If you’re alone and you’re lonely you’re in poor company (Jean Paul Satre).
The big secret about being alone is that we’re not.
What makes the difference between being alone and being lonely? The company we keep.
If man were happy, he would be the more so, the less he was diverted, like the Saints and God. (Pascal, Pensees, #170).
Loneliness denotes discomfort, discomfort from something, or more specifically, from someone. But, when we are alone, who else is in the room?
For both Plato and St. John of the Cross, man is likened to a community within himself. Plato likens him to the city, and the saint likens him to the Tri-Personal God. And where there is community, there is occasion for strife and conflict.
For Plato, man is not “alone” within himself because of his untamed and unruly passions: irascible passions (anger and things related to it) as well as concupiscible passions (desire and what follows from it)(Cf. Plato, The Republic, Bk. II., Chpt. XIII).
Unless his reason subordinates the two, man comes into conflict with these other “men” within himself. It is here, amidst the internal anarchy, that aloneness begets loneliness: the discomfort of unpleasant company.
St. John of the Cross (following Augustine) also sees man as communal, being the image of the Triune God. As a result, he bears within himself a threefold distinction within the intellectual faculties, these being the understanding, memory, and the will (Cf. Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Chpt. VI, Bk. II).
Unfortunately, as we saw with Plato, where “two or more are gathered” so is the possibility for discord. A man’s memories may afflict him; his knowledge may discontent him; his unfulfilled desires may weary him.
To take one example, here is St. John of the Cross explaining the strife which can result from the will alone, he writes:
Torment and affliction is the second kind of damage the appetites cause in an individual. The affliction they engender is similar to the torture of the rack, where a person has no relief until freed from the torment of being bound by these cords. (Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Chapter XVII, Bk. I).
From such turmoil ensues the pain of being with an unpleasant person: oneself. Only if all of man’s passions are subdued under reason (as Plato pointed out) and his intellectual faculties contented (as St. John of the Cross shows) can man live in the tranquility of being one in the room, being alone.
Even here, is he really alone? It seems there’s Someone else in the room. The Someone in every room, and if neither can “step out for a moment” being alone must require one more thing:
Two becoming One.
Alone with the Only
Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved Thee! For behold Thou wert within me, and I outside…Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace (Augustine, Confessions, Bk. X, Chpt. 37, 38).
Being alone with the Only means, in a certain sense, not being. If God and man are both in the room, then one is not alone. But if only God is in the room, then One is alone.
Such was the desire of St. Paul when he wrote to the Philippians:
But I am straitened between two: having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, a thing by far the better (Phil. 1:23) (Doauy-Rheims Bible).
Such was the advice of the official Doctor of Catholic Mysticism, St. John of the Cross. He writes:
On the other hand, the elevation and immersion of the mind in God in which the soul is as though carried away and absorbed in love, entirely transformed in God, does not allow attention to any worldly thing. The soul is not only annihilated with respect to all things and estranged from them, but undergoes the same even with respect to herself, as if she had vanished and been dissolved in love; all of which consists in passing out of self to the Beloved (Stanza’s Between the Soul and the Bridegroom S. 26, P. 14).
In love, two become One.
Herein also lies the rationale for the mortification and penance prescribed by the Church: to make one out of man’s passions under his intellectual faculties, so that he might make one of those same faculties with God.
Alone with Others
Being one with God entails being alone, even in the midst of a crowd—even in the company of the saints in heaven. For, in heaven, although one is “surrounded” by others, each one has a particular and mysteriously undisclosed union with the Beloved, as Job testifies:
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me! (Job 19:25-27).
Take also the unique degrees of participating in the Divine which St. Paul and our Lord speaks to:
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory (1 Cor. 15:41).
In my Father’s house there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? (Jn. 14:2).
As we contemplate this mysterious solitude, let us seek to stir up our desire for it by meditating on this most profound, most mysterious, prayer given by the Lord; he says:
I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one…(Jn. 17:20-23).