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Dying Alone in the Desert

Ron Rolheiser, OMI - Tue, Oct 4th 2022

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 modelled (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.





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SEPTEMBER 19, 2022


“The cock will crow at the breaking of your own ego – there are lots of ways to wake up!”

John Shea gave me those words and I understood them a little better recently as I stood in line at an airport: I had checked in for a flight, approached security, saw a huge lineup, and accepted the fact that it would take at least 40 minutes to get through it.

I was all right with the long wait and moved patiently in the line – until, just as my turn came, another security crew arrived, opened a second scanning machine, and a whole lineup of people, behind me, who had not waited the forty minutes, got their turns almost immediately. I still got my turn as I would have before, but something inside of me felt slighted and angry: “This wasn’t fair! I’d been waiting for forty minutes, and they got their turns at the same time as I did!” I had been content waiting, until those who arrived later didn’t have to wait at all. I hadn’t been treated unfairly, but some others had been luckier than I’d been.

That experience taught me something, beyond the fact that my heart isn’t always huge and generous. It helped me understand something about Jesus’ parable concerning the workers who came at the 11th hour and received the same wages as those who’d worked all day and what is meant by the challenge that is given to those who grumbled about the unfairness of this: “Are you envious because I’m generous?”

Are we jealous because God is generous? Does it bother us when others are given unmerited gifts and forgiveness?
You bet! Ultimately, that sense of injustice, of envy that someone else caught a break is a huge stumbling block to our happiness. Why? Because something in us reacts negatively when it seems that life is not making others pay the same dues as we are paying.

In the Gospels we see an incident where Jesus goes to the synagogue on a Sabbath, stands up to read, and quotes a text from Isaiah – except he doesn’t quote it fully but omits a part. The text (Isaiah 61,1-2) would have been well known to his listeners and it describes Isaiah’s vision of what will be the sign that God has finally broken into the world and irrevocably changed things. And what will that be?

For Isaiah, the sign that God is now ruling the earth will be good news for the poor, consolation or the broken-hearted, freedom for the enslaved, grace abundant for everyone, and vengeance on the wicked. Notice though, when Jesus quotes this, he leaves out the part about vengeance. Unlike Isaiah, he doesn’t say that part of our joy will be seeing the wicked punished.

In heaven we will be given what we are owed and more (unmerited gift, forgiveness we don’t deserve, joy beyond imagining) but, it seems, we will not be given that catharsis we so much want here on earth, the joy of seeing the wicked punished.

The joys of heaven will not include seeing Hitler suffer. Indeed, the natural itch we have for strict justice (“An eye for an eye”) is exactly that, a natural itch, something the Gospels invite us beyond. The desire for strict justice blocks our capacity for forgiveness and thereby prevents us from entering heaven where God, like the Father of the Prodigal Son, embraces and forgives without demanding a pound of flesh for a pound of sin.

We know we need God’s mercy, but if grace is true for us, it must be true for everyone; if forgiveness is given us, it must be given everybody; and if God does not avenge our misdeeds, God must not avenge the misdeeds of others either. Such is the logic of grace, and such is the love of the God to whom we must attune ourselves.

Happiness is not about vengeance, but about forgiveness; not about vindication, but about unmerited embrace; and not about capital punishment, but about living beyond even murder.

It is not surprising that, in some of the great saints, we see a theology bordering on universalism, namely, the belief that in the end God will save everyone, even the Hitlers. They believed this not because they didn’t believe in hell or the possibility of forever excluding ourselves from God, but because they believed that God’s love is so universal, so powerful, and so inviting that, ultimately, even those in hell will see the error of their ways, swallow their pride, and give themselves over to love. The final triumph of God, they felt, will be when the devil himself converts and hell is empty.

Maybe that will never happen. God leaves us free. Nevertheless, when I, or anyone else, is upset at an airport, at a parole board hearing, or anywhere else where someone gets something we don’t think he or she deserves, we have to accept that we’re still a long way from understanding and accepting the kingdom of God.





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