Learning to be alone well is part of Christian discipleship

| Father Michael Schmitz | March 30, 2016 | 0 Comments

Q. I try to follow God in the way that it seems like he is calling me to, but I find that I am often walking alone. I am not surrounded by people who are pursuing God like I believe I am called to. Am I doing something wrong?

A. Thank you for this question. I think that your experience is not unusual. At the same time, there could be a number of reasons for this, and it is important to weed through “unnecessary loneliness” to what might be called “necessary loneliness.”

There are times when we are the cause of our own problems. This can easily happen with people who are pursuing Jesus above all. We might needlessly isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. We are called to be “in the world, but not of the world,” and that is a hard road to walk. It takes a good deal of wisdom to be able to navigate which parts of the world one ought to avoid and which parts one should not only tolerate, but also engage with. Often, this means a bit of trial and error. It also means seeking counsel from people who have walked this road before you.

There are also times when people will shut themselves off from certain elements of everyday life or popular culture for very good reasons. There are times when it is necessary to walk away from certain relationships for the sake of one’s soul. Those are very real decisions that many Christians will have to make, even to the point of walking away from family members if the situation calls for it. You would not fault an alcoholic for leaving behind his drinking buddies for the sake of his sobriety, or a teenager who leaves behind a destructive relationship for the sake of her well-being. In similar fashion, there might be relationships Christians need to leave behind for the sake of their souls.

Knowing when we need to “be different” or “walk away” is a difficult task, but it is important to learn. There are times when we need to see sin where no one else notices it, but it is not saintly to see sin where there is no sin.

But a Christian is going to be lonely, because being lonely is a part of the human experience.

Walk alone with Christ

Feeling loneliness is the result of two important factors. First, we are made in God’s image (a communion of love), which means that we are made for relationship. Second, we live in a fallen world where relationships are broken. Because of this, each person must carry their own interior cross in solitude. While we might walk in the midst of many other people, the deepest part of our very selves remains largely unknown by others. And so we often walk alone.

It is one of the duties of life to learn how to be alone, and to be alone well. There are many people who have learned to “cope” with being alone, but they have not learned how to do this well. Many of us will turn to television (or Netflix, can I get an “amen,” anybody?) or to a thousand other little distractions and diversions. We might turn to alcohol or the computer or fantasy football or gossip or over-work or being a busy-body.

And this is a serious problem. We don’t know how to be alone well. In fact, Blaise Pascal once noted, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

You can ask yourself: Do I need the TV on constantly? Do I need music playing in the background? Do I need someone to talk to always? Do I need to be constantly occupied? Can I just sit alone with my thoughts? Can I sit alone and talk with God?

One task we all have to accomplish is to learn how to walk alone with Christ.

This does not mean forced isolation, but it means learning how to be content with the isolation of the cross. It means learning how to find real communion with Jesus Christ. While there have always been those, like hermits, who are called to deep isolation, the Christian does not have to seek out isolation. But we must learn how to embrace it when it finds us.

Longing to be consoled

You will never be happy until you learn how to be alone. Until then, we constantly fill ourselves with an abundance of things that are “almost good enough.”

Even Jesus had to walk this path. While he had significant relationships and deep friendships, there were times when he not only needed to be alone with his Father, but there were also times when his friends could not walk with him. Whether it was because they were too weak (in the Garden of Gethsemane) or because he had a specific Way of the Cross they could not walk (handing his Spirit over to the Father on the cross), Jesus knew isolation and loneliness. And while he still sought out his friends’ companionship, he did not abandon his mission in order to be consoled by their presence.

While his loneliness was painful, and he longed to be consoled, Jesus did not swerve from his path in order to console himself. As a follower of Christ, part of your own discipleship will involve this same resolve: the commitment to not swerve from your path in order to console yourself.

If you are human, you will walk alone. If you are a Christian, you will be called to certain journeys, which must be walked alone. If you are a saint, you will learn how to walk alone well.

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at fathermikeschmitz@gmail.com.

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Category: Seeking Answers