“Don’t you ever feel lonely?” she asks. “No way, I’m not lonely!” the priest responds. Any man would probably say that. A guy who publicly complains about being lonely comes across as a loner. “But how can that be when you never get married? Never come home to a hug? Always prepare dinner alone? Etc., etc…,” she and the rest of the non-priest world would probably like to ask. The Catholic Church’s Year of the Priest came to a close on June 11th, a year in which priests were certainly not left alone. Still, the abuses committed by a few priests may have left some wondering if all priests are abandoned individuals who spend most of the day feeling lonely and friendless.
Before passing judgment it is necessary to ask if feeling alone is all bad. Michelangelo probably felt alone while he spent 4 years on high scaffolding painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Beethoven most likely felt lonely when he holed up in his rented rooms and banged the 5Th symphony out of a legless piano. Some great works can only be built in an apparent solitude, when no one is around and no one is looking. Then, you will experience what no one else could possibly see, hear or touch. Loneliness is not the purpose of solitude, but sometimes it is the price you have to pay to reap such fruits.
In his recent book Be Thou My Vision, Bishop David Ricken writes, “A priest’s solitude is one that he does not inhabit alone.” Solitude is not something to be feared. Only in solitude will the priest begin to build his masterpiece. He does not compose a symphony that will echo in Carnegie Hall or paint an image of God creating and Adam that will find its way into every art book. The masterpiece of the priest is the relationship he builds with God himself. He will come to feel God’s hand, hear his voice, but only when there is no other to console or comfort him. The British writer Walter Landor called solitude “the audience chamber of God.” There are some things that God only says when the music has stopped, when the guests have gone, and you are just with you. Then, the real relationship begins.
That is not to say that the priest’s solitude is isolation. In his ministry he probably builds more friendships than the average socialite. He comes to know the truth of the world better than the worldly. Often, a man of the cloth is not lacking company and the record breaking June 11th gathering of 15,000 priests at St. Peter’s square reminded us that they also have each other. What makes his solitude different is that the one relationship which everyone lives and dies for—that exclusive relationship of “I am for you” and “You are for me”—often appears invisible, untouchable. Its most elegant outward appearance will be simply bread and wine. God, the priest’s only exclusive love, remains hidden. God is not unveiled on ordination day like some mysterious bride but always remains somewhat a mystery until eternity begins.
This masterpiece relationship with God is hard to believe and few come close to doing so. Can God alone really make us happy? Like the Last Judgment frescoes or the 5th symphony, no one really thinks it possible until it is actually done. A man suffering from a painful separation with his wife drives to a seminary where he spends two months praying with seminarians and doing pro bono carpentry. He walks out of a spiritual moment one day and says, “I hope my wife and I can get back together, and things will be different if we do, because now I have met God; but even if we don’t come together I can bear the pain because I’ll still know God.” God became a lesson he learned from Christ, in solitude, and through the witness of the priesthood. Many people can preach that Jesus is your friend, but no one better than a priest can show you that Jesus can become as close to you as your spouse. No one better than a priest can prove that there is someone exclusively “just for you” when you are just with you. The square white collar says without hesitation—“I’ve come alone, and yet, Someone is with me.”
That invisible Someone in the priest’s life brings to light the difference between feeling alone and being alone. Everyone feels alone at some point in life, but no one actually is alone. God is always there. But sometimes it takes the happy, enthusiastic solitude of a priest or some other person dedicated completely to God to convince us of that.
The French poet Bruyére once wrote, “All mischief comes from our not being able to be alone; hence play, luxury, dissipation, wine, ignorance, calumny, envy, forgetfulness of one’s self and of God.” If there is any truth in that then it is no less true that the most brilliant and beautiful masterpiece of our lives will begin in a moment when we find ourselves alone—with God. Whether you are a priest or not, maybe that would be a good response the next time someone asks you if you are lonely.
John Antonio, LC studies for the priesthood in New York.