The autumn and winter months are often solitary for many people around the world. Many of us feel depressed when the leaves start to turn colors or when the first snows fall. It is a well known fact that many people commit suicide over the course of the winter holidays and family stress is also a major factor for some people’s holiday celebrations. Yet loneliness is not a feeling that need be restricted only to us, but many saints have felt profound loneliness even when surrouded by their friends and family.
One of the examples of loneliness that I often think about is St. Francis de Sales. Long before he became bishop of Geneva, St. Francis worked as a priest in an isolated part of France. Essentially, he was responsible for several parishes in a predominantly Protestant area. For the first couple of years, one of his cousins helped him in his apostolic endeavors, but the cousin didn’t last long in the mission fields. Eventually, St. Francis was left by himself to do work that it would have taken ten other priests to do. Throughout this period, St. Francis continued doing what he had always done: he preached, he wrote, and he converted people. Indeed, many of his contemporaries were astounded by the work that he had done during those early years of his apostolate despite the fact that he was working alone.
Another example of loneliness that I can think of is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Last year, there was a big furor when a book was published that talked about her dark night of the soul. Indeed, Mother Teresa’s feelings of abandonment were so profound that she even questioned God’s existence. Yet we must realize that what Mother Teresa experienced was a dark night of the soul. It is a period that is given to many different souls when God takes away His sensible presence from them. Indeed, it is a profound mystery to those of us that do not experience it. Yet for Mother Teresa, it was probably pure torture to be deprived of the One that she loved above all others, the One that she served her entire life. Many people have said that this interior martyrdom lasted for some thirty years. This makes her example even more heroic.
A final example comes from the life of St. Anthony the Great, a hermit living in fourth century Egypt. Shortly after deciding to dedicate his life to God, St. Anthony went to live in a cave near the town where he was born. Except for bread that was brought to him by a friend, St. Anthony was completely alone living as a hermit. During this period, the devil often visited him in many different guises. Sometimes, the devil would appear and tempt St. Anthony as a woman. At other times, he would assume the visage of a wild animal. But the devil became so angry at St. Anthony’s resistance that he finally beat him and dragged him through the floor until St. Anthony made the Sign of the Cross. At that the devil disappeared and Our Lord appeared to St. Anthony.
It was then that St. Anthony asked Our Lord a question that some of us may want to ask God when we feel that He has left us alone, “Lord, where were you?”
God answered St. Anthony and told him, “I was here and I wanted to see if you could do fight this battle without my sensible help.”
If nothing else, we should learn that our loneliness and our depression are gifts that have been given to us by God. rWe need to learn to bear these crosses joyfully and to understand that they are indeed temporary. Perhaps, we do not realize this now, but God knows and understands. Indeed, our rewards for bearing our burdens will be great in the life to come.
Let us pray to God that He grant us the grace to carry our crosses joyfully and to always be mindful of His presence.