The sole cause of our unhappiness
is that we do not know how to stay quietly in our room.
— Blaise Pascal (+1662)
Does that claim startle you as much as it did me the first time I read it? Yet, the more I’ve pondered this striking observation, the deeper a truth it seems to be.
Arguably, our summary task in life is to make peace with our own loneliness, even though we aren’t at all conditioned to face it. Our consumer culture drives us in the opposite direction by design. We run and spend, run and spend whenever we have the chance. We run to our favorite bar to hang out with all the lonely people there, or we buy state of the art headphones to drown out the emptiness inside us.
At least for awhile. And then when the ache returns, the culture suggests we try a more sophisticated (but still bogus) remedy: binge drinking, powder snorting, Internet porn, casino gaming, infatuated sex, whatever gets us through another night.
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” St. Augustine (+430) finally admitted in the self-surrender of his Confessions. Passiontide, nearing Holy Week, is the opportune time to quit running, to set aside all the seductive enticements, face ourself squarely and arrive at the same freeing conclusion Augustine did.
The Christian existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel (+1973), assured us that really, we have nothing to fear. The deeper we go inside ourselves, the further along we are “toward the meeting of Someone else.” The inward journey to the quiet of our heart may threaten us at first because it is so counter-cultural. We would rather live on the surface and stay anywhere else but “in our room.” However, if we lay hold of the grace to be still and listen, to walk with ourselves and dialogue with the inner Voice that is often a whisper, we’ll want to streamline the rat race before too long.
I write from experience. Twelve years into my priesthood I felt like an empty shell. Externally things looked fine. Internally I suffered gnawing loneliness. A wise spiritual director was a literal Godsend. He emphasized that my basic sense of self-worth, my primary source of affirmation had to come from within my soul, not outside of me. Only if I met “Someone” at the still point, if I let Jesus touch me in the depth of my person could I ever find peace.
I pray I continue the inward journey the rest of my life, the slow but sure movement from loneliness to aloneness, from a painful sense of my fragmented humanity to a healing wholeness only the Lord can give.
Once God has kissed us, low self-esteem begins to change. If our heart honestly knows that he accepts us with our sins, warts and unfinished business, we begin to value ourselves lovable. We gratefully appreciate our entire portrait: the strengths we have along with our weaknesses, which also distinguish us as the special person each one of us is. We become less defensive, more comfortable in our own skin, less driven to denial through escapist behavior, happily at home with ourselves.
Persevering on the inward journey, we’re much less prone to use people or things, trying to quiet our loneliness through them no matter how many hangovers tell us we’ll never succeed. We learn not to cling possessively in inter-personal relationships when our intra-personal integration is well under way by God’s transforming grace.
We become good Franciscans (influenced, of course, by the Cistercian abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, as Francis was!). We reverence Mother Earth and all her creatures in conscious awe. We grow to respect persons as companions rather than competitors, to honor their integrity and freedom rather than manipulate them abusively for our selfish pleasure. Friends become true friends because mutual affection flows from our sufficient grounding in Love himself.
Without our even realizing it, the movement from loneliness to aloneness teaches us greater patience. When we can laugh at our shortcomings and not take ourselves that seriously, others don’t frazzle our nerves like before. Our attitude toward life becomes more upbeat than cynical, more consistent with the basic optimism required by our Catholic faith.
Ritual Song #557, an American folk hymn, has relevance even after Passiontide:
Jesus walked this lonesome valley. He had to walk it by himself.
Oh, nobody else could walk it for him. He had to walk it by himself.
We must walk this lonesome valley. We have to walk it by ourselves.
Oh, nobody else can walk it for us. We have to walk it by ourselves.
Because he journeyed before us, he now walks with us – every step of our way. We still stumble and fall, but he lifts us up to make us stronger through our very frailty. We carry on, trustingly.