This article was previously published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Fr. Matthew Buettner, Spiritual Director at St. Joseph College Seminary, Charlotte, distinguishes loneliness and solitude.
Man is a social animal. Most of us enter the world in the context of a community, principally, a family. Even the Son of God stepped onto the stage of human history by means of marriage and family life, although a singular marriage and a unique family life.
God revealed that man is made in the “image and likeness of God;” and since God is not alone, it is “not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 1:26; 2:18). Marriage is therefore the natural vocation of every man. This explains why even if a young man senses an attraction towards the priesthood or religious life, he will generally still feel an inclination towards marriage and family life. The supernatural vocation to celibacy doesn’t displace or eradicate the natural desires of every human heart, but celibacy does surpass them.
Does Priesthood = Loneliness?
Working in the arena of vocations for over ten years, I have discovered that one of the most common fears that can pose a particular challenge to those discerning a celibate vocation today is the fear of isolation. As I just said, it is not good for man to be alone. Therefore, many argue that celibacy is not natural. Critics of the celibate vocation highlight this fact. The thought that celibacy thwarts close bonds of friendship and sentences the priest or religious soul to a life of solitary confinement is a rather grim proposition that doesn’t have the curb appeal to attract young men and women to sacrifice the natural vocation of marriage.
Due to a relative shortage of priests today, it is a fact that not a few parish priests in the United States, and perhaps throughout the world, go home to an empty rectory. But does this emptiness indicate that the priest’s life and vocation must be empty?
Is the celibate vocation by nature a lonely vocation, one that is particularly prone to generate loneliness?
Indeed, we must readily admit that celibacy is not natural; rather, celibacy is supernatural, literally, a special vocation that supersedes the natural vocation of marriage. What must be examined is whether celibacy is a cause of unnatural loneliness, especially as it relates to the priesthood and religious life. And, we might find that the supposed loneliness of priests might have lessons for the undeniable loneliness of many in society today.
No one is exempt from at least an occasional bout of loneliness. It is part of the common experience of human life. At first it would seem that the feelings of loneliness flow directly from the condition of being physically alone. And since most celibate men and women spend more time alone than their married counterparts, it would follow that priests and religious men and women would be more prone to loneliness.
To counter that idea, consult your own experience. Is it not true that many would say they are lonely, even in the midst of communal settings: marriages, families, hospitals, nursing homes, religious communities, college dorms, prisons, etc.? Of course these places have lonely people. If loneliness is not eliminated merely by being with others, what might be helpful is to make a distinction between isolation and solitude.
Isolation comes from the Latin word “insula,” meaning “island.” An island is a piece of land separated from other land by water, so we might think of the 1965 folk song famously composed by Paul Simon: “I am a rock; I am an island.” Solitude comes from the Latin word “solus,” meaning “the state of being alone.” What I propose is that isolation can be a source of painful loneliness, but solitude, in an apparent irony, might be a tonic for it.
Isolation often results from a physically separated situation that one does not choose or would not choose if conditions were otherwise, like the prisoner in solitary confinement or the hospital patient in an isolation chamber receiving treatment for a serious communicable disease. But isolation can also come in the context of relationships that are strained or disordered, like the wife that frequently feels unappreciated or the husband that thinks that he is misunderstood by his wife or the religious sister who suffers from a chronic condition or the parish priest who is persecuted for closing the elementary school due to low enrollment or the college freshman who rarely leaves her room because she is insecure with her ability to meet friends. In these and other cases, loneliness ensues from such suffering, regardless of whether one is alone or surrounded by others. In these cases, it seems we feel lonely (isolated) precisely because there are others around that make us feel that way. Therefore, just having people around does not remedy loneliness.
Solitude is not an end but a means to an end.
What we are longing for in these relationships is the mutual exchange of love, to see and to be seen. For this very reason, the available solitude of a priest is not only a good solution for his own temptations in loneliness but is an important lesson for those in the natural vocation of marriage, because in solitude we are more able to experience the “see and be seen” exchange of love that happens in friendship with God, a relationship the others are meant to point us toward.
Solitude is not an end, but a means to an end. A man seeking solitude doesn’t abandon society merely to escape but to pursue something else or rather, someone else, namely friendship with God; a friendship that can only truly flow from solitude and silence, the atmosphere of prayer and communication with God. We think of the monk and nun living according to a daily horarium punctuated by silence and prayer or the teenager on a discernment retreat seeking clarity about his vocation or the busy mom who wakes up before sunrise to approach the day with silent prayer and devotion or the accountant who takes time during his lunch break for a quiet visit to the Blessed Sacrament at a neighboring parish or the bishop who makes a monthly day of recollection in order to fast and pray for his flock. Solitude is sought not simply to be alone, but ultimately to be alone with the Alone.
This would lead us to believe that in an age of isolation, what the world might need more of is solitude, which brings us back to the paradox of how the celibate vocation is not a lonely one.
Above all, the ultimate purpose or reason for celibacy is simply imitation of Jesus Christ. God imparts this gift upon chosen men whom He has created to be icons, living images of His Son, who maintained a celibate life. Who would have the audacity to argue that the celibacy of Jesus was not fruitful or that it was cruel to subject Him to a life of loneliness outside of marriage or that it was not natural for Him to forgo the benefits of marriage and therefore, no one should have to undergo the same deprivation?
On a practical level, the freedom afforded by celibacy certainly benefits the apostolate, and the priest’s particular mission flows from His relationship with Christ, the fruit of his kinship with the King of kings. Rather than loneliness and isolation, celibacy is intended to provide an atmosphere that is conducive to solitude and silence, an atmosphere that allows one to pursue the highest goods.
The fruitfulness of this prayerful solitude is not solely a good reserved for the priest but is the source of his ability to be a priest. Pope St. John Paul II, when asked about the priesthood, often identified the priest as “a man for others.” This notion coincides with the title of Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s famous work on the priesthood, “The Priest Is Not His Own.” Indeed, when a man prostrates himself on the floor of the cathedral and pleads for the intercession of the saints during his ordination, he surrenders his will to God and later rises as a man ordained for the benefit of others. In a converse comparison, we can say that just as a man can feel isolated even when he is around others, a priest is not isolated when he is not around others, because he is with his God and that relationship propels him out to his ministry for others.
The mystery of celibacy, then, is revealed as a gift that God imparts on a man or woman that He has chosen for Himself. Celibacy affords the priest or the religious the freedom to serve God, to be attentive to God, to be an intimate friend of God. St. Paul identified that, “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord…And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit” (I Cor. 7:32; 34). Celibacy is the distinguishing mark of a man radically dedicated to God and totally consecrated to divine service.
God created man for love, whether expressed in the natural vocation of marriage or the supernatural vocation of celibacy. Isolation steals the capacity to love; whereas solitude increases man’s capacity to love God and therefore, to love those whom He loves. In an age of loneliness it might seem strange to look to a celibate man for the remedy, but if more men could protect and seek their times of solitude with God, they would come to realize that isolation is something that comes and goes, but we are never truly alone.