Please, really, take a moment and search your heart. You might surprise yourself with your own answer.
"You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in You." (St. Augustine, Confessions, Bk. I, 1)
As Catholics, we are beleaguered by many forces and enemies, but I fear there are few foes so brutally unexpected, so tragically effective as that morbid satyr, that thief who materializes in the shadows of our hearts late at night and steals all our belongings as we cower helpless in our bathrobes: Loneliness. Loneliness is a remorseless tactic, a vicious demon in the employ of Satan himself, that has the maddening advantage of being able to find a foothold in the toughest and bravest of hearts. A man may easily be unafraid of spiders, or snakes, or heights, or nighttime strolls in bad neighborhoods, or finding there is not enough peanut butter left in the jar for a sandwich, but regardless of the resilience of his constitution, let him spend six months without interacting with another person and he will come out the other end suffering either from madness or sainthood.
Lucifer is all too aware of how insidious the infiltration of this illness can be, and he uses it to great effect. After all, his strategy is to divide and conquer - or, more specifically, to isolate and conquer. Good men, even great men, are brought to their knees, brought to the brink of despair through loneliness; Job and David knew well the desolation of isolation. The absence or dissolution of unity, of communion, of oneness with another, often ushers in feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, even self-blame. "Why am I so alone? Is it because of me? Is there some huge defect or flaw that makes me this way?" Even David, the "man after God's own heart," crying out in Psalm 25 for salvation from loneliness, lays the blame on himself and his sins: "Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!" (Psalm 25:7)
But the knife-edge of loneliness does not only draw blood from the individual heart; no, it leaves deadly red trails across the Body of Christ, the Church, as well. Consider this: Martin Luther's pen inked one word, one solitary word, that changed the meaning of the entire Bible, that sparked the Protestant Reformation and led to the shattering of Christianity from one Church into an archipelago of denominations and movements, and spattered the muddied blood of heresy across God's creation. And what was that fateful word? "Alone." According to Luther, "Scripture ALONE is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness;" thus we see the forcible divorce of the widower Word from His Bride, and we understand all the more keenly why Jesus told us that "what God has joined, man must not separate" (Matthew 19:6).
“In my youth I wandered away, too far from Your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste.” (Bk. II, 10)
A deep-rooted fear of loneliness pervades our culture and our hearts, harrowing even the holy with its haunting whispers. As high-schoolers, we surround ourselves with friends to drown the whispers out; we are told at this age (and even younger) that you need to have a boyfriend/girlfriend to feel fulfilled. We bury ourselves deep in social media, like Twitter and Facebook, but somehow, the Internet doesn't truly heal the hurt and bring you closer to one another - it really feels more like a plate-glass window between you and the ones you love, allowing vision but not warmth. As we move on into college, we move out away from our parents and the familiar world of our childhood into strange lands with strange customs, and we feel an even sharper sense of that void that must be filled at all costs. Although we are surrounded by even more friends and lovers in college than we ever were before, we are still more alone than we have ever been before, and confusion sets in, as the cure for loneliness once prescribed to us in our younger days only seems to intensify that pain of isolation and separation. After college, we expect to be married - if not immediately afterwards, then within the next few years, and if you aren't, you're either a priest or a cat lady - and, in what is perhaps the most patently and pungently false product of our now-addled thought processes, we expect that marriage will ease that ache, that it will stem the flow of loneliness like a wrench tightening a leaky faucet. We cling to that lifeline of hope in our by-now-overly-romanticized Perfect Spouse (and in doing so, become needy in a degree dangerous both to ourselves and our loved ones). After all, how could a body/soul like us be lonely if we are eternally fused together with another in marriage? How can loneliness be possible when one is permanently no longer alone?
|"Guys, I think my wife is feeling dissatisfied with our marriage, but I'm just not sure."|
The fact is, as much as we might expect marriage to cure loneliness, it won't. Not by a long shot. In fact, you probably don't have to look far at all to find a married couple you know who embody the picture above, who feel alone even when sharing a meal, or playing with the kids, or even during that most intimate of encounters, the sexual embrace. And it is in this sad truth, that loneliness could be possible during the very most climactic moment of not-aloneness we humans can imagine, that we come face-to-face with the real nature of the beast.
“To what place can I invite You, then, since I am in You? Or where could You come from, in order to come into me? To what place outside heaven and earth could I travel, so that my God could come to me there, the God who said, 'I fill heaven and Earth?'” (Bk. I, 2)
Loneliness is, counterintuitively, not about being alone at all. In fact, loneliness isn't real, not in the slightest. It is a ghost, a specter with no substance, which is how it so easily walks through the walls we build up around our hearts and tears us up from the inside out. No, perhaps that is not even an accurate metaphor, because loneliness does not begin from the outside and work its way in, but rather it finds its beginning within us already. Loneliness is merely a figment of our imagination.
Think about it. God is both transcendent - above all things - and immanent - present in all things. He is everywhere, all at once, inside, outside, aroundside, everywhere. His love is the very fabric that holds this universe together and sustains us in existence, "for in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). He is ALWAYS with us, at all times, in all places. At no point in our lives are we ever alone. Even if you were the last human being left on the planet, you would not be alone - God is with you.
“But my sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in Him but in myself and His other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.” (Bk. I, 20)
So if we are never alone, then what is this thing we call loneliness? Loneliness is simply the natural result of fallen man seeking fulfillment in things that are not God. We seek to feel happiness, warmth, joy, and fulfillment in the presence of other people. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, but people should be a secondary, or perhaps intermediary, experience of not-aloneness, of community, of communion. We will not feel "not-alone" until we find our peace in God's love first and foremost, above all things. One of my favorite moments of the "Introduction to the Theology of the Body" DVD series is when Christopher West shares a revelation upon which he and his wife stumbled. They had been feeling rather unfulfilled in their marriage, and more than a bit unhappy with themselves, especially knowing that they SHOULD be reveling in one another's beauty, but suddenly Christopher realized what the problem was, and turning to his wife, said, "You... can't... satisfy me." And she looked right back at him and said, "You can't satisfy me either!" From then on, a new joy appeared in their marriage. They had realized that even in marriage, we are not satisfied, because we cannot be satisfied with a finite person. No amount of human love will fill that void, because that void is infinitely large, and can only be filled by Infinite Love Himself. It is, as the saying goes, a "God-shaped hole" in our hearts.
As in all things, we must look to Christ for our way out - He is, after all, The Way Out (John 14:6). What we find in the person of Christ is the staggering truth of our own existence: that even when we are alone, we are not alone. Jesus knew what it meant to be alone. He was betrayed and deserted in His time of greatest need by those whom He called friends. He alone suffered, without another to share in His torture. But even more than that, throughout His whole life He must have had to grapple with the thought that there was none in the world like Him, that no man in all of history was or would ever be also-God except Him, and that made Him very, very alone.
But do we see loneliness in Christ's example? Not in the least. Instead, we see the beautiful inverse of loneliness: solitude. In loneliness, a man allows himself to be cut off from God, and therefore is one in his alone-ness. But in solitude, a man spends time devoted solely to His Creator, uniting his heart to that Most Sacred Heart in that mystical union that transcends even the unity of marriage, and he is one not in alone-ness, but rather one with God. Either way, in the end there is only one; but in loneliness, that one is broken, whereas in solitude, that one is whole. Christ knew even during His scourging and crucifixion that God was with Him, that God was in Him, that God was Him, and in crying, "Why have You abandoned Me?", He calls us back to Psalm 22 - a cry of victory in the closeness, the nearness, the oneness with God the Father Whom He knew so well.
“I was looking for You outside myself and I did not find the God of my own heart.” (Bk. VI, 1)
We struggle with loneliness under countless circumstances, but perhaps no circumstance sears our flesh so strongly as that ache for communion we feel when we have no other to whom we may give our burning love in affection, in matrimony, in pure eros in its greatest and most redeemed sense. Whether we are vocationally called to married life, to consecrated religious life, or to the single life, we all experience this longing, this desire, and we must recognize it for what it is. It is our hearts yearning for communion with God, and our fallen minds telling us that the goal is the creation rather than the Creator. We will never be satisfied in attempting to fill that hole with a human being, no matter how much we might love them or how much they might love us in return. But we can be satisfied if we devote ourselves to prayer first and foremost, above all, and what's more, we become able to love others in a proper, balanced, healthy way. In prayer, we do not fill the hole with solid material, for God is not a wall or a stone but a River, and so the River gushing out through the hole in our hearts floods everything and everyone around us with the very presence of the Living Water. And it is this state of being in which we are truly rightly ordered to love a person of the finite persuasion. "It is not good that man should be alone," God said (Genesis 2:18), but we must put ourselves in good order before we can love another without actually being a danger to them.
The short of it is that we must put God first, but "putting God first" is a trite expression that doesn't quite capture the earth-shattering, world-exploding beauty of our calling to LOVE GOD. The only way it has ever been said with even the remotest degree of adequacy is that "you must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" (Luke 10:27). Loving your neighbor, be they friend or spouse, simply follows suit, and if they are a truly Godly individual themselves, they will not be offended in the least that you should prioritize the Lord over them.
I leave you with one last quote from Augustine's Confessions upon which you may meditate, and a wonderful video from Jackie Francois (whose website can be found here). Stay classy, my friends.
"Who will grant me to find peace in You? Who will grant me this grace, that You would come into my heart and inebriate it, enabling me to forget the evils that beset me and embrace You, my only Good? What are You to me? Have mercy on me, so that I may tell. [...] Through Your own merciful dealings with me, O Lord my God, tell me what You are to me. Say to my soul, 'I am your salvation.' Say it so that I can hear it. My heart is listening, Lord, open the ears of my heart and say to my soul, 'I am your salvation.' Let me run toward this voice and seize hold of You. Do not hide Your face from me; let me die so that I may see it, for not to see it would be death to me indeed." (Bk. I, 5)