Have you ever felt lonely? I’d wager that every one of us can say "yes" to that question. Think for a moment, what was it that caused you to feel lonely? Sickness has the power to do that, so does loss and misunderstanding and isolation and rejection and a thousand other things that can touch our very souls and make us feel the pangs of a lonely heart. Herman Hess, the German novelist has said: "Life is solitude. No one knows anyone else. Everyone is alone." Surely a strange thing to say about our world today where networking and communication are so important. But it’s true; in our world of ultimate communication many of us feel lonely. Many of us have lots of contacts, but no real relationships; we are lonely in the midst of a crowd. Thomas Merton, in one of his diaries, says that he realized, "that is when I am with people that I am lonely and when I am alone I am no longer lonely because then I have God and converse with him (without words) without distraction or interference."
It does seem to be a reversal of the way we ordinarily think for Merton to say that it is when he is with people that he feels lonely, but no longer feels lonely when he is alone. And yet there is, I believe, more than a grain of truth in this seemingly paradoxical statement.
There is a remarkable similarity between Merton’s thought and Christ’s. If you page through the gospels, you will find many instances of Jesus’ need for solitude; a need that he had no hesitations about expressing. Jesus was constantly surrounded by people who wanted him to touch them and heal them. But when you read between the lines of the gospels, you suddenly realize, that Jesus must have felt most lonely in the midst of crowds and that he assuaged this loneliness by retreating into solitude; it was in solitude that he cou1d best communicate with his Father. In solitude Jesus experienced the company of his Father and his loneliness melted away. Jesus certainly approached everyone with great openness, but there was always some part of himself that he didn't allow others to see, that he kept to himself. Jesus had many friends - Lazarus, Mary and Martha, his Apostles - but deep within his soul loneliness lived in the soil of misunderstanding.
When you read the gospels you realize that Jesus was different from other people. In one sense he doesn't seem to have been able to explain himself to his disciples; the gospels are replete with occasions which left them confused and Jesus, misunderstood. Take for example the time Jesus came down from the Mount of the Transfiguration only to find his disciples arguing with the crowd; the disciples were unable to cure a boy possessed by a demon. When Jesus was apprised of the situation by the boy's father and told that his disciples could not cast out the devil from the boy, Jesus replied: "You faithless generation. How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? How much longer must I be among you?" How much longer, indeed? You can hear the longing, the almost desperate longing in Jesus' words, the longing to be home with his Father. Can you also hear the loneliness?
Jesus went his way of suffering alone; the way of suffering is always a very lonely way. Those of us who suffer know how lonely life can be.
The Gospel of John penetrates to the depths of Jesus’ loneliness like none of the other gospels do. And John also makes clear that Jesus is able to accept and endure his loneliness simply because he knows that he is one with his Father in heaven. He referred to this when he said to his apostles that the time will come when they will be scattered, each going his own way leaving Jesus alone. Yet Jesus added that he was really not alone because his Father was with him.
Jesus offers us himself to transform our loneliness into oneness with him. This should always be comforting to us when loneliness engulfs us. Loneliness can always be for us a deep experience of God’s presence, indeed, a blessed and blissful experience of being one with Christ. Loneliness can indeed be painful; it can strike at our hearts and shatter them. But it can also be the place where the lonely Christ who will support us through all the stages of our loneliness, is present. Jesus knows how lonely life can be, not in some abstract way but in the very real way he lived it and the way we live it too. And that is why we, out of the depths of our own loneliness, can turn to the lonely Christ to find something which we can live for and which is big enough to die for. Christ did, so can we.
By Rev. Richard Scheiner C.P.