs have to have pretty sharp teeth too’! I hope so.