27 November 2008

Loneliness With Others: A Sign of an Eremitical Vocation?

[[Sister, if a person is lonely when they are with others, can this be a sign they are called to deeper solitude or maybe even to be a hermit?]]

Great question! I would have to say no, the chances are much better that this points to the need for inner work on one's capacity for and in relationships. We can be feeling lonely because we simply do not connect with others, for instance, or because there is something going on in us which keeps us self-centered and angry or unhappy, because we are unable to be truly vulnerable in the way the situation calls for, etc. If we are not really at home with ourselves we can feel this acutely when we are with others, but then we can mistake it for a sign that we are called to greater solitude and even to eremitical solitude.

So, the feeling of loneliness in a group I think is a signal to ask ourselves some serious questions and take some time do do some significant inner work, whether we do that with the aid of a therapist, a spiritual director, or simply our own journal. Some questions could include: what other feelings is this "loneliness" composed of? (This is one of the most important questions I think. Loneliness is often a complex constellation of feelings and it can help to identify what is actually going on. Thus, for instance, I can feel loneliness in one situation that is different from the loneliness I feel in a different situation. In the first I am anxious and ill at ease, in the second I am sad and tired. In a third I can simply desire to share something on a level which the group does not allow for. When I look at these experiences the roots of the feelings are actually very different. Only the third MIGHT signal the person has a call to eremitical life, and it might be correct to call this feeling something other than loneliness.) Other questions could include, when did I start feeling this way? When else have I felt this way? Am I afraid to be close to others? What happens when I try? Do I feel vastly different from these others (whether superior OR inferior, both are important)? Where does that come from? In any case, there are innumerable questions which might come up. The point is that the experience you describe is likely a sign that one needs to do some serious inner work with regard to relationships.

There are a number of stereotypes which affect the way people think about hermits. One of these is that hermits are loner types who are uncomfortable in groups of people. While it is true that stories of hermits have their share of "gruff anti-social personalities," the truth is that in general hermits are quite comfortable with themselves and therefore with others. They are capable of delighting in the time away from the hermitage and in social gatherings. They know full well that the world they are called to greater separation from is as much a part of their inner being as it is reality outside of themselves. Thus, if they are alienated from others to some degree they also know it is likely that they are alienated from themselves and God first --- so much so that a large piece of the loneliness they feel may come from the very center of themselves, not from the external situation per se --- and this calls for inner work. After all, eremites are not escaping the demands of love, nor are they trying to fill (or avoid) a hole at the center of their being. Instead they are answering a call to a special kind of love, first of God and then of all that he cherishes.