Loneliness is a plague of our times, but it can be a gift if we allow God to work within it.
This year, like every year, I disappeared to a secluded wilderness to be alone for a five-day spiritual retreat. And this year, like every year, I struggled with loneliness. Some people, I imagine, are quite happy to be alone for stretches of time far longer than five days. I’m not one of them. I miss my children too much and they chaos they bring. I miss my friends. I miss the activity, the people in the office, and the rhythm of daily Mass and familiar faces at the parish. I even miss social media and texting. It is very, very difficult to be alone.
I have a melancholic personality, so after a few days of being by myself, I end up sitting by the pond, staring at my reflection mingling with that of the clouds as they spread across the glassy surface. I write sad poems and try to let myself feel whatever it is I’m feeling and struggle to express it. Drifting into existential angst is kind of my thing, so I lean into it. I feel the absence and allow myself to be sad.
In a world that insists on the concept of relentless never-ending comfort through entertainment, selfishness, and distraction, this ability to feel sadness is the gift that loneliness brings to me each year. Every once in a while, I need space to contemplate my limitations, to remember how deeply I am shaped by and indebted to the presence of my wife and children, to think about the struggle that it can be to live as an authentic human being, and confront the angst of living a life in which time slips through my hands all too quickly. It isn’t necessarily fun. Going on a spiritual retreat is hard work, but I’m a better person for putting in the effort each year. In order to do so, I must be alone. I must be able to calm down and breathe.
The feast day of St. Peter Chanel is coming up this week, and as I was reading about him it occurred to me just how lonely he must have been. The last years of his life must have felt like one long spiritual retreat. Born in France in 1803, as a young man he became fascinated with the letters of missionaries from America that would be read aloud in school. When he later became a priest, he joined a mission society, the Marists. Eventually he traveled to Futuna Island, which is in the Pacific Ocean, northeast of Fiji. His bishop dropped him off promising to return in six months. He didn’t return for five years.
Peter was left more or less alone – I think he had one friend with him some of the time – to live in a foreign culture, among strangers, and learn a new language. Each day was a struggle for survival, but he maintained a patient outlook and persevered. Over time, a few indigenous people became Catholic and were baptized, but the local chieftain reacted with violence to the conversions and Peter was clubbed to death. That first missionary effort of his, which ended in tragedy, nevertheless planted a small seed that eventually blossomed when the entire island later became Catholic.
To me, the greatest struggle that Peter must have faced was loneliness. Not knowing the language meant that for quite a while he literally couldn’t talk to anyone. That feeling of being isolated was probably compounded by a lack of success in his mission and the fact that he had stepped into an entirely new place as a complete stranger.
His loneliness, as difficult as it may have been, was one of the necessary steps in his ultimate success. To me, that’s a real encouragement as I continue to confront the difficulty — I might even say fear — that I have of being alone.
Being alone is like entering into the sanctuary of a deathly quiet church in the evening, the night sky filtering through the stained glass windows, an ancient presence lingering just past the threshold of the altar rail. It’s just you and God. It’s a profound moment, but not necessarily a comfortable one.
That’s how I feel when I sit alone by that lake each year on retreat. It’s the kind of feeling that makes you take your shoes off because the moment is holy and you don’t quite know how to react. I’m happy to sit and feel that presence, feel my humanity, yes even feel a little bit sad and nostalgic, but, ultimately, to feel as though I — the real me for better or worse — am wrapped in the arms of a loving mother.
Perhaps anytime you and I feel lonely, we can bring to mind St. Peter Chanel and the gift that loneliness can be if we allow God to work in it.