Friday, February 07, 2020 - Updated: 3:42 pm
On one of her trips to the United States, St. Teresa of Kolkata lamented that the disease of the West is loneliness. In her book, “Essential Writings” (Orbis Books, 2005), she said:
“Jesus comes to meet us. To welcome him, let us go to meet him. He comes to us in the hungry, the naked, the lonely, the alcoholic, the drug addict, the prostitute, the street beggars. He may come to you or me in a father who is alone, in a mother, in a brother, or in a sister. If we reject them, if we do not go out to meet them, we reject Jesus himself” (50).
Recent research regarding the effects of social media verify her observation. Connections in cyberspace, voluminous though they may be, do not foster the closeness of face-to-face conversation and the warmth of a loving community. Those who claim to have “a thousand friends” admit to feeling more lonely than ever, even to the point of giving up on life and forfeiting their hope for the future.
A first response to the pain of loneliness is to recognize that it is part of the human condition. We are born alone and we die alone. No matter how much someone loves us, they cannot die our death for us.
The irony is that to be alone is to be “all-one.” Moment by moment, we move from solitude to solidarity, from uniqueness to togetherness.
All of us can recall times when we have felt terribly alone, even in a crowd or sadly when we were forsaken by someone we thought we could trust. We experience the pain of loneliness when we are really sick, when we have no one to take us to the doctor, when a phone call we longed to receive never comes.
In all of these instances, the pain of loneliness increases. It may even feel as if we are more of a burden than a blessing to others.
This pain strikes especially hard when we feel not only abandoned by others but, worst of all, by God.
Older people who lose friends and family members are especially prone to feel lonely. Although caregivers, and perhaps even strangers, are kind to them, it is not the same as being with someone who knew them well, who called them by name, who shared their story, laughing at old jokes and crying over losses.
The solution to this pain is not to deny it or escape from it by losing oneself in the media world or by engaging in unsatisfying work just to kill time. We need to face the reality of aloneness while seeking its deeper meaning in solitude.
Spiritual masters tell us that we come to know God and who we truly are in the “hermitage” of our heart. The more we experience that God is present, even in God’s felt absence, the more our solitude becomes the bridge to our togetherness.
Solitude is a with, not a without, experience. It invites us to be in communion with all those we love and with God who loves us. As Henri Nouwen once said, “Solitude is the ground from which community grows.”
In a similar vein, the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:19-22: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
Rather than brooding over our loneliness, it is best to focus on our oneness with God and on the awesome truth of our togetherness in the human family. No matter where we happen to be — on a crowded street or on a deserted beach — we are kindred spirits: one of a kind and always at one with others and with the Divine Source in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
When we see ourselves as God’s children, as sons and daughters adopted by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in communion with all of creation, we move slowly but surely from the pain of loneliness to the joy of solitude. We reaffirm that God calls us to a new life of oneness with others. Most of all, we trust in the promise the Lord himself made to us: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14:18).
Muto is dean and executive director of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood. Visit www.epiphanyassociation.org.