Every time I read something by Father Anthony Paul I am inspired. I have yet to meet him face to face, but I have been able to appreciate much of his character and heart for the members of the Church through his written word. In his latest blog he wrote about the experience of loneliness. This is certainly an epidemic in the Western world. Much of the addictive behaviour found in our modern society is caused by the desire to soften the effects of such feelings of loneliness and isolation. Indeed, our modern preoccupation with wealth, prestige and possessions is just as much an often unrecognised attempt to bury such difficult feelings.
A recent survey in the UK found that as much as 10% of the population often felt lonely. Among the elderly this rose to up to 50%, and among young people, and especially teenagers, this was as high as a disturbing 80%. No wonder so many young people will turn to a wide variety of means to avoid these harmful emotions. And they are harmful, leading to increased suicide rates, and a 25% increase in mortality. Such loneliness is not felt only by those who are alone, but is experienced painfully by those who are surrounded by crowds but have no real interior connection with other people. It is felt by those of us who are committed Christians and who find ourselves standing with hundreds of others in worship each week.
But our Orthodox spirituality has something to offer those of us who feel lonely. Loneliness is not something we need to be bound by throughout our life as Christians. It seems to me that when we feel lonely it is not because we are alone, but because we have no loving and life-giving connection with others. We are not able to give and receive of ourselves freely and without fear or hesitation. This means that our relations with others are either absent, and merely a matter of external transactions. Or that they are always expressed with a sense of need, of seeking something from others to satisfy the longing within us, and so are not experienced as freedom and self-giving love.
If I am so needing of the friendship of others then I cannot truly come to experience authentic relationships with others in freedom and love. I will end up selling myself for the sake of winning the attention of others, as a pale imitation of true relationship. Or I will purchase the attention of others at any cost, so that it seems I have a fruitful relation with another. Such transactions can take place even in the home, and even between a married couple, who do not truly experience relationship in freedom, but have a shared fear of loneliness and a mutual connection in always needing the other to provide what seems to be missing.
But the Christian does not need to live like this. Neither at home, at school, or college, or university, or at work, or at Church, or in marriage. We escape such bondage and such subversion of our relationships with others, by experiencing the true and authentic fulfillment of our need for union and communion with another in God. Before all else, God created mankind to be in union and communion with himself. More even than with other men and women. He breathed his own divine life into our forefather Adam, and this presence of the Holy Spirit in mankind was intended always to be the fulfillment of our human life, and the purpose of God in making mankind to be in union and communion with him.
Together with one another we are called to encourage each other and participate with each other in this union and communion with God. This is what it means to be truly human and truly alive. There is no substitute. When we seek to find that fundamental union and communion which is the basis of our authentic humanity in another person then we will find that it is too weak a foundation. More than that, when we depend on others in such a way we discover that all of our relationships are unstable and damaging to ourselves and to those we come to depend on.
It is only as we come to experience a more and more complete union with God that we discover we can never be alone, and no longer have to be overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness. It is only when we have begun to experience this union with God as the basis for our whole life, that we are able to enter freely into relationships with others, giving ourselves completely, and being content only to receive as a gift that which the other can give of themselves.
How do we achieve this? It is by prayer. True prayer is communion with God. It is to find ourselves standing in his presence as soon as we still our heart and turn to him. We cannot be alone or feel lonely if we are with God and he fills our heart with his presence by the indwelling Holy Spirit. So begin to pray, especially when you feel lonely or alone. Pray the Jesus Prayer. Pray it as much as you can so that it becomes a habit. The words are simple, but the effect, when we pray with all the strength and attention that God gives is profound.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!
Pray this prayer. Pray it now, pray it slowly and repeatedly. When you pray it, and do not simply repeat it, you are brought into God’s loving presence. How can you be alone? Pray it when you rise. Pray it on your way to work and study. Pray it through the day. Pray it on your journey home as if your life depended on it, and it does. Because only prayer can bring about union and communion with God in the heart, and only this union and communion with God can heal us of the pain and burden of loneliness.
Pray for those others whose attention you desire so much. Pray that you might be able to give yourself to them in service without demanding or expecting anything back at all. Cry out to God as the only one who can fill and sustain and satisfy you, and he will do so.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
How can I say these things? I have also felt the sickness of loneliness. I have also struggled with the urgent need to find some sort of interior satisfaction in the attention of others. But this prayer, and this seeking after union with God, has taught me in a practical way that such healing is possible. And if such healing is possible for me, the least of all Christians, and the worst of sinners, then I have every confidence that God will reveal this in a practical and healing manner in your life too.
There is no satisfaction in seeking to be satisfied by others. We were made to be satisfied only by God, and the only means of healing is through union with God. Seek this union with your whole heart and you will experience it as God wills. Pray without ceasing, as much as you are able. And ask God for grace to pray more unceasingly. It is in prayer that we enter union and communion with God, and in his wonderful, life-giving presence, we discover that loneliness no longer has any hold over us. But the path to this freedom requires our effort and commitment in the grace of God. We should not imagine that such freedom is easily found. But the God who made us, waits to meet us in the heart, and in his presence by prayer, unceasing prayer, we will find ourselves made into that authentic human person God always intended us to be.
May this be your experience in increasing measure.