In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik summarized the dilemma of his faith in a three-word sentence: I am lonely. The kind of loneliness he wrote about does not come from being friendless or alone; it is the result of feeling “rejected and thrust away by everybody,” even by one’s most intimate friends. The Rabbi wrote that this experience of loneliness is a paradox: painful and frustrating but also stimulating and cathartic. I am only beginning to understand this loneliness myself.
Sometimes I feel like a stranger in this world. I am surrounded by people who are focused on the material world, striving for money and fame and success. I no longer share their ambitions. I don’t even understand the values of the millions of Christians who have a completely different take on the word of God. The lack of soul connection makes me feel lonely.
In Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, he said that spiritual loneliness is the natural result of saying yes when all your friends say no. They are defined by what they are against. I want to be defined by what I am for: the power of God’s redemptive love.
How can I explain my loneliness?
Imagine a four-story building. There is a beautiful chapel on the ground floor where believers gather every week. Many are good, righteous people who come to worship and learn about God. Some of them are here to be entertained and some of them are here to be seen. Although most of the congregants call themselves Christians, many cling to the laws of the Old Testament. They insist that the Ten Commandments be prominently displayed both here and outside the building. Others call themselves Evangelicals, but never share the Good News. If you spend any time looking around, you’ll see that modern-day Pharisees have put locks on the doors and bars on the windows to keep undesirables out. They don’t understand that this is God’s house and the doors are open to everyone.
On the second floor, joyous believers gather, grateful for God’s love and forgiveness. They are eager to tell everyone how Jesus changed their lives. You’ll find reformed sinners of all kinds here, people who once had no hope, people who once felt imprisoned by their sins. It’s as if they have been born again! The people on this floor readily share the reason for their hope. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9).
On the third floor, mature believers sit in groups of two or three having deep conversations about spiritual matters. You’ll also find individuals sitting in quiet, contemplative solitude – people like me. These believers have been humbled by life’s experiences. The concerns of the first half of life no longer have any appeal. They no longer feel the need to prove that they are worthy. They see the world with grace-filled eyes because they have experienced God’s mercy firsthand and know that we’re all flawed and in need of grace. Look around, and you’ll see the Jesus Creed prominently displayed: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
The fourth floor is a very busy place. Here, you’ll find servants and activists, people who were called to put their faith into action. Some are busy caring for refugees, or the sick, or the homeless, or the imprisoned. Others are advocates for social justice. They are the hands and feet of Jesus. In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. (Luke 22:25-26).
There are no elevators in this building. There is no easy way to climb from one floor to the next. It is a painful climb. The stairs are steep and unevenly spaced. Those who ascend do so stumbling and falling upward.
Visualizing the dilemma of my faith in this way helps me to understand the confusion and despair I’ve been feeling over the past year or so. I expected other Christians to see things the way I do because we read the same Bible and pray to the same God. Now I see that even if we share some common beliefs, we are not on the same plane spiritually and perhaps never will be.
When I gather with a small group of friends from my church, the difference in thinking is abundantly clear. My Christian friends are stuck on the first floor, building walls to keep other people out. They say ‘no’ to anyone who is not like them – gays, Muslims, immigrants, liberals. But I am on a different journey and my capacity for loving other people is growing. As Rohr says, “if your politics do not become more compassionate and inclusive, I doubt whether you are on the second journey.”
Richard Rohr has some good advice for people like me. “Don’t expect or demand from groups what they usually cannot give. Doing so will make you needlessly angry and reactionary. ” Groups are often not receptive to change because they are focused on protecting the group’s identity and preserving the status quo. Rohr’s book reminded me of the parable of the soils. Seeds don’t grow on a busy path or in rocky soil. If the soil is not receptive, seeds won’t grow. I used to tell myself that I could influence my friends by sharing my perspective. But now I see, that if their hearts aren’t ready, I might as well be chasing the wind.
Soloveitchik found something positive and stimulating about this loneliness. Rohr would agree. He said that the confusing feelings of spiritual loneliness are far outweighed by the happiness that comes from spending time alone. Soulful people like me need alone time to “unpack” all the stuff that life gives and takes away. I am naturally contemplative and thoroughly enjoy time spent alone reflecting. At the same time, I find myself wishing I had a spiritual mentor or a small group of friends who are at the same place in their spiritual journey.
Image credit, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art:
The Times Building, 1904