Loneliness can be one of the most difficult feelings to shake, and if not checked, can become a destructive force, even leading to suicide. Yet no one can escape feeling lonely and it is something that faith alone cannot completely remedy. All people, whether married, single, priest, or consecrated religious will inevitably feel lonely at times and must deal with these feelings throughout their whole lives.
In some cases loneliness is more poignant and painful. I wonder if our handicapped brothers and sisters and elderly who live alone fight with these feelings. Likewise, patients at nursing homes and hospitals, although busy and bustling places, may feel forgotten and long for the warmth and love of friendship. Although it would take just a little kindness for them to feel welcome, often few even bother to visit.
Loneliness often can come as a result of the choices we have made, or circumstances in our lives. Separation and divorce can ignite feelings of rejection and lead to seclusion. The pain of rejection is a high price to pay, but it is sometimes the bitter side of loving. Single people also, may question the meaning and value in their lives when they feel a certain loneliness. Catholics who have a homosexual inclination, and who try to live their faith and to live chastely, sometimes feel that this world (and perhaps their Church as well) has let them down. They deserve our respect and encouragement.
Married people, as well, suffer from the pain of loneliness. Even when marriage is good, spouses still pass through difficult times when they feel alone. They may feel that their partner does not understand, or marriage is not what it ought to be, and at times it is quite difficult to bear. While a spouse and children may take the edge off loneliness, they can never completely eradicate it, nor should they, since they are gift, not a possession to erase loneliness.
Although loneliness is an inevitable part of our lives, there are certain things that seem to help when we feel alone. The feeling of being close to someone and being able to speak freely, without fear of being judged helps a great deal. Friendships are very important, although we cannot and should not place all our expectations on friends to cure our loneliness. In his reflection on friendship, in The Prophet, Khalil Gibran writes, “For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill? Seek him always with hours to live. For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.”
Prayer is a great support in dealing with “emptiness.” The late Father Henri Nouwen, in his spiritual classic Reaching Out emphasizes that life is a threefold movement of reaching out, first to our innermost being, then to others and also to God. Even if prayer is often dry, or our relationship with God is a “work in progress” praying is still reaching out to Him.
However, there is no guarantee that prayer and reaching out to others can banish loneliness. We know that life is difficult and although love heals, it can also hurt! The paradox of loneliness is that only by giving love and extending friendship to others can we actually receive it in return. This is a hard lesson to learn. The words of St. John of the Cross come to mind: “Where there is no love, place love, and you will find love.” How true!
As a young man, a priest and now bishop I have experienced loneliness. It has been a great grace for me to have the support of family, a few faithful friends and the joy of serving the Church to help me realize that there are ways to remedy loneliness, or at least to take its edge off. When I was young, a priest was the first to help me move from my own personal loneliness to a certain inner peace and solitude. This may be why I feel close to the youth in their longing for love and friendship. Their loneliness can be quite painful; however, their generosity of spirit and their love for life is quite needed in today’s world. They are not afraid to hope, believe, or give generously. If there is an answer to our loneliness, our young people have found it: they believe it is in sincere prayer and in the joy of human love. I agree, and thank God for the young.
We were created to live in communion with God and others. When we can touch the “emptiness” inside of ourselves without running from it, we can find God’s healing joy, and then are able to share it. When we recognize this God-given call to communion with others, we help ease the loneliness of those around us, whether they are family, friends or strangers. More importantly, the way we reach out to God and to others is the key to help us to transform our own painful loneliness into a generous solitude.
The great Saint Augustine prayed “our hearts are restless until they rest in You, O God.” Our hearts are restless, but this is for a reason: to need others and to need God. It is this loving Father who put loneliness, not isolation, in our hearts, because He knows that we are at our best when we need others, for we are forced to break down the walls of our self-imposed isolation, and reach out in a way that makes this world better. Loneliness is difficult to bear, but the other side of this interior struggle is communion and hope. O Mary, Mother of all who seek God and the good of others, pray for us.
+Gregory J. Mansour
(Reprinted with permission.)