Although God has made us to share eternal happiness with Him in heaven, the path to heaven for us wayfarers here on earth is often strewn with serious troubles that can lead to true suffering. As Christians who trust in God’s plan for us, we can rest assured, as St. James told us, that such trials and tribulations can serve a real purpose for our greater good in the end, helping to perfect us. Still, if it was easy to “count it all joy” (James 1:2) when faced with the trials and tribulations that arise from loneliness, there would be little need for books like this one!
Nonetheless, our Catholic approach to loneliness can provide us succor from its sufferings that secular approaches cannot. In the wise words of philosopher Peter Kreeft:
You see, the Christian views suffering, as he views everything, in a totally different way, a totally different context, than the unbeliever. He sees it and everything else as a between, as existing between God and himself, as a gift from God, an invitation from God, a challenge from God, something between God and himself. Everything is relativized. I do not relate to an object and keep God in the background somewhere; God is the object that I relate to. Everything is between us and God. . . . My very I is his image, not my own but on loan. What then is suffering to the Christian? It is Christ’s invitation to us to follow him. Christ goes to the cross, and we are invited to follow to the same cross. Not because it is the cross, but because it is his.
This ability to see suffering on earth as part of our relationship with God and something willingly taken on and endured by Christ Himself for our sake can revolutionize our understanding of our own suffering and of the suffering of others. It gives us a greater power to endure our suffering and to see the inviolable worth of every other human person’s life, also enmeshed in intimate relationship with God. It has far-reaching implications for our lives and the lives of our neighbors. It helps us to see that the person who suffers near the end of life is still always worthy of life until its natural end, that the person in the womb who might be likely to suffer from some genetic malady or from poverty is still always worthy of a chance to experience his or her own gift of life from God. It can help us bear our own loneliness and strive to lighten the burden of the loneliness of our neighbor.
The source of this ability to bear our own cross is the gift of grace of God through the action of the Holy Spirit stirring in our souls. The ultimate model for us of how all manner of crosses are born is, of course, Jesus Christ Himself. Christ’s actions and words as recorded in the Gospels teach us not only how to cope with suffering but also how to tap into its redemptive power, by “offering up” our sufferings, joining them with Christ’s Passion, for the remission of sins and for spiritual benefits for ourselves and for others.
Let us turn now to the loneliness of Jesus Christ on the Cross and on His journey there, so that we can learn His lessons and experience the kind of emotional and spiritual connection with God that can give our own loneliness meaning as we wait for the joys yet to come.
The Profundity and Power of Christ’s Loneliness
We can profit by imagining Christ’s loneliness on the Cross, as we’ll do in our next section, but Christ’s loneliness was not limited to those few hours of agony. What loneliness He must have felt beforehand, to know that His execution loomed near, that He would die an early death by the explicit will of His own countrymen (even through the actions of a close friend), that His family and friends could do nothing about it, that they would suffer immensely through the cruelty of His death and from the loss of His companionship on earth! Through the grace of God, we have been given some sublime insights into Christ’s loneliness as He awaited His execution. These reflections were provided to us by a great Christian saint and lover of Christ as he faced, in some sense, a similar fate of his own.
I speak of St. Thomas More (1478–1535), the learned, accomplished lawyer who rose to the office of chancellor of England, second in power only to his friend King Henry VIII (1491–1547). From his prison cell in the Tower of London Thomas famously declared exactly where his loyalties resided: “I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.” His crimes included his steadfast refusal, despite desperate entreaties from family and friends, to sign King Henry’s declaration that Henry was the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Thomas knew well, after all, that Peter was the rock on whom Christ built His Church (Matt. 16:18) and the popes are Peter’s successors. To remain true to Christ and His Church, St. Thomas was willing to forgo his freedom and, in about fifteen months, his life, as he suffered execution. He was sentenced by the court to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, the punishment for treason committed by non-nobles, but his friend King Henry commuted it to beheading.
The relevance of St. Thomas More for us is a book that he wrote in that tower. It is known as The Sadness of Christ but was originally entitled The Sadness, the Weariness, the Fear, and the Prayer of Christ before He Was Taken Prisoner. St. Thomas’s own sufferings gave him insights into the sufferings of Christ — including His loneliness — that might help us join our sufferings to Christ’s. In the paragraphs that follow, I draw mostly from St. Thomas’s insights but include here and there a few of my own elaborations pertaining to the themes of loneliness and friendship.
St. Thomas dwells at greatest length on Christ’s agonizing night of prayer in the garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives that ended in his betrayal and capture (Matt. 26:36–56; Mark 14:32–52; Luke 22:39–54; John 18:1–12). Jesus, fully man as well as God, was profoundly sad, weary, and fearful that night. He was so distressed as He prayed to His Father that He experienced what physicians call hematohidrosis, sweating blood, when the capillaries that fed His sweat glands burst under His immense mental and physical duress. Christ was not only sad, fatigued, and fearful in the face of His upcoming torments but was also profoundly lonely, although his friends Peter, James, and John were close by, but “a stone’s throw” away (Luke 22:41).
Jesus had told His disciples earlier that they would fall away from Him that very night as had been prophesied: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” (Matt. 26:31; cf. Zech. 13:7). Peter boldly declared that although the others might all fall away from Him, he himself would follow Jesus even unto death. Jesus knew this was not the case and told Peter to his dismay that he would deny Him three times that same night before the cock would crow. Yet Peter, James, and John would fall away from Christ a full three times in yet another sense before that cock would crow.
When Jesus arrives at the garden of Gethsemane, He asks the three to sit and watch with Him while He goes off a short distance to pray. He had revealed to his friends that His soul was “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38; Mark 14:34) before He asked them to remain vigilant. When Jesus moves a short distance away, He does not sit, or even kneel, but falls flat on the ground and beseeches His Father to remove the cup of suffering and death before Him, if possible, adding, “not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42).
Jesus then returns to His disciples and finds all three not vigilant and watching, as He had asked them to be during His time of great need, but already fast asleep. He rouses them, asks Peter if he cannot stay awake even for an hour to watch, and asks them to watch and pray so that they will not “enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41). Again he prays to his Father, asking if the cup might pass if it is the Father’s will, and again He returns to find His friends asleep. He goes off by Himself a third time to repeat the same prayer only to find them again still asleep upon His return. He rouses them and tells them that His hour is at hand, now that His betrayer had arrived.
While Peter, James, and John slept, another friend of Jesus has been wide awake, that friend being his betrayer, Judas Iscariot. He arrives in the garden with a great armed crowd and identifies Jesus with the sign of a kiss. Jesus’ first words to Judas, knowing his intentions, were, most poignantly, “Friend, why are you here?” (Matt. 26:50). Jesus still called his betrayer “friend.”
We can but imagine Jesus’ profound loneliness at this time. Three of His closest friends slept during His time of greatest need, while another friend actively plotted against Him. Judas had been, or at least had postured to be, a virtuous, spiritual friend, seeking holiness with Christ and the other apostles, and yet he debased their friendship, turning it into the most heinous of false and worldly friendships, seeking his own monetary gain even at the cost of the life of his friend.
Jesus’ sad and lonely night was not over yet, however. Before the cock crowed to announce the morning, His friend and “Rock” Peter would indeed deny three times that he even knew Him.
This scene opens us to all kinds of personal reflection. Have you ever felt sad and lonely when a friend or perhaps even a spouse let you down in your time of need, or worse yet, outright betrayed you? Have you ever been the friend who let your spouse or another friend down or betrayed him or her by your actions? Our lesson here from Christ is that His love still goes out to those who let Him down or even betray Him, provided we are willing to ask for forgiveness. Judas, of course, later realized that he had sinned against innocent blood, and he repented of his act and returned his ill-gotten thirty pieces of silver to the priests and elders — before he hanged himself, dying, in fact, before the death of the friend he had betrayed. Centuries later, in the Dialogues of St. Catherine of Siena, God revealed to her in a mystical ecstasy that Judas’s greatest sin was not that he betrayed Jesus, but that he despaired of God’s mercy and willingness to forgive him. We should bear that in mind if we ever feel we might have committed some unpardonable sin against God or against a dear friend here on earth.
St. Thomas More reaps all kinds of spiritual lessons from this scene in the garden, and one more of them certainly merits our attention for the hope with which it can provide the lonely. Thomas considers that some Christian martyrs are known for how they bravely faced death and seemed almost to provoke it or at least to welcome it with open arms. Christ Himself, of course, did eventually go to His Crucifixion for us with literally open arms, and yet the God-Man Himself experienced such anguish and anxiety that He sweat blood (Luke 22:44). Thomas’s own profound words about what Christ might have put into words on the matter certainly bear repeating:
Let the brave man have his high-spirited martyrs, let him rejoice in imitating a thousand of them. But you, my timorous and feeble little sheep, be content to have me alone as your shepherd, follow my leadership; if you do not trust yourself, place your trust in me. See, I am walking ahead of you along this fearful road. Take hold of the border of my garment and you will feel going out from it a power which will stay your heart’s blood from issuing vain tears and will make your heart more cheerful, especially when you remember that you are following closely in my footsteps (and I am to be trusted and will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear, but I will give together with the temptation a way out that you may be able to endure it).
Christ is always there to comfort, console, and strengthen us through all manner of trials, including those of loneliness. We need merely to stay awake and ask Him through prayer, following in His footsteps as He prayed through the night in Gethsemane, grasping His garment, and feeling His power. The Father did not remove His cup but gave Him all the strength He needed to drink from it fully in His Passion. Indeed, even during His prayer in the garden, “there appeared to him an angel of heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43). God and the angels are always there for us too, if we would call upon them.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from The Catholic Guide to Loneliness: How Science and Faith Can Help Us Understand It, Grow from It, and Conquer It. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.