National Catholic Register

Commentary

The Meaning of Loneliness

BY Melinda Selmys

January 25-31, 2009 Issue | Posted 1/16/09 at 12:03 PM

 

It is the sixth day. Adam awakens in the Garden of Eden, the breath of God circulating through his newly made body, and finds himself in a world that God, looking down from heaven, has declared to be “good.”

Adam, this new creature made in the image and likeness of God, is described as “very good.”

Yet, already, before the Serpent has made his infamous appearance or evil found its way into the garden, there is, for the first time, something that is “not good.” Adam is alone.

John Paul II, in his theology of the body, speaks a great deal about the original solitude of Adam and about what is “not good” about the first man being alone in Eden.

He does not merely lack someone to keep him company or to help him feed the lions and clip the juniper bushes. His entire vocation as a human person “in the image and likeness of God” cannot be fulfilled in this state of solitude.

Indeed, the late Pope goes so far as to say that without Eve, Adam cannot understand himself or appreciate the mystery of the body. Only when he looks upon the woman, taken out of his flesh as he sleeps, only when he cries out, “Here at last is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh,” does Adam understand his humanity in its fullness, receiving it from Eve, just as Eve has received her humanity from him.

What is essential, to Adam and to all of humanity since, is communion. The image of God is not complete in man so long as man is alone, for the image of God is not an image of a supreme being sitting in lonely supremacy at the height of some pagan Olympus.

God exists in an intimate, life-giving union of love: the Holy Trinity. This communio personarum is the meaning and purpose of human life, the calling to the “image and likeness of God” which is engraved in the human heart. Without another person to know and to love, Adam cannot understand the meaning and mystery of his own existence. He cannot know himself.

The modern person is not quite in the same position as Adam.

From the moment of birth, he awoke to find himself in the presence of other human beings. The woman from whose flesh he was taken, the family that surrounds him, and then an ever-widening circle of friends and acquaintances come into his life, each of them bearing the image of God to him in a different way, each able to receive from him the profound knowledge of self and other that comes only through communion.

The loneliness of the fallen world is not the same as the solitude of Adam; it is not the anticipation of something unknown, of a revelation that will clarify the central mystery of existence. It is the privation of something that already exists, of something within sight, a ubiquitous reality that the lonely person cannot grasp. It is the deprivation of communion with others, and it is one of the most painful consequences of sin.

Christ entered into this loneliness and drank deeply from the cup of abandonment.

Kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane, faced with the most difficult trial of his life thus far, the Son of God felt very keenly that human desire for the company of others. He wanted his closest friends to be there in union and solidarity with him, to pray for him as he prayed for them.

He wanted the comfort of human companionship. He did not have it.

Trembling with the knowledge of what lay before him, Christ was left alone in the garden. His friends had fallen asleep and could not watch with him even for one hour.

This loneliness accompanies Christ throughout his passion.

It is both the first and the last pang of his agonies, and it is a theme that is repeated, regularly, throughout the Passion narrative. The betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the flight of the apostles who do not come to the foot of the cross, the rejection of the crowds who cry out “Crucify him” before Pilate, and the scornful disinterest of the Roman soldiers who sit gambling for his clothes while he suffers all bring to light different aspects of human loneliness and rejection.

From the loneliness of merely being left alone, there is the bitter loneliness of betrayal, the loneliness of the despised, of the hated, of the rejected.

Finally, there is that greatest and most piercing loneliness: the loneliness of a man who has not merely been abandoned by men but who feels himself abandoned by God.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his homily on “The Scapegoat and the Trinity,” draws our attention to this deepest of sufferings:

“Jesus, the Crucified, endures our inner darkness and estrangement from God, and he does so in our place. It is all the more painful for him, the less he has merited it ... there is nothing familiar about it to him: It is utterly alien and full of horror. Indeed, he suffers more deeply than an ordinary man is capable of suffering, even were he condemned and rejected by God, because only the incarnate Son knows who the Father really is and what it means to be deprived of him, to have lost him (to all appearances) forever. It is meaningless to call this suffering ‘hell,’ for there is no hatred of God in Jesus, only a pain that is deeper and more timeless than the ordinary man could endure either in his lifetime or after his death.”

It is through Christ’s participation in human loneliness that the profundity of meaning is granted to a suffering that would otherwise seem to undermine the purpose of human life. Indeed, the more unbearable and inescapable any particular loneliness seems, the closer it brings the soul to the Sacred Heart, which reaches out, in love, from the agony of the cross.

Pope John Paul II makes this point in his 1999 “Letter to the Elderly”: “When God permits us to suffer because of illness, loneliness or other reasons associated with old age, he always gives us the grace and strength to unite ourselves with greater love to the sacrifice of his Son and to share ever more fully in his plan of salvation.”

The most powerful realization of this plan is through the Eucharist, in which the lonely are not merely united to Christ’s suffering but also granted a foretaste of that heavenly consummation in which loneliness is abolished by the communion of saints and the beatific vision.

As Pope Benedict XVI said in his general audience of March 29, 2006, “Precisely in this way, since it is an anticipation of the future world, communion is also a gift with very real consequences. It lifts us from our loneliness, from being closed in on ourselves, and makes us sharers in the love that unites us to God and to one another.”

Through the suffering of loneliness, we are called into communion with God. This is true even in those moments of intense darkness, what St. John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the soul,” when the heart is truly united with Christ’s cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

For Christ, in being forsaken on the cross, entered into this, the deepest of human sufferings, so that even in the greatest darkness we will never be alone.

Next week: modern loneliness

Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at VulgataMagazine.org.