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Initially, this installment of “Loneliness Today” was going to be about either the loneliness faced by parish priests (who, in the age of COVID-19, I’m sure miss public celebrations of the Mass just as much as we do) or the loneliness of the “nuclear family” in navigating a society where adult friendships and civic institutions provide little practical support. However, certain realizations about the difficulty of leading a faith-centered life at all in contemporary Western societies impelled me to choose a different subject. This installment will look at the experience of loneliness in the spiritual life itself, both inherently and in the context of a heavily secularized society.

Some readers will dispute the characterization of today’s United States as “a heavily secularized society.” I would not necessarily claim this about the entire United States myself. However, it is increasingly true of my home state, Massachusetts, a place with a very Catholic culture and history, but where the perceived moral and cultural authority of the Church collapsed after the Boston-centered child sexual abuse crisis of 2002.[1] I am not seeking to set out a parade of horribles or a litany of woes about my own experiences in Massachusetts (all things considered, I love my state); instead, I will look at the loneliness of spiritual life on what we might call a more “meta” level. This and subsequent installments will attempt to develop a theological theory of loneliness in concert with the Christian tradition and the teachings and example of Pope Francis.

From Jesus’ time (and even before), men and women have retreated to the desert to be alone with God. “The desert” is not always literally a place with rocks and sand. Still, as the book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes observes, in the Ancient Near East it typically was: “Biblical religion, from ancient Israel to the early church, takes place in a geography shaped by desert and mountain topography….The God of Sinai is one who thrives on fierce landscapes, seemingly forcing God’s people into wild and wretched climes where trust must be absolute.”[2] This environment is conducive to asceticism, to apophatic theology, and to direct encounter with the divine; it also animates “the conception of the human self as an inner desert of its own, stripped of worldly care, delighting in silence.”[3]

This is the solitude and silence of 1 Kings 19:12, where the prophet Elijah finally hears God in “a light silent sound,” after failing to find Him in the Hebrew Bible’s typical theophanies of fire and cloud. This is the silence lauded by many Catholics today when they advocate the contemplative life, and described in books like Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence. In recent days, many also found it in the solitude of a frail octogenarian blessing the entire world in an empty, eerie St. Peter’s Square. Pope Francis made it clear that he was suffering—in the very presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament—the same bereft uncertainty that his flock suffers in their apparent distance from that presence. Simone Weil said, controversially, that “The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.”[4] If so, what’s the use to be made of all of this, the loneliness and the suffering attending loneliness? If these prophets and popes and mystics have all sought it out, what should we do with it when it comes to us, unasked-for?

The Catechism addresses the famous passage in 1 Kings 19 in its section on Elijah. “Finally,” it says, “taking the desert road that leads to the place where the living and true God reveals himself to his people, Elijah, like Moses before him, hides ‘in a cleft of the rock’ until the mysterious presence of God has passed by.”[5] From this, one might think that there isn’t much bad about solitude or even about loneliness; Elijah, whose downbeat emotional life has been established with his textually overt desire for death eight verses earlier, finds God in a remote chasm[6] while still bemoaning his situation and emphasizing his own aloneness. Similarly, today’s contemplatives—Carthusian monks, Carmelite nuns, other monastics, and hermits—seek God in retreat from the world and worldly occupations.

However, the contemplatives aren’t just isolating themselves for their own sake; they’re in community with one another, and they pray day in and day out for the Church and for the world. (Even anchorites and anchoresses, who actually did try to keep interaction with other human beings to an absolute bare minimum—think Julian of Norwich—did this.) Similarly, immediately after God comes to Elijah on the mountain, Elijah is given a mission from God to go forth and anoint kings of Aram and Israel, as well as a prophet to succeed him. “In their ‘one to one’ encounters with God,” says the Catechism, “the prophets draw light and strength for their mission.”[7] This loneliness—in the desert, on the mountain, in the barrenness of one’s own soul—is in some sense “for” others (if nothing else, in the sense that God is “another”).

Is there an  operative difference between those who willingly embrace solitude and those who find themselves in such situations involuntarily? Can we distinguish between the solitude deliberately sought out by the prophets and the loneliness experienced by people in contemporary society? I will discuss these questions in the next installment of this series.

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[1] The Pew Research Center has the percentage of adults in Massachusetts saying that they are absolutely certain of God’s existence declining from 60% in 2007 to 40% in 2014; the percentage who say religion is “very” or “somewhat” important declining from 75% to 63%; the percentage who never attend religious services increasing from 33% to 45%; and each generational cohort’s share of Massachusetts Catholics declining from 44% Baby Boomers to only 6% “Younger Millennials.” However, among the attenuated percentage of Bay Staters who are Catholic, the proportion saying that religion is “very important” to them has remained about the same—45% in 2007, 47% in 2014. See https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study and navigate to Massachusetts from there.

[2] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998), 43.

[3] Ibid., 12.

[4] Simone Weil, Gravity & Grace, trans. Arthur Wills (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 132.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2583.

[6] Which has interfaith parallels in the “mountains and rivers” of East Asian monastic traditions.

[7] CCC, §2584.

Image: “Hermit in the Desert” by Alessandro Magnasco

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