I Live Alone

by a friend and neighbor of Madonna House

For the last twenty-five years I have lived alone in Combermere at what used to be our family cottage, a cottage overlooking a small lake and surrounded by hills.

I did not come to live here out of a desire to be a hermit—a “poustinik,” although at the beginning, I liked to imagine that I did.

I came, I think, to escape from a situation I could not bear any longer: from a sense of having failed in all my important relationships, of having hurt others and having been myself rejected and hurt. In other words, I was running away.

I do not wish to exaggerate my isolation. I have friends in the area, to whom I talk on the phone and sometimes visit. Several times a year, I spend a week or two with my children and grandchildren in Toronto or they come to stay with me here.

I am also blessed to live just a few miles away from Madonna House. The community befriended me nearly fifty years ago, and they still offer me their friendship and support.

Yet, I am most often alone. There are many days, especially in winter, when I do not see another human face.

There are days when I feel lonely and depressed; when my aloneness fills me with terror, when I am convinced it might drive me crazy in the end.

But there are also days, when I am at peace with myself and feel reassured and convinced that I am in the right place and convinced that, whatever my real motives may have been for coming here, in the final analysis, I am still here because God has brought me here.

And, perhaps most importantly, I am also beginning to understand that, had I not stayed, I may have never been able to face my own fear of aloneness and to glimpse its true source.

Aloneness is so frightening to face and come to terms with, because, most often, we identify it with loneliness: the sense of having been left alone—unloved and abandoned.

This kind of fear reflects a fundamental and awesome reality of our human existence: our innate knowledge that we cannot survive in this world alone, in isolation from others. We cannot, however hard we try, be totally independent of others. Without a family, a community, a country, we literally die.

This is why, perhaps, in most societies the most severe punishment short of death, and a form of torture, is solitary confinement.

Aloneness is especially terrifying and dangerous for children. A small child, if lost, abandoned, and left alone is, in fact, sentenced to death. Even if this aloneness is only temporary, the terror such a child experiences may remain imprinted on his or her memory forever.

The possibility of their own child ever being lost or snatched away from them is a horror that haunts the minds of many parents.

Aloneness is also a common and often unavoidable condition of all who are, for any reason, rejected and isolated by others: people with disabilities, foreigners and immigrants, especially those of different color or race.

And, for many of us, it may also be unavoidable in old age. Our children have grown up and have lives of their own. Our spouses, our relatives, and many of our friends are dying or have already died.

We live in our suddenly empty houses, apartments, cottages, or nursing homes, very aware of how alone we have become and of how little we can do to change this situation.

We also realize, more clearly than ever before, that the moment is approaching when we shall have to face and confront aloneness as we have never had to do it before.

We have to face the frightening mystery of our human frailty: our unavoidable dissolution and death. Perhaps soon, perhaps in a few more months or years, we shall have to leave all that is familiar to us, everything we have clung to and relied on, and enter alone into a totally unknown and terrifying dimension of reality.

For, however beloved and befriended we may have been in life, we die, as we were born: alone.

We can be helped and accompanied by others during our last sickness and even in the final moments before death. Our friends can surround us, hold us, pray for us and give us courage, but they cannot do our dying with us. The final mysterious moment of going through the door between life and death—this life and the next—we must face alone.

For even Christ, with his Mother and all his closest friends standing by his cross, felt alone and forsaken at the moment of death. How then could we expect ourselves not to be terrified?

Perhaps this is why the Church traditionally reserved the last sacrament of our lives on earth—the “Last Rites”—for that final, and most difficult, encounter with aloneness.

The sacrament strengthens us and reminds us that in spite of our sense of abandonment and fear, Christ is always in us and with us, waiting for us at the door and cheering us on.

On the other hand, it also reminds us that he will not do our dying for us: we cross the doorway in faith, hope and love, but still, as it were, alone. He will not force us to choose his way.

Thus, in the deepest sense of the word, we are alone from the moment we are born, till the last breath we take, although we might not become aware of it for a long time.

We cannot escape or deny our aloneness, for it is real: it is a part of the human condition, of our dependency on others, our vulnerability to rejection and hurt.

But this is only one aspect, one dimension of aloneness: the cross that all of us must bear.

There is another dimension of aloneness that we do not always realize and reflect on, but that we have all entered the moment we were conceived; the moment when God breathed into us our own individual, self-aware soul.

At that moment we were “lifted up,” separated from the rest of creation, not only by the complexity of our brain, our ability to choose (and therefore also to err) but, above all, by the gift of self-awareness.

We cannot pretend that this does not sometimes seem to us to be a painful and frightening gift. We may see it as an unbearable burden, an overwhelming emptiness at the core of our being.

We cannot always help trying to run away from this emptiness, to fill it with every distraction and noise, to cling to anyone or anything that may help us forget that it is there.

And yet, we cannot really ever forget the gift. We can only pretend that it is not there.

If, on the other hand, we find a way of facing the pain of our aloneness and stop running away from it, it may become for us a source of mental and spiritual maturity and freedom.

It may allow us to glimpse the deepest truth of our being: that our small human aloneness is, as it were, only a shadow of our fundamental and holy aloneness—our emptiness before the infinite fullness of God.

We begin to realize that at the very core, the heart, of our being, there is, and has always been, a secret, empty room—the “room within” about which Christ spoke—an inner desert where God lives and where we can encounter him face to face.

We begin to understand that the “emptiness” that we have feared and struggled to escape from for so long, was really never empty at all. It was, and has always been, the dwelling place of him for whom we searched and longed all our lives: Love itself, Christ the Lord. We have never been, and never can be, truly alone.