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An Answer to Loneliness and Solitude

A look at longing as part of the human condition

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In a Christmas homily a few years ago, Archbishop Joseph DiNoia assuaged the fear that Christ is being left out of Christmas. He mentioned the oft-noted markers like the very name “Christmas” but indicated the surest sign is something other. He said the world is filled with longing.

At Christmas, whether religious or not, people have the leisure to ruminate on their longings. Hence, we hear both “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” But longing is a perpetual activity. St. Augustine found the longing heart central to his experience of God. He begins his “Confessions” with the famous prayer, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Longing, restlessness and desire proceed from needs. As learned in Psychology 101, needs are differentiated and progressive. Humans move from basic physiological needs to psychological and moral ones like friendship and esteem. Then there are spiritual needs leading to actualization and transcendence. We yearn for companions to affirm us and then to encourage us to move beyond conventional limits.

Of course, not every longing proceeds from a bona fide need. Comforts usually satisfy superfluous needs. They are not necessary although they can be helpful. Fantasies more likely stem from false needs, and their fulfillment can harm. “We fed our hearts on fantasies,” wrote Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “the heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”

Sexuality enables humans to fulfill a very deep longing. It thrusts us out of ourselves to associate with others. Sexuality reaches beyond genitality. In “The Holy Longing” (Crown Publishing Group, $17), Ronald Rolheiser asserts that sexuality is as much about having friends as it is about having a sexual partner. To make this point he writes: “It is painful to sleep alone, but it is even more painful to sleep alone when you are not sleeping alone.”

In any case, we long for friends to draw us out of our loneliness.

Loneliness

As much as any other condition, loneliness makes people aware of their incompleteness. Feeling lonely, we experience a need for company. As God says in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

Loneliness inhibits the sharing of thoughts and desires as humans long to do. It likewise prevents us from receiving consolation that makes bearing difficulties and sorrows more tolerable. Experiencing loneliness, humans look for a resolution. Often, people today find it in having a pet. Whatever shortcomings that may have, it beats some alternatives.

Something more needs to be said about feeding “our heart on fantasies.” Rather than face loneliness as part of the human condition, some flee it by indulging in frivolous activities. Watching television prolongedly and trifling with pornography seem to be popular escapes from loneliness. These preoccupations, however, have pernicious effects. Becoming a couch potato can drain creativity and corrupt one’s sense of responsibility. Pornography, of course, is even more deleterious. People who indulge in these and any number of other vain activities antithetical to sincere friendship damn themselves to superficiality, if not the loss of eternal life. They never learn how to love anyone, much less themselves, very well.

Some priests fantasize about having a sexual partner as a way out of existential loneliness. They imagine her or (it need be said) him as taking their side in struggles and relieving their anxieties. But no human relationship can fulfill every need. Much less will an imaginary relationship meet complicated personal needs. And if the priests were to pursue these fantasies with a particular person, they may well end tragically disillusioned. They would likely find that she or he is likewise frustrated from unfulfilled longings that perhaps eclipse theirs.

The Desert of Loneliness

Loneliness is like a desert. Its aridity drains human energies, creating a sense of tiredness. Its desolateness bespeaks the absence of refreshment. Like Jesus in the desert, humans become vulnerable to temptations. Besides the fantasies mentioned above, there are even more perverse ways of getting lost in this wilderness.

In the garden, the serpent tempted the woman by saying she could be like the gods. In the desert of loneliness, people often want to appear as gods before others. They crave recognition for their work. Likewise, they become defensive about themselves so that they never appear mistaken. Loneliness serves as an incubator to inflate the ego, rendering the person incapable of selfless love.

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Pope Francis on Loneliness

“At times like these, more than ever do we need the reasons of the heart, which alone can help us understand the mystery which embraces our loneliness. How much sadness we see in so many faces all around us! How many tears are shed every second in our world; each is different, but together they form, as it were, an ocean of desolation that cries out for mercy, compassion and consolation.”

— Prayer vigil on the feast of the Ascension, May 5, 2016

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In “Thoughts in Solitude” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $15), Thomas Merton writes that the ancient monks entered the desert to find their true selves. The rigor of desert life made them aware of how poor and completely dependent upon God the human person is. The experience, however, did not leave the monks defeated. They came to realize that they were not their own inflated ego but a beloved son of God.

Johannes Baptist Metz finds this discovery the point of Jesus’ journey into the desert. In the theological gem “Poverty of Spirit” (Paulist Press, $8.95), Metz explains how Satan tempts Jesus to give up the humanness he undertook in the Incarnation. Turning stones into bread, having angels rescue him from destruction and winning the world’s allegiance are the works of a god. Accepting the devil’s challenge to achieve these objectives would return Jesus to a godlike state. Jesus, however, retains human solidarity by rejecting the temptations. God has proclaimed him his “beloved Son.” Now he will show his brother and sister humans how they too can become God’s children. They have only to live dependent upon their loving Father.

Loneliness and Solitude

Shipwrecked on a Caribbean island, Robinson Crusoe aches for someone to talk with. At first, not encountering anyone, he turns to God. He salvages from the abandoned ship a Bible, which sustains him in prayer.

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Rolheiser discovers in Søren Kierkegaard an even more poignant example of loneliness leading to God. The 19th-century Danish existentialist made the quest for God in loneliness a lifelong endeavor.

Kierkegaard broke off a marriage engagement to a woman whom he loved because he wanted to be lonely. It sounds absurd, but the thinker must have realized that intense loneliness gave him an unexplored field to survey. There he would not only learn about himself but also find the God of Christian revelation calling humans to make a radical choice.

In a reflection emailed to his subscribers, Rolheiser analyzes the discovery of God through loneliness psychologically. The pain of loneliness, he says, destabilizes the ego, rendering it too fragile to sustain the person. One feels like she or he is coming apart and needs to connect to a being much larger than the self for survival. That being is God.

What Robinson Crusoe and eventually Kierkegaard have essentially done is transform their loneliness into solitude. This hopeful realm becomes for all humans what entering a cemetery is for a widower whose wife has just died after 50 years of marriage. Prayerful solitude enables us to recognize the spiritual presence of someone physically absent.

Henri Nouwen sees Jesus’ retreat to “a lonely place” as the Christian’s primordial experience of this transformation. He writes in “Out of Solitude” (Ave Maria Press, $8.95) that, in the lonely place, Jesus becomes aware of God’s will for him in ministry. He is to forget any personal agenda to carry out his Father’s mission.

Almost 50 years ago, Nouwen found many people driven by an outsized need for success and affirmation. Can this ego-driven desire be smaller today? When people work hard, they usually seek recognition as being better than others in some way or another. As indicated above, they need this kind of affirmation to feel good about themselves.

Nouwen recognizes the value of others’ support. But he realizes that the need for recognition belies a failure to find goodness just in who we are. For this reason, he prescribes following Jesus to a lonely place to discover God’s gratuitous, personal love. This love will not puff us up if we recognize our poverty and dependence on the Father. It will dispel our need to outperform others to win recognition.

An excellent catechist and friend enjoys quoting Pope St. John Paul II about the first obligation of every Christian. According to an article published in L’Osservatore Romano, John Paul told an audience in 1982 that Christians’ priorities are often mixed up. The pope said: “God’s gift which has been given to you is the sign that you are loved by him. So to be a Christian, first of all, is not to take on an endless number of commitments but to let oneself be loved by God, just as Christ himself, who is and feels constantly loved by the Father, consistently testified with his whole life.”

Humans move from loneliness to solitude by recognizing the hidden presence of the Lord within them. He is there by grace, a kind of “supernatural existential.”

As Augustine testifies, he has been there all the time, despite our obtuseness to the reality. Coming to a true estimation of ourselves, we realize that we have not achieved all that we have and are by personal efforts. Rather, we have been gifted more than ever imagined. Our very existence is a gift from the Creator, who remains beyond comprehension. This Ineffable One speaks to us as the voice of conscience. He guides us to seek what is good and reject what is false.

Friendship with Jesus

Jesus can meet us in our hearts as an additional moment of grace because of his divine nature. John’s Gospel quotes him: “It is better for you that I go” (16:7). It is better because he will return to us with the Father as companions of the Spirit Advocate. This coming takes place in baptism when we become God’s adopted children. Then, as part of God’s beloved family, we can go out to others in free and selfless love.

Jesus comes to us as our friend. In assuaging our loneliness, friends listen as we bare our soul to them. Their responses help us to clarify our intentions and encourage us to act lovingly and responsibly. As priests, we pray that the couples whose marriages we witness may become soul companions to each other. Not having spouses, we usually find friendship among ourselves, with one or two others. But all human relationships falter. As alluded to before, not even marriage will fulfill every human need.

Our friendship with Jesus, however, is a human relationship and more. First, he has shared our humanity in order to know loneliness and every other frailty of the human condition. Indeed, he felt utterly abandoned hanging on the cross, derided by every person present. Yet, second, he is present in our souls to sustain us in the effort of loving others. Prayer allows us access to him standing at the threshold of our heart.

Eucharist as Privileged Solitude

Timothy Radcliffe understands prayer in quite a different way than most people. Rather than a retreat from reality, Radcliffe finds prayer as engaging the true world. In a paper written as Master of the (Dominican) Order, he says that prayer leads us out of the fantasy world of the market “in which everything is for sale.”

In contrast, Radcliffe says, prayer enables us to recognize the world and everything in it as what they truly are. It perceives the truth that all is a gift, ultimately from God. Through prayer, we see selflessly so that we may love truly.

The most sublime prayer is the Eucharist. Radcliffe understands it first as a requirement of friendship. As the fox instructed the little prince, humans need rites to know that we are meeting our friends’ needs.

The Eucharist, with all its formality and beauty, provides such a rite. But it is much more. The Eucharist embodies Christ’s gift of himself to us, his friends. Priests need him as much as anyone. We may wax eloquent about taking up our cross but still have difficulty tolerating those around us. We may believe in heaven as the next stop after death but still tremble at facing its wrenching reality. In the Eucharist, Christ does more than show us how to overcome these challenges. He provides the means to do it. His words instruct us. His body and blood nourish us. And his courage in celebrating with his disciples the night before his horrendous death inspires us.

FATHER CARMEN MELE, OP, is the rector of St. Martin de Porres National Shrine and Institute in Memphis, Tennessee.

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Worries of Loneliness

Father Mele observes that parents whose sons want to be priests worry that they will be lonely. He says that their fear is not unwarranted. Priesthood in the Western tradition does not allow for marital intimacy by which most people find a way out of loneliness. But priesthood does offer its partakers a privileged solitude in the Eucharist. There we encounter in a real, albeit spiritual, form the one who can meet our need for completeness. What is more — and this too is critical — in meeting the Lord in solitude, priests offer hope to lonely people at the margins. There are many old maids and bachelors, the divorced and widowed, the sick and mentally deranged, homosexuals trying to live according to Church teaching and prisoners. Priests show them and others that it is knowing the Lord in and through prayer that makes us whole.

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