St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502
“The loneliness of the Christian results from his walk with God in an ungodly world, a walk that must often take him away from the fellowship of good Christians as well as from that of the unregenerate world. His God-given instincts cry out for companionship with others of his kind, others who can understand his longings, his aspirations, his absorption in the love of Christ; and because within his circle of friends there are so few who share his inner experiences he is forced to walk alone.
“The unsatisfied longings of the prophets for human understanding caused them to cry out in their complaint, and even our Lord Himself suffered in the same way.
“The man who has passed on into the divine Presence in actual inner experience will not find many who understand him. He finds few who care to talk about that which is the supreme object of his interest, so he is often silent and preoccupied in the midst of noisy religious shoptalk. For this he earns the reputation of being dull and over-serious, so he is avoided and the gulf between him and society widens.
“He searches for friends upon whose garments he can detect the smell of myrrh and aloes and cassia out of the ivory palaces, and finding few or none he, like Mary of old, keeps these things in his heart.
“It is this very loneliness that throws him back upon God. His inability to find human companionship drives him to seek in God what he can find nowhere else.”
That’s A.W. Tozer, from the book Man: The Dwelling Place of God. (For the curious, this passage is on page 39). It was shared in a group setting by a man who divulged that he’d felt lonely, sometimes unbearably so, his whole life. Upon trying to explain it with friends and family, he was met with quizzical looks, and prescribed a slew of solutions, each more vapid than the last. He’d come across this passage and wondered aloud whether, perhaps, this was the root of his discontent. There’s certainly something to what Tozer is saying. But I don’t think that’s the root of loneliness.
As I’ve written elsewhere, loneliness is inherent. It’s going nowhere. We don’t become lonely out of our deficit in godly relationships, or even out of the inability of others to fill us up. It’s part and parcel of our humanity. Our loneliness is woven into the fabric of our being. This is by design.
It turns us into seekers or it crushes us under its weight. Kierkegaard was right. Dread’s our friend because it stirs the religious impulse in us, and our enemy because it’s dreadful. There’s no solution. There shouldn’t be. It’s a rock-drawn pathway toward the only true Wellspring of joy. So Tozer was right about something.
It could be that folks like myself and the aforementioned gentleman are outliers. We may really just be a lonely minority amongst an otherwise satisfied populace. I doubt it, though. After some probing people tend to agree that they’re lonely, almost regardless of circumstance. That they’re inexplicably discontented. That they’re happily married and haunted by a cavernous dread.
Westerners live noisy lives. Existential crises are a cash cow, and the capitalist machine, God bless, owes much of its sustainability to the holy terror, equal parts imperceptible and persuasive, of what might happen if we’re forced to be alone with our thoughts. Dread’s a low hum that underpins everything, and sin and entertainment, especially, are racket that go a long way toward drowning it out. A lot of folk, godly and not, are perpetually entertained, so the dread’s only perceptible when it’s interrupted by grief or tragedy or abandonment, or worse. But it is there.
Which is actually good news, as long as you’re not the sort of fellow that skips straight to the end of Ecclesiastes because you need everything to have an uplifting twist. Everyone’s haunted by the vanity of vanities and there’s no help coming till you’re a framed 5″ x 8″ on somebody’s fireplace. And all God’s people said, “Amen.”
And it’s good news because it means that torturous quest for fulfillment-through-relationships, whether platonic or sensual or whatever, is as fruitless as the desert prophets who ate locust and honey and probably sand have always suspected they were, however colorfully adorned. Finally catching up with the Augustines and Henri Nouwens of the world, we can embrace the mercy of low-expectations, in which no one has to complete us, we can love in the absence of redamancy, we can enjoy in the absence of contentment. If we’re lovers, our hearts needn’t beat for one another, because they’ll never beat for anyone forever, really, and, granting inadequacy in both parties, it’s good to be inadequate together rather than inadequate alone.*
We can understand, at last, why Father Such-and-Such rolls his eyes when we demand an account for why he’s perfectly happy being “married to the Church” when there’s a swarm of pious young women who’d be delighted to walk the aisle with a reasonably handsome fellow who understands the word ‘infralapsarianism,’and all he’d ever have to do to sink his teeth into that ever present buffet is turn-coat and become Episcopalian. Granting inadequacy both ways, it’s plenty good to be inadequate alone rather inadequate together.
It’s not a coincidence that, by all evidences, Jesus wasn’t active in the Nazarene dating scene, and his friendships, of which he had many, were equal parts subordinate and indispensable as a component of his joy. Indispensable because we’re born to enjoy God through people and things and enjoy people and things through the mercy of God. Subordinate because we’re more than just a set of instinctive drives to be satiated or repressed, and the satiation of our drives doesn’t actually make us happy and their repression doesn’t actually ruin our lives. Human loneliness is an incurable phenomenon, as I suggested above, and Jesus wasn’t going to slay his loneliness or ours by finding a suitable partner or keeping busy with the guys. Instead, Jesus turned the clamoring dread into occasion for worship. Loneliness is a rock-drawn path to the true Wellspring of joy because it moves us to place the whole stock of our “wholeness” onto Christ. And that’s a different breed of happiness.
I imagine a song that accompanies everything. One of those soaring melodies that makes you contemplate the vastness of everything. I imagine it plays over the mundane goings-on of our life. It breaks in inappropriately as we put down our books and shut our newspapers, sip our coffee, and drive through the crowded city districts.
There are no words in it, because we’re always talking anyway, and even if there were lyrics, they wouldn’t make sense. What could sum up everything, all the time? Anything other than “Christ is all and in all” would be chatter. The worst kind, too.
But then the song would be crowded. The melody I have in mind is good, as is. It already says “Christ is all and in all,” because it’s beautiful and big and it wakes something up in us. It’s awe, which feels like worship, but isn’t quite worship, but transports the folks who know Christ to the altar and folks who don’t straight to the inner corridors of their own temple to introspect and come up short. It’s not quite a sermon, but it’s something.
Of course, next to nobody hears it. If there is a song of sorts underwriting everything, it’s at a frequency we’re deadened to, so that going on about it usually amounts to very little. But it sounds like joy, and it feels like joy, and it’s contagious, and beautiful, infinitely more beautiful than the low-hum of dread is ugly, – beautiful enough to make us love the dreadful hum because it drank us dry, and drove us mad, and opened our ears to the beauty of the song – so it’s worth it, because felix-freaking-culpa.
It isn’t beholden to the threadbare hope that everything will go as necessary to fulfill the proper conditions under which I can be adequately satisfied. It’s a happiness and a peace that emerges from the Godness of God. We were created for Him, and torn away from Him by sin and the unflinching resolve with which we clung to it against everything, and purchased again by Him, to be reconciled to Him. We’re hard-wired to be satisfied by His Himness. That’s what satisfies us. That’s our happiness and peace. Everything else is runoff from that. It’s a different breed of happiness.
So, like Augustine and probably Qoheleth, I’ve learned to love that there are days I wake up and wish I hadn’t, where the nausea of everything is crushing, and the hope at the end of the story doesn’t offer much solace here in the harrowing middle. The hum draws me back to the song, and, therefore, the Conductor. Big and bright and beautiful, the song makes me quietly joyful, because it’s deeper than the dread. The over-shared Augustine quote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee,” is true despite the kitschy den decorations on which it’s often found.
Tozer knew this by experience, despite radically misdiagnosing it on paper. Thank God. One day we’ll laugh about it together: Aiden Tozer and I, and Augustine, and Henri and everyone the cacophonous dread wounds mercifully and chases into the concert hall of Yahweh to listen and enjoy, and be filled. To be filled like all those thieves and beggars, Jean Valjean types, had hoped to be. And the bastard conquistadors, plundering their angst away, into the pockets of their indigenous prey, had hoped to be filled by it. And the Cassanova types, tangled up in the mire of sexual capitalism, trapping partners between their jaws and legs, to pick the meat off their bones, only to be hungry again, had hoped, each time, to be filled. And the fat priests and papists, who checkered the history of the Church with death and debauchery, Molochites who cooked and ate their children to appease the divines, Crusaders and Jihadists, and the architects of Pax Romana, who kept quiet the simmering countrysides of Rome only by stifling dissent with swords hammered from ploughshares, and Tsars who held their office in tightly clenched fists, nursing a threadbare security with the threat of Gulag and nothing else, had hoped – vainly, verily, desperately – that they would be filled. We’ll laugh, and embrace, and say to each other what needn’t be said – that all of it, the tears and the nausea, the ache of existence, was worth it, not because some ethereal paradise awaited, but because the song was there, and the Conductor with it. Because felix culpa.
*Wendell Barry said something similar, which I’ve borrowed here and modified:
“It is better,
granting imperfection in both ways,
to be imperfect and together
than to be imperfect and alone.”