The Poverty of Loneliness

By Monk Silouan

One of my favorite stories about Mother Teresa is when an American reporter asked her which is the poorest country she had ever been to. Answering in a very Mother Teresa like manner, she said, “Yes, yes, yes. I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering. Everywhere I go people tell me of their hardships and struggles, and ask for help, and I give what I can. But of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America.” Somewhat shocked, the reporter informed Mother Teresa that America was one of the richest countries and questioned how it could be the poorest. “Because”, she replied, “America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.”

Mother Teresa

One of the most obvious signs of our broken world is the feeling of isolation among individuals. We can be in a sports stadium with 100,000 other people, feeling a sense of solidarity because we are rooting for the home team, but when we get in the car to go home, loneliness hits us. Our internet culture does not allow for the human interaction needed to break through our lonesomeness. How does one find even one authentic relationship in our world?

"We can be in Grand Central Station and be completely alone..."

The fact is everyone is looking for relationship. We look for that because, whether we know it or not, or accept it or not, we are created in God’s image. Being a person automatically implies that we need the other to fulfill the purpose of our existence. And in coming into true relationship with another, we realize that there is no individual existence that we possess, but that life is a phenomenon which we simply participate in, a life which we are bold enough to call Christ.

When one feels that call to authentic personhood, to living a life free from ego identifications, neurotic attachments and destructive passions, there wells up a saying contrary to everything we have been taught since our youth: “We cannot do this alone.” There is no simply putting one’s mind to it, and with enough self-will and effort, we can find ourselves with the clear light of God’s love. There has to be a context where we can empty ourselves out for the sake of the other.

People often contrast and compare monastic life with the married life. As a monk, never having been married, I can only speak from the monastic point of view. Yet this coming into personhood is not a monastic or married question. In monastic life, we simplify our lives to an interior nakedness where we can let God fill us up with His fullness, so His life can become ours. In married life (so it seems to me) there needs to be a self-sacrificing on both sides in order to realize that the life they share is one. In this love God is revealed.

Yet it is easy to look at the end, our theosis (deification), with rose-colored glasses and forget all the crosses one has to carry in life. One thing, if not the first thing, that needs to be discarded in the process of entering a monastery or marriage covenant is any romantic notions of the monastery (and those within the monastery) and the potential spouse. In the spiritual life, we easily discount thoughts as simply thoughts, those ephemeral non-realities that blow through our head as an amazing rate. Emotions are in this same category. If a monastery or another person “makes us feel good” or gives us a mushy-gushy feeling inside, that is no indication of the potential for relationship. If we look at the situation and ask, “is this monastery/person is a safe place/person where we can both be patient as we struggle through our brokenness together?” That is much more realistic. Living on the level of emotions and feelings is very shallow water which has the ability to drown.

So when we look at how monasticism and marriage may be related, we need to behold the bigger picture and not just incidentals. The approach to both must be grounded in sobriety and discernment. Will my entering a monastery/marriage help me shed the old man or only add another layer of ego which I falsely try to live up to? What am I naturally disposed to? Will this relationship open up to me the meaning of Person? When one discerns the nature of each relationship, whether it is one of self-giving or ego-based attachment, I think it will not take too much time to see what lies at the end of each path.

What lies at the end of each path?