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Sr. B's Reflection


Last weekend I held a vocation’s workshop for eleven young women interested to explore the possibility of joining religious life.  As a starting point, true to my belief in the Education For Life Methodology, I asked them the questions;

  • What is life like today as a young woman growing up in our society?  
  • What are the challenges you face?

As they engaged in the exploration in a very truthful and honest reflection it became obvious that many young people are living in a meaningless vacuum trying to find their identity and their real selves.  As I listened to their feedback, I was deeply struck by two commonalities reflected in all the group sharing:  Firstly all showed participants are actively engaged in a vast social network by use of emails, mix-it, what’s up, skype, BBM, face-book and twitter.  Secondly and simultaneously, they are yearning for intimacy, meaning, acceptance, belonging and authentic love.  As we continued to explore these two contrasting realities we began to see an underlying restlessness deep within the hearts of the young women.  A restlessness that manifests itself in a relentless and gnawing pain which we labelled ‘loneliness’.  What was staring us all in the face was that in their efforts to find meaning and connectedness which they are doing by use of modern technology they are at the same time disconnected from real tangible and life-giving relationships.  And even more removed are they from themselves.  Although they are communicating with people all over the country and beyond its borders they are finding less meaning and greater isolation. 

This dichotomy got me thinking about life and rose in me again the question that I often ask, namely, what is the purpose of life?  Today as always I think the definition that I read on the notice board at the University of Pretoria a couple of years ago still stands good:

‘The purpose of life is to become fully and passionately engaged in the great adventure of who we really are, what we are actually capable of and what our ultimate purpose is!’  The author is unknown. 

This adventure presupposes that we are ready to engage on an inner journey.  It is as the great poet and philosopher, John O’ Donohue (2002), says:

‘A journey of discovery into the heart of our post-modern world, a hungry, homeless world that suffers from a deep sense of isolation and fragmentation.  With the thousand-year-old shelter of divine belonging now shattered, we seem to have lost our way in the magical, wondrous universe’

The nature of journey portrayed by O’ Donohue (2002) lies at the heart of every human journey because it is each one’s search to find meaning in our lives.  Until we find belonging and meaning to put the pieces of our lives together we will remain restless, isolated, uprooted and desperately lonely.

From my experience of working with young adults and many older people, single, married and religious I am deeply aware of the pain that loneliness creates in each human heart.  It really does make us restless.  I recall many years ago discussing with my elder sister and my mother experiences of loneliness.  They reassured me that loneliness is not unique to religious people because even as married people they also feel lonely at different times and even the closest persons in their lives cannot eradicate its strength.  My sister wisely said that for her prayer is the only way to stillness.   In the light of this I will dwell on two questions, namely, why are we lonely?  And what does our loneliness mean?

Theologians on Loneliness

St Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) bases his explanation of loneliness on an understanding of human nature and how he sees it relating to God.  For him we are lonely because God built us that way and he goes on to explain further that to be human is to be a searching, lonely being, wandering from room to room, restlessly looking always for an all-consuming and infinite love and unity.  For St. Augustine, (354-430), he says; we are lonely because our hearts are restless until they attain God,

‘You arouse him to take joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.’  

St. Thomas goes further and adds an important nuance to St. Augustine’s explanation.  According to him, complete rest for our lonely hearts will come only when we are in full union with God, and with each other and with all of reality.  We hunger for perfect intercommunity with God and others and we constantly and thirstily reach out for it.   However, experience has shown us that in our search we still feel unfulfilled, dissatisfied, restless, and somewhat lonely and that we will always search for more because we are made for more than any material possession or human being can give us.  From this premise loneliness becomes a good thing because it keeps us searching, keeps us reaching out and encourages us never to give up.  Loneliness is the force that keeps us dynamic and also keeps us focused on the end for which God made us.  Through our loneliness, God has written the divine plan for us right into the very structures of our heart, mind and body.  Loneliness is God’s imprint in us, constantly telling us where we should be going (Rolheiser, 2003:117).

Why are we lonely?  What does our loneliness mean? 

St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) answers to these questions are quite similar to those of Saints Augustine and Thomas.  His way of expression is different, but the analysis is essentially the same, namely, we are lonely because God built us that way.  He uses the image of ‘caverns’ that shows a capacity within the human heart, mind and personality that is capable of receiving the infinite.  To experience the infinite we have to enter into our loneliness else we will be condemned to superficiality and a life outside of our own depth and richness (Rolheiser, 2003:119). 

I am of the opinion that the refusal to enter into our loneliness is the starting point of the restlessness experienced not only in the young but the old alike and hence we find ourselves wandering after every ghost-chase thing possible.  We crave for intimacy that leads us fantasizing or actualizing relationships that hold no water, that force us into the shops to buy the latest and most fashionable products and possessions, that engages us for hours in the flow of net-working and the inability to sit focused on the task at hand.  How often I drive behind the latest Mini Cooper and think if only... but then I am lucky to have my 1999 Sentra Nissan!  It is clear from this dichotomy that our human nature does not like the discomfort and restlessness caused by loneliness hence we escape facing it to dull the pain of entering into the deeper caverns of our true selves.  We do this because we are too afraid to journey inward.  We do this to run away from the pain that loneliness presents to us and we do this to cope with life in general. 

But will we ever be satisfied? 

Not if we continue running from our real selves. 

In conclusion, when we reflect on loneliness as a common reality to all human beings as expressed by the early theologians, the saints, contemporary writers and our own experiences, we will gradually grow in the awareness that we really will never find peace for our restless souls until we truly enter into union with God.  But the good news is that in our loneliness when we listen deeply and attentively there lies a life-giving invitation to deepen our relationship with God in whom all our loneliness, restlessness, yearnings and our needs for belonging and intimacy will be fulfilled.   Therefore, loneliness can be seen as God’s way of drawing us towards himself.  This is well expressed by the psalmist who prays:

‘Oh God, you are my God, I am seeking you.

My soul is thirsting for you,

my flesh is longing for you,

a land parched, weary and waterless.’

(Ps. 63:1. Jerusalem Bible)


  1. How does loneliness manifest itself in your life and how would you describe it? 
  2. What image rises in your mind as you reflect on your personal experiences of loneliness?
  3. How do you creatively cope with the reality of loneliness?
  4. How have you entered your own pain of loneliness to deepen your relationship with God?

Reflection by:

Sr. Bernadette Duffy

Holy Cross, Lady Selborne



O’ Donohue, J. 2002.  Eternal echoes – our hunger to belong.  New York: Bantam.

Rolheiser, R. 2003.  The Restless Heart.  London: Hodder & Stoughton.

See also :

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles.

St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 1, Chapter 1. 




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