LONELINESS MIGHT be described as a feeling of emptiness combined with sadness and sometimes powerlessness that overwhelms men or women when they feel isolated from loved ones and even from self. Any kind of failure, real or imagined, whether to sustain a business, a marriage, raising a family, or being misunderstood by loved ones can give rise to the feeling.
To enter a monastery of hermits such as the Carthusians or simply becoming a lone hermit, like St. Nicholas of Flue (the patron saint of Switzerland) or St. Rose of Lima (a Dominican tertiary, 1586-1617), is to confront loneliness head on. The hermit is not afraid of sensing and experiencing nothingness and emptiness in the crucible of seclusion. Hermits know they will be deprived of human companionship to varying degrees, according to the Rule and circumstances of life. What happens in this voluntary deprivation?
The hermit turns the trials that accompany this special vocation into loving solitude with the Triune God who must become the hermit's all in all. To the American temperament, which has a special talent for the practical, this seems at first glance a complete waste of time, talent and energy. But to Catholic morality and spirituality, the most important aspect of moral goodness is not an act's aim (like feeding a hungry person) but the motivation behind it, namely, to love God with one's whole heart and soul and mind.
Through their witness, hermits teach the importance of the grace-filled times of loneliness everyone must experience. At certain times in life, we all have to turn loneliness into holy solitude. This entails more intense acts of faith, hope, and charity. Instead of a time to feel sorry for oneself, loneliness is a hidden opportunity to grow in a deeper relationship with God, his Church and even one's self.
In October, the Church celebrates a contemplative with the spirit of a hermit: St. Teresa of Jesus (1515-1582), the foundress of the Discalsed Carmelite nuns, and doctor of the Church. Her personal description of the contemplative journey is no less an attempt of encourage everyone to center their lives in God as much as possible and to attempt to become saints by trying to develop “mental prayer,” as she calls it, each day. And since Teresa demanded a deep community life in contact with her sisters, her teaching can be more easily assimilated by all, notwithstanding the witness of the pure hermits. She teaches us to laugh at ourselves and transcend ourselves by forgetting self in the service of the “common good.”
Fromthe hermits and the Carmelites, then, we learn that the twin poles of prayer and service to others are the key to coping with loneliness, for we are not made to find integral fulfillment in self nor do we have the means to save, heal or transcend ourselves on our own.
Father Basil Cole, O.P., is an invited professor of Spiritual and Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (the Angelicum) in Rome.