Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “Cultivating Loneliness”
Originally Published by ron rolheiser.com
Few persons in recent centuries have touched the human heart as deeply as has Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher.
There are many reasons for this, some of which are obvious. He was a man of rare brilliance, with a lot to give others.
One of the reasons that he was able to so deeply and exceptionally touch people’s hearts, however, had less to do with his brilliance than it had to with his suffering, especially his loneliness.
Albert Camus once suggested that it is in solitude and loneliness that we find the threads that bind human community. Kierkegaard understood this and he embraced it to the point that he positively cultivated his own loneliness.
As a young man, he fell deeply in love and, for a time, planned marriage with the woman to whom he was passionately attached. However, at one stage, at great emotional cost to himself and (so history would suggest) at even a greater emotional cost to the woman involved, he broke off the engagement and set himself to live for the rest of his life as a celibate.
His reasoning was simple. He felt that what he had to give to the world came a lot from his own loneliness. He could share deeply because, first of all, he felt deeply. Loneliness gave him depth. Rightly or wrongly, he judged that marriage might in some way deflect or distract him from that depth, painful as it was.
I suspect that there is a part of us that will smile at his reasoning. Marriage is hardly a panacea for loneliness! As well, a part of us will, no doubt, be critical of what seems to be implied in this (even if a Lutheran says so!), namely, that celibacy is somehow superior spiritually to being married.
However, there is a part in us too—that place where our mysticism resides that, I submit, understands exactly what’s at stake here. What Kierkegaard understood, not perfectly of course since this always remains partly inchoate for everyone, is the connection between loneliness and mysticism, longing and community.
What is meant by this? How do we connect to each other in and through our loneliness and longing? What does it mean that we are in mystical connection with each other?
Thomas Aquinas once suggested that there are two ways of being in union with something or with somebody: through actual possession or through desire. What is implied by the former of these notions is fairly clear. The latter needs explication: How are we in union with each other in and through desire?
In his prize winning novel, The Famished Road, Ben Okri describes a Nigerian mother chiding her overly restless son for haunting her dreams: “Stay out of my dreams! That’s not your place! I’m married to your father!”
That’s a most curious rebuke—scolding someone for being in your dreams!
But the mystic within us understands this. In our restlessness and loneliness, just as in our prayers and blessings for each other, we haunt each others’ dreams and each others’ hearts in ways that are just as real as in any physical touch. By entering deeply into our own loneliness, we deeply enter each others’ dreams.
Kierkegaard understood this and worried that if his marriage interfered with his loneliness it would interfere with his power to enter our dreams.
Partly this is mystical and is better accessed through feeling than through thought. Partly, though, this can be given expression: Our loneliness is a privileged medium through which to enter our own hearts. Listening to our own loneliness puts us in touch with ourselves.
When we come to grips with our longing we learn, as Henri Nouwen puts it, that nothing is foreign to us—grandiosity, greatness, greed, generosity, emptiness, fullness, the capacity to kill, the capacity to die unselfishly for another—all lies within the complexity of our inconsummate hearts. In our loneliness and longing we are introduced to ourselves.
In them, we are also introduced to each other. In letting our loneliness haunt us, we begin, in the best sense of that phrase, to haunt each others’ dreams. In loneliness and longing, empathy is born. When nothing is foreign to us nobody will be foreign to us—and our words will begin to heal others.
“What is a poet?” Kierkegaard once asked. His answer: “A poet is an unhappy person who conceals deep torments in his or her heart, but whose lips are so formed that when a groan or shriek streams over them it sounds like beautiful music.”