Rolheiser: Dying along in the desert

27 September 2022

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Recently I received a letter from a friend who shared that she was afraid to accept a certain vocation because it would leave her too much alone. She shared this fear with her spiritual director who simply said, Charles de Foucauld died alone in the desert!” That answer was enough for her. She went ahead with it. Is that answer enough for those of us who have the same hesitancy, the fear of being alone?

The fear of being alone is a healthy one. Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote that hell is the other person. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Hell is being alone. All the major religions teach that heaven will be communal, an ecstatic coming together of hearts, souls, and (for Christians) bodies, in one union of love. There will be no solitaries in heaven. So, our fear of ending up alone is a healthy nagging from God and nature, perpetually reminding us of the words God spoke as he created Eve, it is not good for a person to be alone. Children are always mindful of that and feel insecure when they are alone. That’s one of the reasons why Jesus taught that they go to heaven more naturally than adults do.

But, is being alone always unhealthy? What can we learn from Charles de Foucauld who chose a life that left him to die alone in the desert? What can we learn from a person like Soren Kierkegaard who resisted marriage because he feared that it would interfere with a vocation he intuited was meant to have him die alone? Not least, what can we learn from Jesus, the greatest lover of all, who dies alone on a cross, crying out that he had been abandoned by everyone and then, in that agony, surrenders his loneliness in one great act of selflessness in which he gives over his spirit in complete love?

In a recent book, The Empathy Diaries, Sherry Turkle reflects on, among other things, the impact contemporary information technology and social media are having on us. As a scientist at MIT, she is one of the people who helped develop computers and information technology as they exist today, so she in not someone with a generational, romantic, or religious bias against computers, smart phones, and social media. Yet, she is worried about what all of this is doing to us today, particularly to those who get addicted to social media and can no longer be alone. “I share, therefore I am!” She names a hard truth: If we don’t know how to be alone, we will always be lonely.

That’s true for all of us, though not all of us are called by either faith or temperament to a monastic quiet. What Jesus modeled (and what persons like Charles de Foucauld, Soren Kierkegaard, and countless monks, nuns, and celibates have felt themselves called to) is not the route for everyone. In fact, it is not the norm, religiously or anthropologically. Marriage is. Thomas Merton was once asked what it was like to be celibate, and he responded by saying, celibacy is hell. You live in a loneliness that God Himself condemned; but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fruitful.

In essence, that’s the response my friend received from her spiritual director when she shared her fear of taking up a certain vocation because she might end up alone. If you can be a Charles de Foucauld, you will be alone but in a very fruitful way.

There can even be some romance in proactively embracing loneliness and celibacy. Some years ago, I was doing spiritual direction with a very faith-filled, idealistic young man. Full of life and youthful energies, he felt the same powerful pull of sexuality as his peers, but he also felt a strong draw in another direction. He was reading Soren Kierkegaard, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan and felt a romantic attraction towards celibacy and the loneliness and aloneness within which he would then find himself. He was also reading the Gospels, telling how Jesus died alone on a cross without any human person holding his hand. Like Jesus, he wanted to be a lonely prophet and die alone.

There’s some admirable idealism in that, though perhaps also a certain unhealthy pride and elitism in wanting to be the lonely hero who is admired for stoically standing outside the circle of normal intimacy. Moreover, as a lifelong celibate (and a publicly vowed one for more than fifty years) I would offer this word of caution. A romantic dream of celibacy, no matter how strongly rooted in faith, will meet its test during those seasons and nights when one has fallen in love, is tired, is overwhelmed, and has his or her sexuality (and soul) cry out that it does not want to die alone in the desert. To sustain oneself in the loneliness of Jesus, as Merton says, is sometimes a flat-out hell, albeit a fruitful one.

To die alone in the desert like Charles de Foucauld is answer enough.

-Rev. Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I. is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Before taking his current position he taught for many years at Newman Theological College.