Patrick Coffin is the creator and host of The Patrick Coffin Show at patrickcoffin.media. The former host of Catholic Answers Live is also the author of Sex Au Naturel, Stay Cool When the Argument Heats Up, and Once Saved Not Always Saved.
Loneliness is hard. Hard for a couple of reasons.
First, there’s the randomness of it. You can be stricken at seemingly random times and settings that seem, on the surface, to be counter-intuitive: at a friend’s wedding party, in the bosom of the Christmas season, or during summer vacation. One minute you’re happy floating in the moment, the next, you’re in a funk of sadness.
Second, loneliness has a way of sneaking up on you unawares. Before you know it, its tentacles are firmly around you with their melancholic squeeze, quick and mighty.
There is a third reason, at least for Christians, and that’s the twinge of guilt that can accompany loneliness. Don’t I believe that God loves me and has a plan for my life? If I’m in the state of grace, why am I feeling so lonely all of a sudden? Isn’t joy the default setting for Christians?
I’m not talking about clinical depression necessarily, but of good old fashioned melancholy. There is a German word that captures the heart of it, sehnsucht (SENshoost). As with many German words, sehnsucht is difficult to translate. It means, variously, longing, pining, and craving.
The concept is universal enough that C.S. Lewis crafted a proof for God’s existence around it, in Pilgrim’s Regress and in sections of his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. The idea is not new having been hinted at the message contained in the famous line from The Confessions of St. Augustine, “Thou hast made us for thyself O Lord and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
In the Afterword of a later edition of Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis takes up this theme and gives it some granular, emotional detail:
“That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of ‘Kubla Khan,’ of the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
Lewis sometimes uses Joy as a synonym for sehnsucht, so there’s an ambiguity to it. The experience is one of being caught, enmeshed in between the pointed longing and its (partial) satiety. And on this Lewis builds his argument:
Major premise: every natural desire (say, hunger, erotic longing, thirst, etc.) has a corresponding object of satisfaction in this world (respectively, food, sex, drink, etc.) that is exquisitely fitted to each desire.
Minor premise: there exists a deeper natural desire for total communion, for complete acceptance and love that does not have a corresponding object of satisfaction in this world.
Conclusion: there must exist an object of satisfaction to this deeper longing beyond this world. This is what men mean by God, or heaven.
This “proof” is not scientific in the way that Aquinas’s Five Ways are. It doesn’t depend upon the cause-effect relation. It more closely resembles Pascal’s Wager. It’s probabilistic: is it unreasonable to conclude that that mysterious, deep longing – which is so insistent and “heart-pangy” – has a supernatural source of satisfaction. As mortals with bodies, we’re made to exist as dependent upon earthly things like food, sex, and drink if we are to flourish and propagate. But we also have souls (we are souls and bodies – strange creatures indeed!). Is it not perfectly reasonable to believe that the spiritual craving has a transcendent Object?
The alternative is to believe that, while every natural desire has a corresponding object of satisfaction, the much more potent, all-consuming longing is destined to be unrequited forever.
We are made for communion. Our challenge is to overcome the gulfs between us, especially those between spouses. Some people marry so they won’t be lonely. Not a smart plan, because even the most heroically giving husband or wife is still mortal—all too limited in what he or she can give. No, loneliness is an ineluctable part of this life.
Next time you’re feeling lonely, give a listen to the music of Morten Lauridsen, the greatest living American choral composer. You’ll find in it an oasis from the desert of loneliness. Even better than any music is silence. Robert Cardinal Sarah wrote a book about its sublime power; and for a classic book on the more psychological side, there is Loneliness by Clark Moustakas.
Loneliness can be the occasion for an unexpected, unlikely breakthrough of divine grace, if (a mighty big if) we candidly admit we’re feeling it. If we skip past admitting it, we can become vulnerable to falling for false substitutes for the intimacy we need, whether it’s having that third glass of wine, that frenetic shopping spree, that porn site, or that gossip binge.
We are made for others and for the Other. “It’s not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), which is why God gave us the great adventure of marriage. But He also eventually gave us Himself in the flesh, Jesus who shed tears, felt excruciating loneliness in the garden of Gethsemane for our sake, and who brings the Holy Spirit to us irrespective of our subjective state.
Armed with that knowledge, we can move from loneliness to solitude because we’ve seen it against the much greater backdrop of consolation.