Fr. Rolheiser: Singles, There Is A ‘Lesson Within Loneliness’


Catholic singles can turn loneliness into virtue, writes Fr. Ron Rolheiser.

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, an award-winning author and nationally-syndicated columnist, agreed to share this column with “Faith, Hope & Love.”  Enjoy!

Several years ago I was counseling a young man whose struggles with loneliness seemed to be the reverse of the norm. Instead of trying to escape it, he worried about losing it. He was in his early 20s, in love with a wonderful young woman but was conflicted about marrying her because he feared that getting married might interfere with his loneliness and, in his words, make him “a shallower person with less to give to God and the world.”

“I walk into a room,” he said, “and automatically look around for a sad face, for someone whose look suggests that there’s more to life than partying and the latest celebrity news.” There’s a danger in simplistically identifying heaviness with depth, but that wasn’t true for him.

“Two images do battle within me,” he said. “When I was 15, my dad died. We lived in the country and he had a heart attack. We bundled him into the car and my mother was with him in the back seat, holding him as I was driving the car, fifteen years old, and scared. He died on the way to the hospital, but he died in my mother’s arms. Sad as this was, there was something of beauty in it. I have always felt that this is the way I would like to die, held by someone I love. But, while that image draws me strongly to marriage, I also look at how Jesus died, alone, abandoned, inside of no one’s arms, in an embrace only of something beyond, and I’m drawn to that too. There’s nobility in that which I don’t want to let go of. That too can be a good way to die.”

He feared losing his loneliness even as he healthily yearned for intimacy. He couldn’t fully explain why he was attracted to the loneliness of Jesus on the cross, except that he sensed that this was somehow a noble thing, something of depth, and something that would give him depth and nobility.

Others have been at this place before him, Jesus among them. For example, as a young man, Soren Kierkegaard renounced marriage for the same reason my young friend feared it. Rightly or wrongly, he felt that what he had to give to the world was rooted inside the pain of his own loneliness and could only issue forth from that center and, if he was less lonely, he would have less to give. Was he right?

The fruitfulness of his life, namely, the many people (Henri Nouwen among them) who drew healing and strength from his writing, attests to the truth of his intuition. By their fruits you shall know them! Kierkegaard is the patron saint of the lonely. But, like my young friend, he was also conflicted by what this did to him.

Too few people understood and this immersed him in “the sadness of having understood something true – and then seeing oneself misunderstood.” He confessed too that he lived the curse “of never to be allowed to let anyone deeply and inwardly join themselves to me.” Thomas Merton, commenting on the same thing, once said that the absence of married intimacy in his life constituted “a fault in my chastity.” This kind of depth comes at a price.

Why, despite such an obvious downside, are the Kierkegaards of our world drawn to loneliness in the belief that it holds the key to depth, empathy, and wisdom? What does loneliness do for us?

What loneliness does for us, especially very intense loneliness, is destabilize the ego and make it too fragile to sustain us in the normal way. What happens then is that we begin to unravel, feel ourselves become unglued, become aware of our smallness, and know in the roots of our being that we need to connect to something larger than ourselves to survive. But that’s a very painful experience and we tend to flee from it.

However, and this is a great paradox, this experience of intense loneliness is one of the privileged ways of finding the deep answer to our quest for identity and meaning. Because it destabilizes the ego and disorients us, loneliness puts us in touch with what lays below the ego, namely, the soul, our deepest self. The image and likeness of God lies in there, as do our most noble and divine energies. That’s the truth behind the belief that in loneliness there is depth.

And so the lesson is this, whether married or single: Don’t run from loneliness. Don’t see it as your enemy. Don’t look for another person to cure your loneliness.  See loneliness as a privileged avenue to depth and empathy.

Here’s the advice of the ancient Persian poet, Hafiz:

Don’t surrender your loneliness

So quickly.

Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you

As few human

Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight

Has made my eyes so soft,

My voice

So tender,

My need of God

Absolutely

Clear.






11 Comments

  1. Gladys-574254 September 12, 2010 Reply

    There is a difference in being lonely and aloneness. I like this quote, “Love means even though you are alone you are never lonely.” Circumstances dictate why we are alone. Sometimes we can change the circumstance and sometimes we are obligated to be there, in periods of our lives, in an aloneness state. But it’s true, in being in a situation where one is facing times of continueous searching, one discovers that God’s graces over shadows one’s ego and we understand the true meaning of love. Gladys

  2. Kathy-555815 September 12, 2010 Reply

    Do you believe that everyone in the world should be isolated from people so that they experience what your article is talking about. If you do, some people may not be able to tolerate the process you advocate. The result of the experience could lead to negative results such as suicide, menta illness, loss of faith among other negative results.

    • Kathy-555815 September 12, 2010 Reply

      I’d like to know what books father rolheiser has written. I am an avid reader and would be interested in purchasing one of his books.

    • Theresa-110510 September 12, 2010 Reply

      While I believe I understand what Fr. is saying in that we have the time to think deeply and experience life differently alone than in a relationship; is it necessary to assume that once one is married the two don’t take time to pray, read and think and talk on topics more important than who will win on American Idol? Marriage doesn’t have to be all superfluous chatter; and I can’t imagine the young man in Fr.’s example picking an airhead to marry anyway. So long as both go into the marriage with the same thoughts on how they will live their life together, (are compatible) marriage may help ground him more. We have to be able to relate to the world and the people in it; and that is impossible to do with our heads permanently in the clouds. I have to say I agree with the mental health concerns Kathy brought up also – and especially in the case of having experienced a serious loss at a young age – has this man appropriately dealt with how this has affected him? I would be more concerned in my dealings with him as this man’s ‘counselor’, with how he is coping with being single for his health; as well there are also a lot of financial pressures on one when they have to remain in this situation indefinitely. What happens when he becomes a senior with no spouse or children? It is irresponsible to rely on public financial assistance to support us; and suicide is not an option! I don’t believe God has solitude in mind for many; He didn’t make us to desire that. Even when taking religious vows; one tends to be living in community with others – so the balance is there.

      • Kathy-618832 September 12, 2010 Reply

        Some people have the gift of surrendering to loneliness that result in their strengthening the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. This young man was given this gift and when he was lonely, he was not alone, but with the Trinity. He may not be called to the Sacrament of Marriage at this time. Maybe he is being called to the single life or religious life.

  3. Kathy-618832 September 12, 2010 Reply

    This young man has been given the gift of surrendering to loneliness that results in his strenthening the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. We are all given different gift to use to help us strengthen the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. During his loneliness he is not alone, but with the Trinity. He may not have a calling at this time to the Sacrament of Marriage. Maybe he is being called to religious life or the single life. Peace to all…

  4. Sandy-622742 September 13, 2010 Reply

    Could it be that the young man clung to loneliness because it is safer than trusting in marital intimacy?

  5. Tanya-63933 September 14, 2010 Reply

    Father Rohleiser has never written an article, column, or book that I have not enjoyed or gotten a great deal from. This was a terrific piece, and I am going to use it alongside Jean Vanier’s “Heart of Loneliness” when I focus on the topic of loneliness this year in my college writing classes. It is a topic that always confuses the students and makes them very uneasy. Fr. Rohleiser also supports Vanier’s points in his sections about the breakdown of ego. Great blog post!

  6. Dionysia D. September 16, 2010 Reply

    We mustn’t use marriage as the way to flee from loneliness. In the same way, we shouldn’t say that we will loose our loneliness when we get married. We can have a spouse with the same perception about loneliness so we can be in a comfortable relationship where we still have time to serve GOD.

    • Julia-626673 September 21, 2010 Reply

      Yes, having been married and now living a single, chaste, non-dating life, I have personal experience with the truth about loneliness. Marriage is not a cure for loneliness. There were no lonelier times in my life than during my marriage. Nor is any relationship an obstacle for healthy solitude. Even though I have let this happen, too!
      However, as my mother always says to me, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Can we take the quiet loneliness, hold God’s hand, and turn it into positive, solitary, contemplation? Blessings of self revelation through my solitary times mature me, and hopefully wisdom will come with age! I pray we can all not just survive our “lonlies” but transform ourselves because of them.

  7. Guinevere-639891 October 18, 2010 Reply

    I don’t know how someone can say that a person is ‘blessed with loneliness’. Truly God would not give such a burden and curse as a gift. Loneliness is a burden that rips at one’s soul and truly tests one’s ability to be a fully functional human being. I also don’t understand that a person would be scared of losing the feeling of loneliness as I’d be happy to give it away for free! I’ve been through many trials and disappointments in my short life, and believe me when I say that the worst of all of them is the dark and unyielding face of loneliness that haunts when one’s awake and torments when one’s asleep.

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