Loneliness is a rather modern invention. Indeed it seems that the word lonely was invented by William Shakespeare, along with a variety of other words we now take for granted. Nevertheless, it has become one of the defining experiences and conditions of many living in the modern world. Of course in ancient times there was the notion of solitude, and of being alone with oneself, and even to be in need of the help of others. But there did not seem to be quite the same widespread and distressing sense of being entirely isolated from others. Nor the same anxious and debilitating loss of a sense of personal integrity.
What do we mean when we say we are lonely? It is not simply that we would like a bit of company. It is not that we find ourselves on our own one evening. The loneliness that creeps upon us like a black cloud is a fundamental inner experience of feeling that we are without any meaningful relationships with others, even when we are in a crowd. It is a sense that we do not have any real personhood, because we have no affirming relations with other persons. It is to feel as if we were the incredible disappearing man or woman, invisible to others, and of diminishing worth.
Such a condition leads to the development of a range of harmful, and even sinful, attitudes. These arise because loneliness, rather than feeling alone on some occasion, is a faulty response to our circumstances. We are created by God, who is a Trinity of consubstantial Divine Persons, to be in communion with God and with others. It is a natural and intentional aspect of our renewed humanity that we should desire to share ourselves with others, and share in their own life ourselves. But this experience of life as community and communion with others must be rooted in a transforming experience of life as communion with God. It is as we experience life with God that we are able to live with others, both giving freely of ourselves and receiving freely of others.
If we have not become rooted and established in a life-giving relationship with God then our relationships with others become diminished and corrupted. We are not able to receive the gift of others freely, but begin to demand the offering of themselves. We are not able to give ourselves freely, but become filled with fears and doubts, giving ourselves partially and conditionally. We begin to see others as objects rather than as subjects themselves. We begin to see others as existing for our benefit, rather than created generously by God as subjects of his love.
This would be bad enough. But when we do not have the foundation of a living relationship with God, we begin to fall prey to a variety of dangerous attitudes and emotions. We start to hear a voice which whispers to us that no one loves us. We start to believe that we are not being treated as we deserve. Perhaps we tell ourselves that we are not worth the attention of others.
These attitudes can fill us with self-pity, anger, bitterness, self-loathing and despair. It is then these responses which often lead us into sin, which makes our condition even worse, and gives loneliness that power to isolate us from others and from God.
We have been created for a life-giving relationship with God before all other relationships, and when we are not sustained by that divine relationship above all others then we seek to be fulfilled in ways that harm us and others. We can turn to all manner of proxy activities as substitutes for that intimacy with God which we are created to enjoy and which brings meaning to our relationships with others.
For some people this desire for intimacy leads to sexual and habitual sin. For others it can lead to an all absorbing focus on work or study. Yet others will throw themselves into bad relationships with others where they are treated in a humiliating manner, but are willing to face any abuse as long as some sort of personal contact is offered. Others will eat too much, or drink too much, or seek to lose themselves in video games or other online activity. All of these activities will be marked by an unhealthy and unbalanced quality that does not lead to personal growth as God would desire for all.
When we feel loneliness we should perhaps consider this a symptom of another spiritual condition. This is not to mean that we should feel guilty about being even more inadequate than we might already feel. But just as anxiety is often an indication that we do not yet trust God as we should, so loneliness can often be an indication that we have not yet experienced all that God desires to share of himself in the relationship that we were created to find life and love within.
What are we to do? We cannot wish our loneliness away. It can only be healed by entering into a proper relationship with God.
There is no room for self-pity if we know God and are known by God. If we are in such a transforming relationship with God then we are filled with thankfulness for all that he has given us each day. Perhaps this is one thing we should do, since it is only in developing our relationship with God that we can overcome loneliness. Give thanks to God. There is no opportunity for self-pity when we are overwhelmed with thankfulness for all that God is doing and has done in our lives. What has he done for us today? When we begin to feel lonely we should surely turn to God and thank Him rather than blame him for our feelings.
What about when we feel angry? Why are we angry? It is partly because we expect others to treat us differently than they are doing. We are putting ourselves first. We are expecting others to serve us and pay us attention, as if we deserved it. How are we to overcome such feelings? It is by asking for the grace to be repentant each day. It is not enough to occasionally meet with our spiritual father and participate in the sacrament of confession. We must be aware of our failures and sins every hour and repentant of them as soon as we have sinned.
If we confess our sins, God promises to forgive us. We must begin by confessing these sins to God as soon as we are aware of them. What does this teach us? It teaches us that we are not yet perfectly renewed in Christ, but have many weaknesses and commit sin very often. What do we deserve? We deserve to be separated from God, and from those who are faithfully seeking to serve God in holiness. But what do we discover? We discover that God forgives us and loves us even though we are undeserving.
Since we deserve condemnation but receive mercy, how can we then judge others when they perhaps treat us in a way that makes us feel hurt and pain. We should not feel anger towards others, but should bear them up in our own prayers, as those who also need to always receive the forgiveness and mercy of God. What does the Lord teach us in his own prayer – forgive us as we forgive others.
We should make this our constant practice. Repentance as soon as we have recollected ourselves after sin, and prayer for all others who we have considered as hurting us by their neglect. This is the balm or ointment that will soothe our feelings of anger. When we become properly aware of how much God forgives us, and how often we fall into sin, then we will not find any justification for feelings of anger towards others.
And the sense that we are not worth anything that sometimes eats away at us. This is often the cause of our misrepresenting God to ourselves. We say that we are so unworthy of anyone’s attention and affection that even God does not love us. If he loved us, we say, then he would not leave us lonely and facing various trials. We must treat this misrepresentation in a variety of ways. In the first place we must learn what the Scriptures teach us of God. Here is a verse to begin with….For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. And here is another…Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.
There are many more such verses and passages. If we made it our daily habit to read a portion of the Scriptures we would find ourselves nourished by the words we found each day. We would find that our view of God was corrected by the Scriptures which God has given us. But it is not enough to read about the love God has for us. It is not enough for us to hear what he says about us….To show that you are his children, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who cries out, "Father, my Father."
We must put these truths into practice. How do we practice our relationship with God? It is by prayer. We meet God in the heart. He is already there if we have been baptised as Orthodox Christians. We can spend a great deal of time looking for God and for life and for love outside of ourselves, but God is Emmanuel, God with us and within us.
If we feel lonely we must pray. But the object of our prayer must be God and not our loneliness. The loneliness is a sign that our relationship with God needs fixing. So we must fix that relationship. It is not enough to pray in the morning and evening, though this is an excellent start. But we must learn to pray at all times, because it is in prayer that we experience the loving presence of God.
Here is how we can begin to experience this constant presence of God. We pray quietly and without great emotion, though with attention, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
However we feel, but especially if we feel alone, we should make this our prayer. When we are sitting alone and tempted to sin, we should pray this prayer. When we are out and about, we should pray this prayer. When we arise, and when we retire, we should pray this prayer and with each offering of these words, with attention and devotion, we are drawn into the presence of God within our heart.
We should not expect this to heal us immediately, but if we are committed to seeking God above and before all things, even before our feelings of loneliness, then we will find him and in finding him we will be saved from ourselves. Developing a better relationship of prayer with God, with thankfulness and humble repentance, will heal us. We will discover that the aching desire for intimacy which is an aspect of our humanity, and which can lead us into sinful means of seeking fulfilment, can only be satisfied by communion with God in the heart.
It is possible to find solitude as a positive means of entering into God’s presence. The experience of countless generations of Orthodox Christians teach us that they have been able to make the unceasing presence of God in the heart the basis of their lives, whatever their outward condition.
This does not mean that we should not find blessing in the company and community of others. We were made that way. But we must depend on God before we depend on others, because others are just like us, and cannot be or become the necessary foundation of our relationships. Others will always let us down, and we will always let others down. But God invites us to enter into communion with him, to be united to him.
When God is the basis of our life, and our self-worth, and our intimacy, then we are able to give ourselves freely to others without fear, and to receive from others without a desire for possession. What we receive is a gift, just as when we become freely able to give ourselves it is a gift.
God is waiting, if we are bound by loneliness. He says, come to me, and waits for us to respond to his call. Our feelings are a symptom of something else, something that can be resolved if we make the seeking after God the focus of our life. It is not enough to blame God or others for our feelings when God has provided the remedy.
Be thankful. This will allow us to resist the temptation to self-pity. Be repentant. This will allow us to resist the temptation to anger and bitterness and will help us become humble. Read the Scriptures. These will teach us how much God loves us and has given of himself for us. Pray. Pray with the Agpeya. Pray especially as much as is possible with the words of the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. Seek to discover the presence of God in the heart and in finding him there we find the fulfilment and right ordering of our need for intimacy and community.
Having found a constant relationship with God, and asking for the grace to develop this life-giving and transforming communion, our relationships with others are also transformed and made healthy and life-giving. We no longer need people in the same way. We give of ourselves freely and receive freely being rooted in our relationship with God.