Of all the pains that Jesus suffered in his passion, which pained him the most? I suspect it was the pain in his heart and soul. There are limits to immediate physical pain. One can faint and thereby have some distance from it. But psychic pain (that is, pain of heart and soul) can be unrelieved and immeasurable. It can linger and rage long after the painful event itself is gone. Psychic pain can seep into the depth of the soul and find hidden places to afflict, feed upon and grow. The pain of heart and soul can be the birth mother of the ugly twins of isolation and despair.
Reviewing the biblical accounts of Holy Thursday night through Good Friday, I see that the psychic pain that caused Jesus the most suffering was loneliness. In Matthew 26, we see that his closest friends, after pledging that they will remain faithful until death, could not stay awake with him in the garden of Olives, despite his repeated pleading. Judas betrayed him with a kiss, and the other apostles fled when the authorities arrived. Surely, Jesus suffered terrible loneliness, standing abandoned by his friends and surrounded by those who hated him.
After his arrest, Jesus stood with no advocate, no ally, not even a well-wisher taking up his cause before the Sanhedrin. Again, Jesus stands alone, separated from any who may have claimed to love him. Surely the heart of Jesus, the heart of perfect love, suffered terrible loneliness at that time.
In Luke 22, we read that Jesus looked at Peter just as Peter denied even knowing Jesus — just as Jesus had predicted. Surely it was no consolation to the lonely Jesus that he was right about Peter’s denial.
In John 19, we read of Jesus lamenting from the cross, “I thirst.” It is not difficult to imagine that his thirst is not only for water but for love, for compassion and for souls.
Most poignant of all, perhaps, is to be found when we read in Mark 15 of Jesus crying out from the cross, his heart pierced by the pain of abandonment, a pain so great that he feels abandoned even by God. Surely such a pain is not exclusively a physical pain but a true and pervasive pain of heart and soul.
Why do I mention all this? I could turn from the words above to an urgent request to walk with Jesus this Lent in his loneliness, his thirst for love and souls, as we pray the stations of the cross or pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Such practices are always praiseworthy, especially during Lent, but I speak of the loneliness of Jesus with a different purpose in mind.
We know that the suffering Jesus can be found within our neighbor (Matt. 25:40). The saints have always urged us to perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy for our neighbor for the love of Christ suffering within. Such works are always called for — especially during Lent.
My concern here is to alert us to the painful fact that we so very easily neglect the nearest neighbor wherein we might find Jesus, and that is our very selves. The loneliness that is inevitable in this fallen world afflicts Jesus in his heart and soul as he dwells within us.
Each one of us feels the sting of loneliness from time to time; some suffer from loneliness for a season; and it seems that some poor souls are afflicted by loneliness like a wound that refuses to heal. What a graced and fruitful Lent it would be if we lived the freedom and generosity needed to find and love Jesus compassionately suffering within us as we undergo our own passion of loneliness.
Why are we lonely? Because we are incomplete — made for friendship, love and fullness. Even at our human best we would be lonely, for there is a God-shaped hole in our hearts that cannot be filled in this life.
We are lonely because our culture is sick, teaching us to love things and use people, making idols out of creatures and objects in the hopes of beguiling our loneliness. Our culture urges us to be sexual cannibals, feeding on human flesh while denying the human soul that has been made for a divinely given satisfaction.
We are lonely because we may have pushed love away or locked love out. And we may be lonely just through circumstances — living in separation or alienation not of our choosing.
And within that lonely living we all endure, there can be found the compassionate Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, waiting for us. Lent is a privileged time to foster the freedom and kindness necessary to meet Jesus Who became broken to meet our needs. Let’s look for him and go to him, starting with the ache of loneliness of our own hearts. Let’s thank him for facing without reservation or regret our needs, pains and incompleteness. Through our prayer we can remind him that he is not alone in us; in doing so, we can find that we too are not alone. Such an amazing grace can become a source of endurance and hope, for as we stay with Jesus in his suffering, we may rejoice with him in his victory.
When I write next, I will speak of Satan’s favorite lies. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.