How the Saints Endured Loneliness

The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.

John 16:32

We know that solitude, whatever its cause, can allow us to become more aware of the Lord’s presence, but almost all of us worry to some degree about loneliness. We’ve all experienced it and would readily agree that — even though there are times when we need and want to be alone — it’s part of our human nature to be socia­ble and to spend time with others.

Solitude is often seen as a problem to be solved, an emptiness to be filled, or a fate to be avoided. Indeed, sometimes it is all of these things. But solitude can also be the garden, weeded, culti­vated, and tilled, from which the Lord brings forth a rich spiritual harvest. If we’re feeling lonely, maybe that’s a sign that we need to be with someone — or maybe it’s an opportunity to remind our­selves that Jesus is with us.

Many of the saints greatly desired solitude, and we can easily admire (although probably not imitate) their fidelity in living as hermits, monks, or cloistered religious (that is, religious brothers and sisters who have little or no contact with the outside world).

But except for those called to be hermits, a solitary life is not an attractive one; even saints can experience loneliness. St. Thomas More spent fifteen months in solitary confinement after being ar­rested for treason by King Henry VIII. This must have been a terri­ble ordeal for someone as outgoing and family-oriented as he was, but it did not cause him to renounce his Faith.

The great scholar St. Thomas Aquinas, who spent many hours alone studying and writing, once remarked, “No possession is joy­ous without a companion,” and further stated, “Notwithstanding the beasts and the plants [in gardens], one can be lonely there.”

St. Fabiola was a friend of St. Jerome, and it’s said she was so so­ciable by nature that she couldn’t bear to be alone for any length of time. Indeed, St. Jerome remarked, “Her idea of the stable [that is, a retreat site] is that it should be an annex to the inn.” Another saint who enjoyed company was Pius X, elected Pope early in the twentieth century. It had long been the custom that popes ate their meals alone, without dinner companions. Pius immediately ended this tradition and made a point of eating with anyone who was available: friends, relatives, priests, messengers, aides, and even the workmen from the papal gardens.

Even a great figure such as St. Patrick experienced a degree of loneliness; he was by nature very sensitive and affectionate and of­ten remarked on how difficult it had been for him to leave his fam­ily in Britain once he had been reunited with them.

The Lord God said, in a somewhat different context, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” It is indeed our human nature to share life with other people. Sometimes we don’t have enough solitude and privacy; other times we feel quite alone and forgotten. In either case, however, we must remember that the Lord is with us always, and if we offer our burdens to Him, we will one day rejoice with all the angels and saints in His kingdom.

For Further Reflection

“Where I am, there You are, too, and where You are, I am. For we are a single body, and the body cannot be separated from the head nor the head from the body. Distance separates us, but love unites us, and death itself cannot divide us.”

St. John Chrysostom

“It is in solitude that God speaks to us.”

St. John Vianney

“The Lord said to St. Teresa one day, ‘I would speak to many souls, but the world makes so much noise in their ears that they can­not hear my voice. Oh, if only they would stand a little apart from the world!’ ”

St. Alphonsus Liguori (A certain amount of silence and solitude is necessary for our spiritual well-being.)

Something You Might Try

Consider the story of an intelligent but lonely high school teacher who was convinced that no one appreciated her or treated her fairly. Her aggressive attitude and quickness to take offense kept her from making friends (a further proof in her mind that life was unfair). Someone finally pointed out to her that her own atti­tudes were creating her sense of isolation, especially her convic­tion that she wasn’t getting her due. Struck by this truth, she adopted a new approach: at every setback or disappointment, she told herself, “You don’t deserve better treatment; that’s quite all right for you.” In a very short time, her new attitude toward life made her approachable and accepting of others, and she soon developed satisfying friendships. If you’re experiencing loneli­ness, consider (perhaps with the assistance of someone you trust) whether your attitudes may be contributing to the situation. If so, take a positive step toward changing these attitudes.

Prayer

Lord,
the trouble about life just now
is that I seem to have all the things that don’t matter
and to have lost all the things that do matter.
I have life;
I have enough money to live on;
I have plenty to occupy me.
But I am alone,
and sometimes I feel that
nothing can make up for that.
Lord,
compel me to see the meaning of my Faith.
Make me to realize that I have a hope
as well as a memory,
and the unseen cloud of witnesses is around me;
that You meant it when You said that
You would be always with me;
and make me realize that as long as You leave me here,
there is something that I am meant to do;
and in doing it,
help me to find the comfort and the courage
that I need to go on.

I offer You my tears, and I give You my
wounded heart; receive them gently. Amen.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Esper’s book, Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.

By

Fr. Joseph Esper studied at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1982. He has lectured at Marian conferences, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic, Pastoral Review, and other publications. From his experience as a parish priest, Fr. Esper offers today’s readers practical, encouraging, and inspiring wisdom.

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