Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:18 NRSV)
Throughout the Bible, when individuals are depicted as being alone, good things happen. These experiences bring new insight, explain a divine revelation, or offer clarity to challenging dilemmas. So it should come as no surprise to find contemporary Christians advocating the benefits of being alone. We have only to look at Jacob in Genesis 32, alone wrestling with an angelic being to ultimately receive a blessing; or Elijah in 1 Kings 19, alone hiding in a cave receiving reassurance from God that there yet remain “seven thousand in Israel” who “have not bowed” to the pagan god Baal, thus preserving the people of God.
Other narratives that portray being alone as a time of divine encounter and revelation include biblical role models such as Moses, Gideon, King Hezekiah, the apostle Paul, and John the Seer. In these instances, the adage “being alone is not the same as loneliness” applies. Spending time in spiritual reflection, prayer, and contemplation are ways in which Christians might respond to the stress and hectic lifestyles generally associated with contemporary society.
However, doesn’t this all stand in stark contrast to God’s observation in Genesis 2:18 that “it is not good that the man should be alone”? In the ancient world, affliction and suffering, which were frequently interpreted as divine punishment or retribution, were often intensified by isolation. Consequently, the idea of being rejected or abandoned by one’s community created intense fear and anguish because it also represented desertion by God. We read this sense of loneliness and abandonment in the Psalms (25:16; 102) and Lamentations (1:1–5).
The Genesis 2:18 passage sets humanity within a much greater context than marital relationships or partnerships. It speaks to the relationships among members of human society. And, as we later discover in the Bible, it sets the standard for those human communities in relationship with God. In fact, in ancient Hebrew “to be alone” refers to a solitary lifestyle, one that experiences lack because an individual person is only a portion or part of something greater.
In other words, to be alone means to be incomplete or not quite whole. Something, or in this instance someone, is missing. Furthermore, the person or counterpart in this same Scripture refers to a complementary or corresponding human being who is present, and thereby can potentially eliminate the loneliness.
Today, we might characterize “being alone” as a state that isn’t necessarily positive or negative—particularly as it refers to bodily presence. The human body may be physically alone while yet experiencing a state of mind per se that elicits feelings of belonging and acceptance. For instance, while driving a car, listening to music, praying, being engaged in a personal hobby, or hiking along a favourite walking trail, one can be physically alone and yet experience some aspect of pleasure, an ethereal joy, gratification, or even a sense of appreciation for the majesty revealed in creation.
This suggests that loneliness relates to something other than physicality, and this is the crux of the divine statement in Genesis. Loneliness is both an emotional and social state of being that has definitively negative connotations. And it is for these reasons that loneliness includes feelings of isolation, being out of communion with others, or neglected, forgotten, invisible—all of which affect our personal perspective of self-worth. A priest serving in a parish in northwest England explains loneliness in a church filled with people this way:
I once had a church member tell me she was leaving the church because she was lonely. After attending for nearly four years, as a congregation we had failed to make her feel and believe that she was an integral part of our church community, that she was loved, needed, and important to us. She didn’t feel that she was a part of our body. This occurred in spite of the fact that she often stayed for refreshments after Sunday services, attended special community events, and participated in outreach activities. Unfortunately, for her, our church was a “lonely place” where she simply hadn’t come to feel complete.
Following Christ into the Lonely Places
As the body of Christ, the church is called to model the actions and teachings of Jesus. It is exceptionally profound that Jesus was often followed into a “lonely place” by his disciples and crowds of people. They willingly risked exposure to the harsh elements of deserted regions—lack of water, vegetation, shelter against the elements, and other potential perils associated with wilderness journeys. In these New Testament stories the “lonely place” is not simply associated with fasting and prayer, or even total dependence on and communion with God. Rather, in these faith journeys the disciples and crowds find inclusion, healing, and provision.
This suggests that even in lonely places, community can and should be present to dispel abandonment, fear, and discomfort. Is this something Christians should be willing to do? Should they venture into lonely places bringing gifts of acceptance to those feeling rejected, companionship to those deserted, and restoration to the lost?
An article in the Church Times published the results of a survey conducted among clergy in the Church of England. More than 76 percent of the respondents identified loneliness and mental illness as the most common issues being addressed by parish priests. But others are joining with priests and clergy in these wilderness journeys. Two people leading a local “befriending” outreach in their community had a great deal to share about their personal experience in running a “drop-in” program. For three hours, two days a week their program, called Transforming Lives in Community (TLC), offers tea, coffee, pastries, and fruit to those who show up on the church’s doorstep. Denise Moorby, a retired nurse and churchwarden, and the project manager of TLC, said that “loneliness is endemic of our times—it’s everywhere, in our villages, towns, and cities—and, it has no respect of age or gender.”
Observations like these have substance. A collective study by Anne Böger and Oliver Huxhold suggests that contemporary lifestyles increase loneliness particularly among older people, who retain fewer social ties and social networks. Remarkably, their findings support earlier research in which a decrease in integrated social networks increases the risk of loneliness. One contributing factor to the breakdown in social networks identified by Moorby is the role played by homelessness even among those who are middle-aged or older.
It’s a real problem as itinerant people shift from place to place, from one month to the next, losing touch with family or loved ones. In many instances, they’re seeking something better—better prospects, homes, or jobs—anything better than what they had before. Unfortunately, the little money the poor have left over from housing and food often goes toward alcohol or drugs, anything that will help blot out the hopelessness and loneliness they experience today.
Needed: Good Company
Moorby is not alone in her observations. She runs the “befriending” program with the help of church volunteers and support staff from local social service and care agencies. Her co-leader at TLC, Diane O’Hagan, echoes similar concerns while emphasizing the church’s responsibility to help others.
The biggest cause of loneliness is the economy. People have issues managing limited finances and finding suitable housing. More importantly, they have problems finding the right people to give the right information to get their problems resolved. Our social structures and agencies are overwhelmed. When we meet those who are lonely, they feel that no one wants to listen to them. They feel invisible. The church has the ability to respond simply by doing more “drop-in” mornings and afternoons—churches are already in the neighbourhood. As people come in, have a cup of tea or coffee, you get to know them—and their day-to-day challenges. Partnering with other agencies helps, because we can all journey together until the problems are resolved.
It’s the “partnering” and “accompaniment”—the Christian fellowship along the journey—that really makes the difference. The Hebrew word ‘ezer, which our Bibles often translate as “partner” in Genesis 2:18, can more fully be interpreted as “the person who contributes to the fulfillment of a need in another person.” In this context, fulfillment refers to self-actualization. When we support another human being, we help them to see and rediscover themselves—literally to “re-recognize” their own humanity.
The term ‘ezer also emphasizes the necessity to undergird another person to further their effort or purpose, and not our own. It’s not simply enough to speak of God’s love, shake someone’s hand, and invite them back next week. The church is called and empowered by God to offer others a transformative experience that will help them discover their unique purpose in life. Christianity challenges us to share the wilderness journey with others, but particularly with those yet attempting to discover their purpose and identity—children and young people. In fact, Scripture overwhelmingly reminds God’s people of their obligation to vulnerable children.
A children and youth pastor describes loneliness as “numbing the senses.” Barbara Houghton works with around sixty-five primary and secondary school-age children four times each week. Overseeing an after-school program, she and a team of volunteers ensure that children receive nutritional meals twice a week while discussing daily challenges such as peer pressure, bullying, “sexting,” rejection, and “not fitting in.” They stress the importance of reminding children and young people of their value—and view their outreach as an opportunity to instill dignity and self-worth into those who feel that the Christmas and Easter stories have little relevance to their lives. Houghton says,
It seems that we’re caught in a vicious cycle of expectation and fulfillment. Entertainment and gratification play key, critical roles. The mobile, television, computers, headphones, gaming systems—all offer a form of consumption that takes place in isolation. But they only increase isolation and loneliness by consuming a person’s time, attention, mental agility, and relationships.
Studies (some nearly sixteen years old) to determine the impact of social media use on personal well-being offer interesting insights into human sociality, mental illness, and behaviour. Strangely enough, internet use can (and does) decrease feelings of social well-being, even when being used purely for communication. This suggests that, in time, more stimulation will be needed for greater emotional gratification. Alternatively, both social and emotional well-being flourish during face-to-face interaction. Houghton explains it in this way:
Human consumption of technology is becoming insatiable. People forgo paying bills, clothing their children or purchasing food to satisfy false gratification. When you add drink, drugs, and fast food to the mix many become trapped in a vicious cycle that numbs the senses—giving deceptive signals to a body that wants to feel good, to simply pass the time, regardless of the long-term consequences.
As chairperson of the board of governors for a local primary school, Houghton, who is trained in both education and has pastoral-care experience in working with young people, acknowledges that when children come together in small groups, they enjoy being with and around others. “They enjoy the companionship of other children” even when disagreements occur. And yet, it’s easy to replace the simple joy of companionship with “things”—objects to substitute human interaction and fellowship.
A Family, by Christ’s Blood
It’s this interaction and sense of group fellowship that has sparked a renewal in “communal living” that is often referred to as the “new monasticism.” This revival of monastic communities is in part inspired by the Chemin Neuf community within the Catholic Church, which has taken an ecumenically correlative approach to monastic religious living. Headquartered in Lyon, France, this fusion of Ignatian spirituality and charismatic worship (including spiritual gifts) fires an ecumenical, intergenerational, and charitable approach to communal living.
Historically Catholic abbeys in Brittany, Hautcombe, le Plantay, and Marseille (to name only a few) have become community houses that bring together couples, families with children, consecrated males and females (whose vows include chastity, poverty, service, study, and obedience with singles committing to fixed-term or lifelong celibacy, and couples committed to marital fidelity), as well as those exploring monastic spirituality to live in communal relationship with one another. And they are flourishing worldwide! This in turn has played a significant role for abbeys located in what have become over the centuries urban metropolitan areas like Nantes and Lyon. These new monastic communities offer one to three years’ accommodation to Christian university students who agree to live in community for a minimum of one year.
When speaking with students attending the University of Lyon also living in Chemin Neuf community housing, there is a sense of fellowship and “connectedness” that can often be lost in parish settings or even traditional Christian congregations. A young woman from Greece explained it well: “It is really like living with a family of more than fifty people. . . . We share everything—and everyone knows everyone! The best part of the experience is that you immediately inherit a community that is at its best much more than friendship, and yet possibly a little bit less than that of blood-related siblings. The unexpected aspect is that in many ways our relationship with others (people we’ve never met before) becomes spiritually deeper because we’re related to each other through Jesus Christ.”
When asked about the celibacy commitment, a young man from Mauritius commented, “It’s been a relief! Because it’s not possible, you simply don’t need to worry or think about it as the end result or even the motivation for relationship. You don’t have to ask yourself, ‘Do I like her for who she is? Or do I simply want to have sex with her because she’s attractive?’ In fact, you can explore human relationships at a deeper level without the fear of rejection or the limited high that comes with accomplishment.”
When engaging with them on the topic of loneliness, a young woman from Poland questioned, “How can you be lonely when you’re surrounded by a whole community of people who give you unconditional love and support, and so much encouragement? We do everything together—sometimes you find yourself praying to have some time and space alone—so loneliness simply isn’t an issue.” The vast majority of the students agreed. A young male from Brazil added, “For me, the best thing about living in community is that you discover so much about yourself. For instance, I didn’t know how ‘self-centred’ and ‘selfish’ I really was until I became part of the community. I eventually had to ask myself, ‘What woman would ever want to marry me? I don’t even know how to think or care about someone else’s needs or desires other than my own.’ But being in community has shown me that a true relationship in Christ means caring about others, seeing the best in them (even when their best might reveal the worst in you), and this means consciously knowing that you have the potential to become a much better person. And this also requires admitting to God that you need his help.”
There appeared to be some consensus among students that loneliness in today’s social culture stems from “dysfunctional relationships” that focus on the individual, and the pop-culture idolatry that students described as the “worship of self.” Instead, we’re seeking to discover what’s best for the collective as a whole and what each individual has to offer as a gift to another, and even to society as a whole. While new monasticism may be perceived as a passing fancy, it displays significant sustainability for monastic spirituality, but also new ways of being church and community, as supporters of human companionship and reconciliation.
Today, while population statistics reveal record growth, loneliness and feelings of isolation appear to be increasing. Why? If human life is indeed a journey that leads to eternal existence with Christ, as his followers we are compelled to ask ourselves, What gifts have we been given for the journey? Has the Holy Spirit given us words of enlightenment to speak into the lives of others along the way? Absolutely! Can our hearts and hands serve to demonstrate the love of the God who created us in his image and redeemed us through the death and resurrection of his Son? Definitely! But the true gift given to us is life itself. Our heartfelt willingness to accompany others in this life offers companionship through a ministry of presence often shaped in some aspect of relational community. This makes the journey not only possible and fruitful, but infinitely more rewarding.