Posted by: mmreflections | May 10, 2008

Not Good To Be Alone: May, 2008

 During the summer of 1974 I was taking a short vacation from my responsibilities in Rome, Italy where I had been invited to consider working on a Commission related to the new Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Churches.  I needed to get away from the city and the office for a little while in order to discern whether to continue in this position or return to parish life in the small church I served back in the States.  This vacation was spent in a small village up in the Swiss Alps.  On my first morning I began what was to be a short hike up one of the mountain trails.  It was a beautiful and warm July day and I found it difficult to resist going higher and higher up the trail, finally setting the snow line as my goal for the morning.  Rather imprudently I had undertaken this challenge with no companion.  From the lush green landscape my hiking took me above the tree line where there were only rocky crags and a narrowing trail indicated by little red marks on the rocks.  I continued my venture up to the snow line where, like a little boy, I made snow balls and tossed them down the slope.  It seemed as though I was standing on top of the world, the small village from which I had begun my hike barely visible.  Passing clouds quickly coated me with mist, refreshing me and increasing my exhilaration at the wondrous sight before me.  For a brief moment my joy was indescribable and I wanted to scream out my gratitude and praise to the God of all creation.  Suddenly the joy was replaced by a deep and painful sadness.  There was no one with whom I could share this awesome and treasured moment.  I was alone.  The word of God came to me, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18)

 Over the years since that mountain top experience the need we have for one another has become more and more apparent to me.  Many times we are led to believe we are not alone because we belong to some religious organization, support group, society, social club or fraternity.  If this is true, why are so many people who are members of such networks experiencing much suffering because they feel they are alone?  On my journey I have met many married persons who spoke to me about their feelings of aloneness or loneliness.  Men and women religious, living in monastic communities, have spoken to me of feeling totally alone in the midst of other people within their communities.  Young people have described feelings of aloneness in the midst of brothers, sisters and parents.  It seems many of us are living under an illusion of not being alone because we are in a community with others.  How can we feel such aloneness or loneliness when we are surrounded physically by so many people? 

 What I discovered at some point on my journey was that even though I was surrounded by family and friends the experience of aloneness  was the result of my not being open and honest with anyone but kept a part of myself unavailable to others.  I needed to first make friends with myself before I could truly be a friend to someone else.  I could only love another person to the degree I loved myself.  We have heard many times the great commandment of love.  “I give you a new commandment:  love one another.  Such as my love has been for you, so must your love be for each other.  This is how all will know you for my disciples, your love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)  I discovered I could not truly love another person if I didn’t first love myself.  For much of my life I lived under the fear that if someone knew what I was really like they could not love me.  How could I love myself if I could not believe someone else knew me just as I am and could still love me with all my faults and failures? So in the midst of all the friends, all the smiles and good cheer, there was a lonely heart longing to be accepted just as I am.

 As a young man I keenly felt this aloneness which I could not put into words. When I graduated from college, years before entering the seminary to study for the priesthood, I was invited to attend a men’s weekend retreat in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, which resulted in a life changing experience.  I formed a friendship with one of the other men on retreat which was to become long lasting and beneficial to both of us. For the first time in my life, I opened my heart to another person with whom I shared some of the most intimate, painful, and troubling aspects of my young life.  To my amazement I was not rejected but accepted just as I was at the time and a friendship unfolded in which we were mutually able to share our stories and grow in our spiritual lives.  This man was a powerful instrument in my embracing a vocation to the priesthood.  As the years unfolded and my journey took me far from home, family and friends, I learned when the feelings of aloneness were weighing me down it was time to find someone with whom I could open my heart once again.  It seems to me there was always someone to whom I could open my heart when the need arose.  The Lord always provided a brother or sister to make his love known to me.

It was a great first step for me to learn the importance of sharing my stories with another human being and listening to their stories.  Initially it was a new and wonderful experience to discover that others who knew me could accept and love me without any conditions.  This realization led me to a greater awareness of God’s unconditional love; if another human being could love me just as I am, how much greater was God’s love for me.  It would seem this knowledge would heal all feelings of loneliness or aloneness.  I was badly mistaken!  To a degree it helped me to deal with these moments of sadness and heaviness which would arise again and again in the midst of good and loving friends and companions.  However, there was still something missing!  My continuing spiritual journey led me on a quest to find the missing key.

The road led back to the silence of which I had written previously.  Sometimes the silence was frightening because these were moments when some of the not very attractive aspects of my personality would begin to surface.  As long as there was internal noise in my head with all kinds of thoughts, memories, fears, anxieties, problems to deal with and projects to be undertaken, there was little time for introspection.  All the external distractions surrounding me also kept me from moving deeper into the spiritual realms to which we are all called.  Why was it that holy men and women in the past had to enter into a deep inner silence in order to discover what they needed to learn?  Why did this deep silence bring about a deep and lasting humility into their lives?  Why did their experience lead them to a deeper love and compassion for the people who came into their lives?  What did they discover in this great silence?  If it is not good for man to be alone, why did they embrace this aloneness and their loneliness before they could become the persons God had intended them to be? What was the missing key?  This will be considered in the next reflection. 

“You, O God, are my strength.  Why do you keep me so far away?  Why must I go about in mourning with the enemy oppressing me?  Send forth your light and your fidelity; they shall lead me on and bring me to your holy mountain, to your dwelling place.  Then will I go in to the altar of God, the God of my gladness and joy; then will I give you thanks.”   (Psalm 43:2-4)

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