Conservative columnist George Will is famous for combining dry wit with a “get off my lawn” libertarianism. It was thus somewhat out of character when he penned a 2018 column addressing not government overreach or fiscal irresponsibility, but loneliness. Will writes,

Loneliness in “epidemic proportions” is producing a “loneliness literature” of sociological and medical findings about the effects of loneliness on brains and bodies, and on communities […] [T]here is a growing consensus that loneliness — not obesity, cancer or heart disease — is the nation’s “number one health crisis” […] Research indicates that loneliness is as physically dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and contributes to cognitive decline, including a more rapid advance of Alzheimer’s disease.

Whatever the culprit may be — Will points to automation disrupting traditional jobs along with the communities built around them, and to ubiquitous digital addiction — the solution isn’t straightforward. Ever the libertarian, Will sniffs at the prospect of the government doing much good, but he admits that it’s not clear what can help us recreate the communities so necessary to our well-being.

One such bulwark against loneliness — and one that is slowly becoming available again in the midst of our very literal epidemic — is church. Foundational to the Christian faith is the idea that believers are all bound together in Christ even if they have nothing else in common. In the oldest New Testament document, 1 Thessalonians, Paul uses familial language to welcome new believers now finding themselves snubbed by their former communities. The church’s oldest creed speaks of the “communion of the saints,” the mystical bond uniting all Christians, living and dead, throughout all time.

On a more practical note, there’s also good empirical evidence that going to church helps with loneliness, particularly later in life. Moreover, over the last couple of decades, congregations have especially emphasized building a sense of community. There are ministries aimed at particular demographics (men, women, singles, etc.), and a lot of churches have ditched traditional Sunday evening services in favor of less formal weekday community groups.

But even the most rigorous of church attenders are not immune from loneliness. Church relationships, like any other kind, can fade or fracture. And there is simply no guarantee that going to church will form deep connections. It’s nearly clichéd to point out that church environments are not always conducive to talking about what’s really going on in your life.

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For all of its emphasis on the communion of the saints, Christianity has also long recognized the value of solitude, i.e., self-imposed isolation. Beginning in the third century, the desert fathers and mothers sought Christ and fought demons in Middle Eastern wildernesses. Eastern forms of Christianity have traditionally placed a high value on the vocation of the hermit, solitary individuals whose very isolation makes it possible for them to advance far into the divine mysteries (and to hang out with bears). Even western Christianity has featured numerous voices extolling the virtues of solitude. In his devotional classic The Imitation of Christ, the 15th-century monk Thomas à Kempis urges his fellow monastics to avoid too much contact with others:

Very many great saints avoided the company of men wherever possible and chose to serve God in retirement. “As often as I have been among men,” said one writer, “I have returned less a man.” […] Anyone, then, who aims to live the inner and spiritual life must go apart, with Jesus, from the crowd […] For God and His holy angels will draw near to him who withdraws from friends and acquaintances.

To be sure, voluntary solitude of this sort is an extraordinary calling, but stretches of the involuntary kind are ordinary enough. Much of what Thomas (and others) have written about using isolation to deepen one’s relationship with God still applies, and may be particularly helpful for us modern who are, as George Will notes, “hyperconnected yet disconnected.”

I’d like to submit that isolation (and the attendant feelings of loneliness) can also be pretty good preparation for life in the communion of the saints. In his letter to the Philippian church, Paul lays out his ideal for how believers are to interact with each other: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (2:3-4).

I’m going to go out on a limb and claim that this is impossible for human beings unless their own “interests” are first taken care of. If our deepest needs — being known, valued, loved — aren’t being consciously met in Christ, we’re going to look to have them met by other people in the community. Inevitably, our mindset is going to be some form of “What can I get out of this?” Deep relationships can’t survive that mindset over the long-haul; there will always be stretches, sometimes lengthy, in which the answer to that question is “Not a whole lot.” People, including church people, are sick, stressed out, and/or frankly selfish. Church relationships thus survive the same way that marriages do: a blend of realistic expectations and a willingness to serve without being served in return. Fortunately for us Christians, we have communion with the One who has mastered that way of being (Mk 10:45). Loneliness, if it invites or forces us to deepen our bond with Christ, thereby prepares us for better relationships.

But, a perceptive reader might ask, don’t we experience Christ in the communion of the saints? Isn’t he present when we are gathered together in his name? Yes and amen. At the same time, we experience Christ in community most fully when we’re pouring out ourselves for others. Perhaps no one has ever put this truth better than Kierkegaard:

The self-lover is busy; he shouts and complains and insists on his rights in order to make sure he is not forgotten, yet he is forgotten. But the lover, who forgets himself, is remembered by love. There is one who thinks of him, and in this way it comes about that the lover gets what he gives.

For most of us, though, we can only give what we get. Our time in the wilderness with Christ is thus what enables us to live well (and for long stretches of time) in the community of his people. The loneliness that lasts a season defends us from the kind of loneliness rocking our society.


Image credits: “lonely” by bruce.aldridge, Creative Commons license; “The Lonely Vacuum of Space,” by JD Hancock.