Single or married, young or old, male or female, we humans enter the world and depart from it alone. No matter who we are or what we do, we have to live with the feeling that we at times seem to be utterly and ultimately alone. These periods of self-perusal can be painful, but without them we risk becoming mirror images of popular opinion rather than unique, God-loving persons.
Because aloneness is a fact of life, two key questions present themselves: Does being alone necessarily lead us to the pain of loneliness or may it move us to the joy of solitude? And can we learn to live with loneliness in such a way that it draws us to a deeper awareness of God, self, and others?
Understood spiritually, loneliness is the other side of the coin of solitude. It grants us the distance and time we need to assess God’s will as manifested in our life situation.
Short term solutions to feeling lonely may be expedient, but their effects are ephemeral. Usually these facile answers ignore or erode totally the call to go more deeply into the true self God calls us to be.
It is this deeper dive into the truth of who we are that inspires us to pass from the pain of loneliness to the joy of solitude.
We may see a side of ourself in Mildred, an elderly widow whose generosity is legendary; in Marty, a married man who underwent a job-related crisis and rather than bemoaning his fate decided to help others in similar circumstances; in Max, a single career-oriented person, who used to play the field until he found that empty intimacy failed to make him feel less lonely.
Their story does not end there. Mildred joined an elder care organization and soon her services were in demand. Marty entered a retraining program and found new entrepreneurial skills. Max discovered that happiness meant putting the needs of others first and enjoying the company of true friends rather than cultivating a rash of superficial relationships.
Creative persons like these prove that periods of loneliness can be beneficial, provided they prompt us to reassess our life direction. Loneliness, experienced even in the company of other people, can be a call to listen to the still, small voice in the center of our being. To step aside from daily pressures is to see in life’s limits openings to newfound strength.
Solitude provides the space in which we dare to ask such questions as: What is my vocation? Have I wasted or used my gifts wisely? What does God want of me now and for the rest of my life?
Being alone not only makes us more perceptive of the will of God; it also increases the courage we need to stand up for our Christian values and to resist being swept along by the tide of popular opinion. Being alone, but not lonely, is what sets us apart from the commercial, social, and political rhetoric that seeps into every corner of today’s world.
Empty chatter, gossipy exchanges, clever one-upmanship—such modes of relating beckon us to return to the “hermitage of our heart.” In the midst of noise pollution, we seek the reflective stillness that invites us to be signs of contradiction as Jesus was when he went off to deserted places to pray (see Mark 1:35).
In stillness, we learn how to be both alone and all-one. We reveal with and without words the truth that privacy is the ground of community. It is impossible to be with and for others if we do not know who we are.
Not surprisingly, we often find souls who lived this way in the forefront of spiritual leadership, including, among others, saints like Teresa of Calcutta and public servants like Dag Hammarskjöld, whose diary Markings proves that living with loneliness sharpens one’s sensitivity to care for others. A novelist and short story writer who understood the radical meaning of God’s word is Flannery O’Connor; she reminds us that being lonely can be a destructive force as well as an invitation to seek authentic relationships that manifest courage and compassion.
Spiritual renewal moves through solitude to new depths of intimacy with God and others. It blocks the rise of ego-centered motives to amass power, seek hedonistic pleasure, and idolize possessions.
Solitude reminds us that though in the end we die alone, we are never left alone by God. Rather we are drawn beyond loneliness to a life of eternal oneness with the mystery of transforming love (see 1 John 4:9).
We are grateful that in our humble human spirit resides the Spirit of God, who draws us to silent adoration while at the same time inviting us to proclaim the Good News that “we love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
By sharing our joys and pains, our hopes and disappointments, with companions along the way, we reaffirm the worth and dignity bestowed on each of us by God. We maintain a posture of humble listening combined with an orientation toward selfless service. Having set aside time for self-reflection, we become more mindful of those in need of physical healing and spiritual care. In so doing, we participate in the redeeming plan of God for all people to whom God says in the words of the prophet: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).