Most people are lonely at times. I think it’s fair to say that a fear of loneliness drives a tremendous amount of human activity. Our desire for God is partially manifested in a desire for union with others. We want to be known, understood, and loved. A soul that is, by its nature, difficult to know is destined to suffer loneliness more acutely. Such souls may seem to have many friends and to be widely admired, or they may be introverted and shy, but they are still the lonely ones.
Because only God can know men the way men long to be known – the way we are created to be known – there is always a danger that human relationships become an obstacle to union with God, an easy substitute that disguises our true condition and purpose. Recently, a seminarian gave a talk on vocations to some young men in the parish. He was asked about the loneliness of the priesthood, especially for priests whose assignment does not include community with other priests. The seminarian responded that this loneliness is intended to drive the priest closer to God, to make him seek the friendship of God, to move him to a deeper life of prayer. The same is true for everyone else.
Ordinarily we should not seek loneliness. It is natural and healthy to desire the companionship of others, and to seek it. God wants this for us. The companionship of others is necessary for the exercise of virtue. How does one acquire patience or fortitude without struggling against human resistance? How does one learn mercy, generosity, or compassion without human beneficiaries? How does one learn to forgive without being offended? How does one imitate Jesus Christ without experiencing human rejection? And not just rejection by the bad, but rejection by the good! That is why God places us first in a family and then in society.
Having said that, there are souls who are called to acquire the kind of spiritual strength and union with Christ that can only be born of intense loneliness. They don’t seek it at first: the burden is forced upon them by both temperament and circumstances. But if they recognize this burden as a gift and receive it with gratitude, these souls have a “head start” in the spiritual life. They must, however, learn to avoid certain traps. They must learn how to forget themselves. They must accept being misunderstood to an extraordinary degree. They must not accuse those who misunderstand them, or turn their particular burden into a false sense of superiority. Often enough, they must love without being loved in return (because men cannot love what they do not know). One’s natural pride rebels against this condition and wants to blame the world, to take revenge in various ways, to pretend the burden is a virtue, as though it were chosen rather than imposed. And so the soul can respond badly and miss its great purpose in life … or find its purpose too late for the good it might have achieved. The lonely are therefore faced with a more urgent choice upon which their happiness depends entirely: God or self, humility or pride, love or hatred.
In an age of “all fun, all joy, all happy-clappy all-the-time” Catholicism, I think it’s important to re-assert the indispensable value of the desert. The following passage of a rather obscure essay is one of those rare discourses that will stay with me for life.
The School of Love, and Other Essays
by Alban Goodier, S.J.
To most men loneliness is a doom. It is imposed upon a criminal as the heaviest of punishments; carried to extremes we know it will drive him mad; nothing seems so to unman a man as the loneliness of a prison cell. Even for those who are not criminals, nothing so wrings pity from a human heart as the sight of another who is utterly alone. Loneliness to many is the very ghost of life, dogging their steps, haunting them at every turn, from which they are always trying to escape. It cannot be fought, it cannot be avoided, yet there is nothing many more dread for themselves, or see with more concerning others. Yet it is this very thing which God has chosen to be the school of training for His own. He has shown it without possibility of mistake. Look down the line of the Old Testament, and you will find it written everywhere …
… Our Lord Himself was alone; in the wilderness of humanity He lived, so long a time, and men did not know Him. He was in the world, and the world knew Him hot; He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. His fellow-Nazarenes claimed to know Him, and did not. His enemies knew Him and refused to own it. His friends – at one point in His life “many went back and walked no more with Him”; at another “all fled away”; at the very end He had to say:”How long a time have I been with you, and you have not known me!” He was born deserted, He lived alone, He died a lonely criminal’s death; and if we want a proof that He felt it, we have it, first, in His frequent cries of pain, and second, in the eager way He grasped at and rewarded every mark of companionship offered Him …
… Loneliness of soul gives wisdom – that breadth of vision that belongs to him who sees all the valley from the hill-top. Loneliness of soul gives understanding – that further power of seeing beneath the surfaces of life. Loneliness of soul gives counsel to sustain another, and fortitude to “endure its own burden”; all the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost come through and are fostered by loneliness of soul.
These are some of the fruits of this special school of suffering. None the less, let it not be forgotten that a school of suffering it is. We are not speaking here of the loneliness which is a joy and a comfort, in which, as the popular phrase goes, one is “never less alone than when alone”; we are speaking of that sense of desertion, of alienation from one’s kindred, of being somehow out of joint with all the world, of separation from God Himself, which human nature can scarcely endure; which even our Lord Himself considered to justify a cry for relief…
… Nowhere has Christ our Lord come nearer to us than in His loneliness and ours. Nowhere has He shown Himself more human. Nowhere has He more condoned the cry of pain, the appeal for some relief; nowhere has He done more, by example and by promise, to nerve us to endurance.