Is it true that, as St. Teresa of Calcutta once said, the greatest poverty is that of loneliness? As I peer into my own heart and listen as others share their hearts with me, I believe it is. We are more inundated with “social” ways to interact with others instantaneously through Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat. But as we’ve become digitally connected, we’ve also distanced ourselves from authentic relationships. And this, sadly, has led to great depths of loneliness.
When I was a college undergrad, I took a theology course that was required for my religious studies minor. I’ll never forget my professor stating, “There is a great difference between being alone and feeling lonely.” I pondered that for a bit and realized that solitude and loneliness aren’t the same; one can be surrounded by people and still feel isolated and ostracized. At the same time, a person can enter into that sacred silence of solitude and be at peace within.
It seems, too, that solitude is actually the cure for loneliness. But too often many of us fill the painful chasm of loneliness with more distractions. We escape from reality through our digital connections, tuning out our feelings through vegging in front of the television, or otherwise cluttering our minds and souls with external noise. Entering into solitude is truly a discipline for us in this post-Christian era in which we live. It’s as if we must force ourselves to go away for a time, as Jesus did in the desert, so that we can enter into the mystery and beauty that solitude affords us.
True solitude is where we encounter God. He often speaks to us in whispers or other subtleties, not in the boisterous and flagrant actions that we seek. We long for the signs and wonders of the Old Testament – tangible, obvious ways God manifested His presence to His people. Solitude, however, is an invitation to encounter God in a profound way, which is by way of listening with the heart.
Every time I wake up early enough to read Scripture and listen to God’s voice speak to my heart, I am amazed at the interior peace that remains in me throughout the day. I am not as restless, frantic, or frustrated. There is a serenity that sweeps over me through the movement of the Holy Spirit when I choose to rest in Him – in the quiet space, without distractions or diversions. I’ve come to realize that God only fills me with Himself when I am empty of all else that attempts to allay the restlessness of loneliness.
Loneliness is really a symptom of disengagement. We are a people called to live in and among others, in community. When we isolate ourselves, or when others disengage from meaningful relationships with us, loneliness results. And in that ache, there is a sorrow that cannot be filled with superficial, peripheral things.
For the soul that longs even more deeply for union with God, not even human relationships satisfy this loneliness. Yet we falsely believe that we must busy ourselves, not quiet our minds and hearts, in order to reach God, who waits for us in silence.
Maybe solitude is so difficult for us, because we are afraid of what we might have to face in the silence. We are terrified of facing ourselves – our wounds, weaknesses, fears, sins. We know somehow that silence reflects reality to us, especially when we are intentional about connecting in authentic relationship with God through the silence.
And that’s likely why we are also uncomfortable sharing silence with another person. Somehow we have been conditioned to fill silence with anything – noise, laughter, idle chatter, etc. If we are talking, we don’t have to deal with the possibility of real connection that often happens when we are vulnerable with another person.
Solitude, then, is the antidote for loneliness, because it is an invitation to vulnerability with God. The times when I am able to freely let go of my façade of strength and simply weep to the Lord are the times when I know He is healing me through the wound I have given Him. These moments may be fleeting, but in them, I am uplifted through His love. I share my heart to Him without pretense or rote prayer. All that is said and all that is heard results from an openness and desire to know and love Him more – and for me to become more than I am today.
It seems that when we learn to be vulnerable with God and allow Him to heal our brokenness through the gift of vulnerability, then we are more equipped to accompany others in their own journeys of suffering and pain. No longer is silence shared between friends an uncomfortable space to fill. No longer do we wince and writhe when someone begins to open up to us about incredibly shameful or deeply painful aspects of their lives.
We open ourselves to grace through solitude, and once we encounter God there, He leads us back into genuine community, authentic relationships. This is how we live our call to be disciples of Jesus. It’s not in the grandiose affairs we imagine, nor in the aspirations of material success. It is in the one-on-one moments of encounter that profoundly change someone’s life. One conversation, one word of inspiration and encouragement, is often sufficient to transform someone’s soul, to touch their hearts in a healing manner, and to grant them permission to enter their own solitude with God, so that they can do the same for others.
We seldom realize that the ordinary responses we give to others are really powerful messages of interior growth and healing. When we live in the Spirit and draw our strength from Him every day through solitude, we find that we are no longer filling the void of loneliness and estrangement from the world. Instead, God is filling our cups so that we might do the same for others, and we are at last fulfilled.
You might be the gateway to someone’s salvation. Never underestimate the gift you are to others, even in your experiences of brokenness and loneliness. Begin with silence and enter into the solitude where God awaits you. It is there you will discover that God works through simplicity, through you.
image: Dmitry Kovba / Shutterstock.com