I first heard of loneliness from the Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen - in his books. Since then I have read many other people, priests, single and divorced people writing and talking about loneliness. People living on their own may feel particularly lonely because physically, there is no one around them. However, not everyone who is alone feels lonely, and when we are surrounded by people, we may still feel lonely. Being alone and being lonely are not synonymous.
Growing up in a family of fifteen, I was never lonely. There was always someone at home and there were friends at school, and later at work. My first experience of loneliness was when I took a year off work at the age of 30 years, to find out what it was I really wanted to do. There were no friends to call on as they were all at work. I had no family here. It was scary to be alone. I was not comfortable being on my own. Over the years, I have grown more used to being on my own, about once a week. On calm days, I rather enjoy not having to go to work, being at home by myself, doing housework, reading, writing, doing work on my computer and having the time to meditate. Now I can be alone and not be lonely.
We tend to think that married people are not lonely. Yet even within marriage, one can feel the loneliness that comes from not having a deep connection to the partner. We think that what we need to not feel lonely is to have a soul-mate, one who truly understands and knows us at our deepest level. We hear of people falling in love, and falling out of love, people finding soul-mates who turn out to be someone else when they get to know them better or get married. While single people think that having a partner will cure their loneliness, lonely married people think that leaving their current partner for another soul-mate will fix it. That is why so many marriages end in divorce as one or both parties look to other people. Or other things like alcohol, drugs or work to fill the hole that their partner cannot fill.
‘And the two shall become one’. (Mk 10:8) That is what two people are supposed to become in marriage. Yet how often married people do not become one but remain separate persons.
Is it because God created us as halves that need to be completed? And we think that we need another human being to complete us but so often fail to find that other half, which turns out to be none other than God, who is our better half? God who knows and loves us better than we know and love ourselves?
Hearing and reading about the loneliness of priests, I wonder why our Church continues with the rule of non-married priests when other Christian denominations have married clergy? Does the more acute loneliness of the celibate life lead one to seek for union with God more than one who is married? Could it lead more often to breaking the vow that one cannot keep, to paedophilia and other unhealthy, horrific actions that arise from loneliness?
We feel lonely because we feel separate from God and from other people. We want to fill the loneliness with people, with activities, to hide it. Being with other people can mask our inherent loneliness. Being alone can make us feel the separation more acutely but it can also make it easier for us to experience God’s presence. Perhaps the reason for celibacy in the church is partly for this reason, that priests who feel the loneliness would to turn to God, to fill the emptiness, to be their other half, to complete themselves.
When we become more comfortable with our own presence, when we become more aware of God’s presence in solitude and silence, we feel less lonely.
Loneliness is an invitation to open our hearts to the heart of God. Like other hardships, it provides an opportunity, an opening to let God in.
When God and I become one, the illusion of separateness and dualism ends, and loneliness will ease and cease. ‘And the two shall become one’, just ‘as the Father and I are one.’
In Meister Eckhart’s words, ‘The eye with which I see God is exactly the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowledge, one love.’
In the words of the Sufi poet: ‘I saw my Lord with my heart’s eye and said: “Who art Thou Lord?”
“Thyself,” He replied.
Susie Hii is a Melbourne writer and author of Happy, Healthy, Holy.
Photo: Moyan Brenn; CreativeCommons License