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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Lonely Pilgrims

Published Wednesday, November 30, 2022 By Simonetta Carr

“Who knows what true loneliness is?” Joseph Conrad famously said. “Not the conventional word but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask.”[1]

At first sight, loneliness seems easy to define. During the pandemic, a wave of concerns arose on behalf of people who suddenly found themselves isolated, especially the elderly and those living with a physical or mental illness. That is a type of loneliness we understand— the absence of people around us. We also intuitively understand the loneliness of abandonment or bereavement.

But loneliness can show itself where it is least expected—in the extrovert with a rich social life, in the happy married couple, or in the church that takes pride in its welcoming spirit. And this type of loneliness is often undetected. It wears a mask—the mask that, according to Conrad, keeps it hidden from the very people who experience it, the face Eleanor Rigby of the homonymous Beatles’ song “keeps in a jar by the door.”

A Universal Feeling

Conrad’s words were meant to explain the pangs of loneliness felt by his character Lyrilo Sidorovitch Razumov, who, faced with a serious decision, discovered that even “amongst eighty millions of his kith and kin, he had no heart to which he could open himself,”[2]

“I just want to be understood,” Razumov said—a wish most of us express at least once in our lives (Conrad calls it a “universal aspiration”). And it is in those times that we feel what the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams calls “the sudden clefts we experience in every human relation, the gaps that open up with such stomach-turning unexpectedness” when, “in a brief moment, I and my brother or sister have moved away into different worlds and there is no language we can share.”[3]

Augustine of Hippo described the same condition of alienation from others by concluding that, in this life, “every one carries his own heart, and every heart to every other heart is shut.”[4] He wrote this in the context of a depiction of human beings as sojourners on earth, disabled by their carnal nature in their understanding of each other.

Loneliness is also part of the restlessness Augustine described in his famous prayer, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[5] There is in every human being a vacuum which no other creature can fill.

Acceptance

As I’ve been interviewing people who experience loneliness in different ways, it appears that recognizing this present inability to fully understand each other and to find fulfillment in each other is a first, healthy step in facing feelings of loneliness. It reduces our expectations and calms our frustrations as we look for the time when “I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”[6]

For some, this acceptance comes as a result of a condition which most people can’t truly understand. For example, “those who suffer from a form of disability, be it mental or physical, experience the corruption of nature to a greater degree than the average person,” said Adam, who has been living for years with a severe form of bipolar depression. This is something he has come to accept.

Huimin, a young pastor’s wife, has learned to accept the fact that her friends might not fully understand her life and concerns. She had a good friend who could share her interests and listen to her struggles, but when that person moved away, Huimin felt the sharpest sting of loneliness for the first time in her life.

“It’s very hard for me, as a 97% extrovert person,” she said. “I never feel lonely. Years ago, when a pastor’s wife told me she doesn’t make friends at her church, I disagreed with her. But at that moment, I understood. As a pastor’s wife, I can’t talk to anyone in my church about my real feelings.”

Eventually, Huimin came to accept this fact and learn once again the truth of 1 Corinthians 7:24: “In whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.”

Janie, who has been married to a pastor for twenty years, shares a similar experience: “When my husband was called to ministry, I quickly realized that loneliness came with being married to a pastor. The reasons are varied and complex, but the fact remains that many pastors’ wives feel the same way. Perhaps it is because we are often unintentionally seen as extensions of our husbands, not as individuals. Or maybe it is because we find it difficult to cultivate deep friendships within the church. Whatever the reason, over the years I have fought bouts of loneliness from time to time.”

Janie’s loneliness is now compounded by the fact that she is on a mission field, where a different culture and language widen the gap between her and others, while a literal ocean divides her from her grown children and other family and friends. “Assimilating into a new country has been one of the hardest and most isolating experiences of my life but going into detail would require writing a book,” she said.

Turning to God

The key for acceptance, as it is evident in 1 Corinthians 7:24, lies in the words “with God.” And for most Christians, turning to God in times of loneliness is an automatic reflex. It is then that most Christians report a strong awareness of God’s presence.

And yet, this is also when many Christians feel lonelier than ever. They know God is there, but they can’t feel his presence. They know Christ is sufficient, but they still feel a void. William Cowper, whose recognized mental illness allowed him to speak freely about his feelings, expressed this type of frustration: “Thy saints are comforted, I know, and love Thy house of prayer; I therefore go where others go, but find no comfort there.”

In addressing her loneliness, Janie decided to focus not on some perceived feelings of comfort or nearness to Christ, but on objective realities.

“Experience has taught me that I have two choices,” she said; “turn inward, dwell on the feeling of loneliness and feel sorry for myself—which begins a downward spiral of self-pity and discontentment—or choose the healthier option, namely, focus on my identity in Christ. Who am I? I am a daughter of the King of Kings. This King sought me out, called me by the Spirit, redeemed me, and has given me a robe of righteousness that is not my own. This is the definition of love. These truths are not subjective, they do not change no matter how I feel. I remind myself of these truths and the preaching of the word reminds me on a weekly basis.”

When the pangs of loneliness are sharper, objective truths include Christ’s promise that, in departing, he did not leave us “orphans”[7] but continues to live with us “to the end of the age”[8] through his Spirit, who is also a concrete and active presence.

If this approach seems too rational and forced to a person overwhelmed by opposite emotions, Janie reminds me that “if we focus on the objective truth, then Christ does ‘feel’ nearer.”

Turning to Others

“Focusing on my identity in Christ also causes me to look outside of myself to the needs of others,” Janie continued. “The Lord has put people in my life who are lonely, who are suffering, and I am part of a church where there are many needs. I have so many opportunities to serve. When I choose to look outward and serve, it brings me joy and this joy becomes a balm to my soul. I am reminded that I am not alone and that I belong in the body of Christ.”

A lot of our frustration in loneliness seems to stem from our expectations of others. Sally, who has been married to a man who doesn’t share her faith, has often felt pangs of loneliness while driving alone to church or while trying to ignore his dismissive comments about religion or his disinterest in the things that give her most joy.

This dissatisfaction grew stronger as others in church commiserated with her condition. “I interpreted well-meaning comments and offers of prayer as a confirmation of my pain,” she said, “so I focused on my suffering rather than on the many blessings God has given me and the valuable lessons I could learn in my situation.”

All this changed when she began to accept her husband for who he was and became genuinely interested in knowing him better. As she listened to him, she realized she had a lot to learn from his practical wisdom and from his natural virtues, while she trusted God to bring him to Christ.

It is a lesson a fourteenth-century Italian businesswoman, Margherita Datini, learned in her difficult marriage to a man who was habitually unfaithful to her and absorbed by his work. “I take pleasure in two things in this world,” she eventually said, “that is, to accept with peace what God does to us and, for a person who has a family, not to expect from them more than what God has given them and to take pleasure in them.”[9]

Another obstacle some find in turning to others is that this contact, as much as it is desired, also makes them painfully vulnerable. “That deep sense of loneliness, that sense of singular abandonment is often irreducibly connected to how vulnerable we are willing to be with those who matter,” Adam told me. Because of past experiences, he said, “to be vulnerable is something that my mind associates with pain and disappointment. Thus we have loneliness that is self-induced and that which is imposed, though often one reinforces the other.”

This reminds me of one of my favorite passages in The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, when the prince has to return to his planet and the fox he had befriended tells him she will cry. “It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I wished you no harm but you wanted me to tame you . . .” The fox agreed.

“Then it has not helped you in any way!” he said.

“It has helped me,” said the fox, “because of the colour of the wheatfields.”[10] (A reference to his hair).

We can always be enriched by others if we accept the pain that may come from our vulnerability.

Looking to Christ

Though we may find answers to our own loneliness, it does not authorize us to expect others to accept those answers. Everyone grows at a different pace. Many of the lonely people I interviewed told me they appreciate sincere love, attention, and support more than a list of suggestions. In fact, they often find comfort just in knowing someone else has walked in their shoes. While not every experience of loneliness is the same, and the specific circumstances vary, there is still a connection between sufferers.

According to Adam, this is true even in the case of elevated forms of loneliness, such as that felt by people living with a serious mental illness. “There is a level of correspondence between the loneliness that a ‘normal’ person might experience and the level 10 that I might experience,” he said. “It is exactly at the point of correspondence that ministry to the broken often starts. In a way, that mutual experience of suffering is a pivotal takeaway from the Nicene Creed—that Christ was incarnated, that in his humanity he suffered and gave voice to it in the garden of Gethsemane.”

The more I read the gospels, the clearer the depths of the Lord’s loneliness on earth becomes. No human being could fully understand him—not even his parents or closest disciples, who seemed to misinterpret much of what he said. He didn’t have a human friend to pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane and had to watch most of his friends flee after his capture. And his last words on the cross expressed all the pain of the worst alienation he could ever experience.

As the nineteenth-century missionary Samuel Zwemer wrote, “There was summed up in this cry of anguish all the loneliness of Jesus in the days of His flesh, a loneliness which culminated on the Cross. ‘I have trodden the wine-press alone.’ …  At that ninth hour Jesus our Lord is unutterably alone in the wide range of all that is.”[11]

And that is a loneliness which, because of him, none of those who trust in him will ever experience.

Simonetta Carr is the author of numerous books, including Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them: Schizophrenia through a Mother’s Eyes, and the series Christian Biographies for Young Readers (Reformation Heritage Books).

Editor’s Note: Some names in this article have been changed to protect privacy.


[1] Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes, Leipzig: Bernard Tauchnitz, 1911, 44

[2] Ibid., 43

[3] Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness, Sermons and Reflections, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995, 121

[4] Augustine of Hippo, Exposition on Psalm 56, 9, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1801056.htm

[5] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 1:1. https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/110101.htm

[6] 1 Cor. 13:12

[7] John 14:18

[8] Matthew 28:20

[9] Valeria Rosati, ed., Le lettere di Margherita Datini a Francesco di Marco (1384-1410), Prato, Fondazione Datini, 2010, 12 September 1402, 212, my translation.

[10] Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, transl. Irene Testot-Ferry, Wordsworth Classics, 1944, 78.

[11] Samuel M. Zwemer, The Glory of the Cross, Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1938, 78-79.

  • Simonetta Carr


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