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Loneliness in the Context of Illness and Dying: A Catholic Perspective | by Helen Alvaré, Associate professor at Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law

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Thank you for your kind invitation to this important gathering. At first, I was quite surprised to receive it, as I am not a counselor or a pastoral theologian. I am rather a lawyer, with a lay vocation also to the Catholic Church which led me to study graduate theology for five years, and to move to Washington DC to work with the nation’s Catholic bishops and with the Catholic University of America. Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, Director of the Bioethics Institute for New York Medical College, thought, however, that my reflections might be of use of you due to several experiences of mine over the last few years.

First, while engaged with pro-life work at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles asked me to spend a year in dialogue with post-aborted women, which conversations became about a twice-weekly ritual, often late in the evening. Time after time, I heard stories about the profound loneliness they experienced as they alone had the power to decide to end the life of their developing unborn child. So very often they described the absence of any significant support in their lives, the absence of anyone — least of all usually the father of the child — to support their instinct to keep the child.

Dr. Sulmasy also knew of my experience as an expectant mother when I was informed that my youngest child appeared (in high definition ultrasounds and blood tests) to be exhibiting signs of Downs’ Syndrome. This during a time my family was experiencing a particularly rough patch with a mentally and emotionally disabled member. I was regularly encouraged to consider an abortion.

My reflections will proceed as follows. I will first attempt to describe the sensation of loneliness, the different ways it might make itself felt. After this, I will describe some possible and various ways in which a Catholic might "interpret" these feelings through the prism of faith. Finally, I will outline responses to the sensation of loneliness, from the heart of Catholic Scriptures and tradition.

The sensation of loneliness might be described as feeling disconnected to others, even when they are physically present; feeling too different to bridge the differences, because one’s suffering is great, or one’s perspective is too radically altered by knowledge about illness and death that can’t be shared with those not suffering in exactly the same way. Post-aborted women also described an agonizing experience of see-sawing between closeness to and fantasies about the child, and the certainty that the child must not be allowed to live. A one-step-forward-two-steps-back dance that always had to end with the certainty that certain kinds of happiness were not/could not be available to them. Loneliness was also experienced in the necessity of hiding one’s situation from others. There was also the divide between the woman’s physical and emotional closeness to the child, and the boyfriend’s -— often panicked -- distance. The one who should be your dearest ally at this time — the father — sees you as a threat, as a disease. He is rather relying on the woman to "make everything alright" for the both of them, again. Then after the abortion he nearly always leaves.

Sometimes one experiences loneliness with one’s very senses: hearing oneself speak as if it’s going out to no one and no where; seeing oneself walk to work as if from a bird’s eye view, a lone person in a city teeming with persons with whom one have no connection.

When the anonymous statements to this effect were published as part of a national public service campaign to attract post-aborted women to counseling and reconciliation, 26 times more women called for help after seeing these statements than had sought help in the previous year.

Outside of the abortion context, other descriptions of loneliness in the context of illness and dying are the following. One feels that there does not exist any real human empathy in the world. One begins to wonder, in fact, if he or she has ever noticed others’ suffering before, or has rather been walking this earth blind to other persons as well. One may experience real existential despair of the possibility for human connection and caring. It’s hard to say which is worse in some cases: not receiving consolation, feeling that all are callous; or the insight that perhaps one have never shown real empathy to others.

 For Catholics, these sentiments regarding loneliness may be experienced in light of the Church’s teachings and their grappling with them over a lifetime. One may conclude, for example, that they have been fooling themselves for a whole lifetime into believing they really have faith; the real state of affairs was rather an intellectual grasp of doctrine, but never, as Karl Rahner expresses it, the primal experience of a being who understood oneself as a beloved creation of God. One may know that Jesus expressed a similar emotion on the Cross – "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" – but somehow one doubts that Jesus was quite as far from knowing God as they feel at this moment.

A person may also feel it likely that they will die in this same state.....without ever knowing or experiencing God. They may come to feel like a religious fraud, a "whited sepulcher," in Jesus’ words.

Alternatively, if one still hopes, they may wonder whether, if they simply stopped focusing on themselves, if they lived a more "Mother-Theresa-like" existence, they would have experienced God, made a connection with God in and through the persons they had met. But they fear it is too late for this conversion to the other at this point. 

What resources, what messages does the Roman Catholic faith offer for grappling with such loneliness, and helping others do so? The following categories of responses comprise some of the major possibilities:

1. Part of being human

Christian scriptures themselves reveal that human persons were created to need one another, to be "social." Genesis 2:18 tells us that it is not good for us to be alone. From the very beginning, there is a two-in-oneness to humanity in the creation of the male and the female. When referring to early Christian community, St. Paul tells us that the "eye" (i.e., one part of Christian community) cannot tell "hand," "I do not need you." 1 Cor 12:21.

Even God is "social" in his Trinitarian being. 

Yet it seems that the "wages of sin" separate us from one another and from God. From close to the beginning, it was so, as expressed in the story of the broken loyalty between Adam, Eve and God. St. Augustine sums up this human condition and emotion in his cry that human hearts are restless until they rest in God. St. Thomas Aquinas, speaking to our intellect as well as our emotions, reminds us that what we seek — oneness with God — always exceeds what we can achieve ourselves.

Indeed we feel this transcendent and existential reality in the existence of too little love, peace, or justice in the world. And then of course, there are also the inevitable facts of illness and death.

Catholics, therefore, must expect loneliness at some point, even prepare for it. Our God, when on earth sharing human life, experienced it too. He knows full-blown what it is to suffer, to be completely alone, abandoned by followers. Catholics know by heart Jesus’ pitiful entreaties, repeated at Good Friday services: "Can you not pray one hour with me?" "This very day, Peter, you will deny me three times before the cock crows." Mk 12:37. 14:50; Mt 26:56; Mk 14:54.

2. The Value of Suffering

In the world, suffering has few affirmative connotations. But in Catholic scriptures, God has taken it up and shown how it can be transformed, made the very instrument of our salvation in fact. Thus, there is a strong traditional Catholic practice of "offering up" this suffering for a person or a cause needing prayers. The act of "offering up" has a way of joining us to other suffering people, and is understood to have practical and beneficial emotional and spiritual consequences.

3. God is always there, even if other human beings not appear to be so. He loves us personally.

The most important prayer in Christian life is the "Our Father." Jesus himself handed us the words. It is taught that the precise word used by Jesus, "Abba," connotes something close to the affectionate name "Daddy." In the prayer, the Father is all-powerful, always present, always victorious. An awesome protector. The best possible ally.

I have a close friend from very difficult family circumstances. She knows, because they told her, that her parents aborted her only sibling and tried unsuccessfully to abort her as well. She is now a grandmother and the caretaker to the three children of her disabled daughter. She has said more than once: "I know why God is Father and Mary is Mother. They could have been something else: royalty, rulers, or just transcendent ‘gods.’ But there must be a lot of people like me who don’t have anyone else as father and mother. And we all need parents."

Jesus Christ promised His apostles and their successors that He would be with them until the end of time. As such, we are never really alone, and as the next paragraph indicates, especially when we are in greatest need.

4. Jesus cares for our bodies, not just our souls. He wills our well-being. He triumphed finally over sickness and death for all of us.

During his brief ministry on earth, Jesus makes human friends. When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus cries. Then he raises Lazarus up. Jesus cures many illnesses as well. From lepers, to the woman with a hemorrhage, many are made physically whole again by Jesus, and later, by his Apostles. Jesus tells us further that the healings are a sign of the victory of the kingdom itself. Physical wholeness is a good willed by God. He cares about our bodily sufferings.

At the end of his life on earth, Jesus himself rises from the dead, triumphing over death itself on behalf of all humanity. St. Paul exults: " Death where is thy mystery, where is thy sting?" Following the historical event of the resurrection, death for Catholics must mean not only the limit to the time we have to bring our life to fulfillment, the time we have made the decisive choice for good, but also the vehicle for eternal life, for union with God. Illness and death are not merely the path to separation, but they are the paths to full solidarity with God and one another as well.

5. God is often encountered when one is alone.

In the Scriptures, especially the Gospel of Mark, Jesus goes alone, sometimes "to the desert" to strengthen himself for his public ministry. There, he sometimes literally grapples with demons, and always emerges victorious. Mark 1:35 Luke 5:16. To his Apostles, Jesus urged: Come away and rest in a lonely place. Mark 6:30-31. Many of Christianity’s most revered figures, the saints, did the same. This tradition is still very much alive in the Catholic Church, via the cloistered monks and nuns who meet God, and intercede with God for the world, in their aloneness. The abbot of Mepkin Abby, a Cistercian monastery in South Carolina, told me once how the monks "lay a blanket of prayer" over the world each morning, even before most of us are awake.

Being apart from the world can be saving. The world can misunderstand or even pervert the meaning of illness, suffering and death. In the world, there is a constant din made up of 8 parts advertising and 2 parts self-promotion. Time away from the daily business of buying and selling, working and earning, talking and listening can lead to an encounter with God. In the experience of loneliness brought on by illness and suffering, this is indeed possible.

6. Service

In the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life"), John Paul II referred to the "meaning of life," as service to others, in the model of Jesus Christ. Father John Keating, in his popular book of spiritual reflections, The Kingdom of God is Like, relates the story of a mother whose son was killed by a man who had grown up utterly alone and alienated from his family. He murdered her son for the experience of it. The mother’s grief was overcome by coming to know her son’s killer, by becoming almost a mother to him.

The Catholic tradition is full of stories about transcending the loneliness of the human condition with loving service. For Catholics who find themselves seemingly alone, even with suffering and an imminent death, this, too is a possible path.

[This talk was originally published in The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine and posted online January 12, 2005.]

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

The Question of Suffering, the Response of the Cross | By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Cross–For Us | By Hans Urs von Balthasar
Near Death, Nearer to Jesus: Interview with Fr. Benedict Groeschel

Helen M. Alvaré,
(e-mail) who received her juris doctorate from Cornell University in 1984 and a master's degree in theology from The Catholic University of America in 1989, is an associate professor at Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law. Since 1987 she has worked at the National Conference on Catholic Bishops, first in the Office of General Counsel and later as the director of information and planning for the bishops' pro-life office. Alvaré also spoke for the American Catholic bishops in television, radio, print media and public lectures. Alvaré has testified on behalf of the bishops before federal congressional committees and lobbied members of Congress on federal legislation concerning abortion, health care and welfare reform. Alvaré previously worked as a staff attorney for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and as an associate at Stradley, Ronon, Stevens and Young in Philadelphia.

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