You know those lonely nights when you just need to walk to CVS in sweatpants, grab a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, turn on “27 Dresses” and think “Katherine Heigl just GETS me?” No? Well, I haven’t either, but just because my preferred Ben and Jerry’s flavor is “Colbert’s Americone Dream” and movie of choice is something like “We Were Soldiers” or “Saving Private Ryan” doesn’t mean the desired effect isn’t sometimes achieved. The effect of being able to forget for at least a runtime of 2 hours that being a single twenty-something Catholic man who hasn’t yet found a wife isn’t something that’s consistently on my mind. Isn’t the point of that whole self-deprecating joke of a social situation? How we’re miserably single but not THAT miserable when everyone knows anyway there’s a little bit too much of an edge to the tone of voice we used? We might be able to deal with going to bed alone at night as Christian men and women, but we’re awful at letting ourselves be lonely when we do it.
We’re in a culture that’s pretty comprehensively covered achieving pleasure. In New York City in particular, my CVS is a block away and my T.V. is smart-equipped with Netflix. The option of moping is the easiest. And I’m definitely guilty of indulging that desire to self-pity or forget my sorrows in pleasurable pursuits on an all-too frequent basis. I walked home alone last night from spending time with friends at a concert and got hit with the familiar feeling of loneliness even with so many beautiful things in my life. So I went and got nacho-covered Taquitos with a baller jalapeno relish to drown my sorrows (thanks Taquitoria). But post-taquitos, I realized I’ve been looking at so much of my loneliness wrong this whole time.
We’ve become accustomed to contrasting sadness and sorrow with beauty and joy. After a break-up, our friends tell us things like “You were too good-looking for her anyway,” “Look at how much you have going for you man,” “Here’s a six pack of Smithwicks beer and a handle of Irish whiskey” (I have some solid friends for sure). But try to think of the last time you were sad and had a friend tell us “You’re sad, let’s face it.”
There’s a huge divide in the Christian life between our recognition of the distance of our heart from God and the experience of loneliness. It’s great our friends try to console us, and don’t act as if we have the emotional range of a teaspoon (ZINGGGG Hermione). And I’m not talking clinical depression or medical challenges, because those exist and can’t be helped by clever pop-culture references or covered up with melted cheese. That’s a category I’m unqualified to talk about. When I say loneliness I mean the pining of our heart for a good it’s not yet had fully realized. That’s what I recognized last night walking through the lower East Side of Manhattan, seconds from putting on a sad face and lowering my head to look pitiful in the hopes that a pretty girl walking by Just. Might. Stop. and ask me if I’m okay. Let’s not pretend you’ve never thought of it. Men and women both, I think we know the feeling.
I wasn’t thinking about hooking up when I wanted this “her” to notice me, I wasn’t thinking about becoming physically involved. I wanted the emotional consolation that comes from a girl or guy you’re attracted to showing interest in you. It’s a simple desire, and a normal one. In fact, there’s so much good in it, because we’re recognizing a desire the Lord Himself has placed within us for companionship that we can’t satisfy on our own. We can fill the pleasure void temporarily, but it always takes more booze, more sexual “release”, and more ice cream to fill. It’s never enough. And what would it have done for me anyway to have “her” stop and ask about how I was? This incorporeal perfect woman who would have been JUST what I needed in that moment?
I would have been using her. Can I really say that without meeting “her” that somehow through her kindness I would have been immediately emotionally delivered, boldly asked for her number, gone on some dates, fallen in Love, and gotten married to her, then had a bunch of kids? That’s what I want in the end right? At least the things that could follow meeting a good woman the Lord would allow me to find my vocation with.
C.S Lewis married a woman he knew would die soon. In fact, he married a woman who was already in the hospital and dying from cancer. As the son of his wife writes in the foreword for “A Grief Observed” in which Lewis chronicled his raw struggles immediately following his wife’s death, “[Lewis] had been invited to the great feast of marriage and the banquet was rudely snatched away from him before he had done more than sample the hors d’oeuvres.” “A Grief Observed” isn’t so much a scholarly study of the pain of losing a loved one as it is the mostly unfiltered press of thoughts and questions that threatened to smother this Christian man when he experienced great loss. Lewis is very clear that the book title specifically contains the word “A” because his experience is certainly not exhaustive or even completely typical of the overall experience of losing one’s spouse. But his example in facing the pain rather than running from it and drowning it in pleasure and distraction is what we can look to.
He tasted the experience of a spouse fulfilling a desire God had placed in his heart, something he’d desired. In the experience of walking home alone last night, I recognized another way I’ve tried to fill that need and actually misunderstood Jesus’s Love for me. I convince myself that if I am pitiful enough in the moment, and bravely tell Him “thank you” for letting me be challenged in this way, I still expect some sort of immediately satisfying gift from Him. Now, there’s no question God wishes to give us good things. Jesus even asks us in Luke’s Gospel
“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)
He is the Giver of Good things, and reassures us in so many ways of the good He wants for us. But He does not give unnecessarily, nor give us gifts which would in fact stunt our progress toward a deeper relationship with Him without eventually trying to show us their inadequacy in EVER replacing Him. That’s why no one’s found a spouse simply by being miserable enough convince God to finally let Him off the hook. As if God’s got a bit of a twisted side and toys with our feelings until we’re finally miserable enough to receive what He’ll give us.
The pain of lack or longing we feel in our hearts when we aren’t in the relationship we desire is not itself an evil. Nor is it something to run from. Longing for Love is in fact itself a gift He’s already given us. Being someone who actively dates doesn’t replace the fulfillment of marriage. As a man who’s pursuing an eventual relationship with a faithful Christian woman by actively dating I’ve experienced this. I’ve been put through the wringer by some of those good women, and certainly done the same to some of them. There are plenty of lonely men with girlfriends, and lonely women with boyfriends. There are lonely men with wives, there are lonely women with husbands.
And here’s where you might be worried I’m going to drop the “SO YOU NEED JESUS IN YOUR LIFE AND ALL OF THIS MAGICALLY GOES AWAY” bomb and make you feel like an awful person and like you’ve wasted your time reading all this in the first place. I’d probably feel that way on the other side right now. But I can guarantee loving and knowing Jesus doesn’t prevent you from feeling sad or lonely in human relationships. But He does teach you how to face it.
Lewis mentions this idea in “A Grief Observed” when he talks about an experience with a friend who tried to help him through the grief.
“I tried to put some of these thoughts to C. this afternoon. He reminded me that the same thing seems to have happened to Christ: ‘What hast thou forsaken me?’ I know. Does that make it easier to understand?”
We can do our friends a great disservice by dropping that line of “Look how Jesus suffered” as if it were some catch-all for how to deal with trial. Turning it into a platitude doesn’t diminish its Truth of course, because Christ’s suffering was unquestionably larger than any we can suffer on earth. We can relate to it in moments, but to compare our current situation to it can make us feel so small that we feel utterly detached from what His gift meant.
You are not united to His suffering when you suffer simply because that you are in a state of suffering. It was His suffering that allowed ours to matter, that redeemed our own suffering. Because when He died upon the cross, He thought of you as an individual. He longed for you, His Sacred Heart ached for your Love.
Mother Teresa wrote a now fairly famous letter/meditation (so go pray with the whole thing when you’re done reading this post) to her sisters when she “[worried] some of [them] still [had] not really met Jesus – one to one – [them] and Jesus alone.” Besides the “oh shoottttt” moment of realizing she’s talking to religious sisters who have made vows to follow Christ about them not really knowing Him, she talks about the profound desire of Jesus on the cross when He said “I Thirst” (John 19:28).
“Why does Jesus say “I thirst”? What does it mean? Something so hard to explain in words – if you remember anything from Mother’s letter, remember this – “I thirst” is something much deeper than just Jesus saying “I love you.” Until you know deep inside that Jesus thirsts for you – you can’t begin to know who He wants to be for you. Or who He wants you to be for Him.”
You are hungry for something deeper because the One who formed you has placed a desire in you for completeness and unity. Not permanent escape from pain. The longing for a relationship with a spouse is beautiful, not something to run from. In fact, it is facing in that longing that we can become great and open ourselves to receiving the gift He wishes to give us. Jesus faced His longing for our hearts by allowing Himself to be crucified, yet asks so much less of us in our own suffering.
If it “is not good for man to be alone,” (Gen 2:18), and also that “the Sabbath [was] made for man and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) then our war movie/chick flick/rom com/Icelandic tragi-comedy and ice cream binges cannot be any more healthy as an escape from the challenge of the Christian life than it is for our cholesterol. Leisure isn’t to protect us from never feeling bad, but to help us avoid the things which make it unnecessarily difficult to bear like burning out from work etc. Goods like food can be used past their good purpose (Gluttony, duh), but are even more dangerous when we use them to prevent other goods from entering our lives like the growth we gain by facing and accepting longing. Not only accepting it, but even thanking Him for the opportunity to long for what is good. What if we only longed for bad?
Jesus never leaves our side during all this, by the way. He stands with us. He may allow us to feel distance from Him that we wouldn’t turn our relationship into a string of consolations, but never leaves. A man or woman faces the longings of their hearts and lets Him purify them, it is children who run from it. And what a discredit to men and women who have entered to religious life if religious life were just another way to cover up the fact that God’s asking them to give up a human spouse. They don’t lose the desire or longing for human relationships, they are men and women of virtue who chose to face it and have their desires purified in a way that the longing doesn’t rule them. And in fact, they allow it to be fulfilled fully in the end.
He could pull us from this longing at any moment, but allows us to hurt because it gives us yet another way to come closer to His perfect Heart. It takes great Trust in Him to overcome this, and His grace, which doesn’t mean never failing. It doesn’t mean NEVER hanging your head on the street because you’re weak and feel this almost overwhelming need for someone to know you. But loneliness doesn’t have to mean you’re far from Him. ?It can remind you how close you want to be to Him in the end through all the gifts He gives and challenges He allows.
So I went to bed lonely last night. And madly Loved in it all.
This article was originally published here.
Pat is a Catholic Missionary serving in his third year with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. He strives to grow daily in relationship with Jesus Christ through the beauty of prayer and the Sacraments, and is mad inspired by the example of St. Therese of Lisieux in her humility and little way of gaining Heaven. From Jesus to her to you: "To love is to give all, and to give oneself."