Embracing Loneliness

Brennan Manning said this about Rich Mullins:

There’s a scene in Thornton Wilder’s play “The Angel that Troubled the Waters” which to me really captures the essence of the life and the spirituality of Rich Mullins.

The scene is a doctor comes to the pool everyday wanting to be healed of his melancholy and his gloom and his sadness. Finally the angel appears. The doctor, he’s a medical doctor, goes to step into the water. The angel blocks his entrance and says, “No, step back, the healing is not for you.” The doctor pleads, “But I’ve got to get into the water. I can’t live this way.” The angel says, “No, this moment is not for you.” And he says, “But how can I live this way?”

The angel says to him, “Doctor, without your wounds where would your power be? It is your melancholy that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men and women. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children of this earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In love’s service, only wounded soldiers can serve.”

And to me the theme of that story is the theme to Rich Mullins’ life. All grace, all light, all truth, all power are communicated though the vulnerability, the brokenness, the utter honesty of men and women who have been shipwrecked, heartbroken, broken on the wheels of living. In love’s service, only wounded soldiers can serve.

A friend of Rich’s said this:

Almost all of his pain revolved around his immense loneliness and his need to feel loved. As much as we loved him, we could never fill that void. I learned from him that there is within us all, if we have the guts to admit it, a terrible void created by our loneliness for God that can never be fully satisfied in this life.

Rich himself said this:

I think that part of being human is being alone. And being lonely. I think one of the stresses on a lot of our friendships is that we require the people we love to take away that loneliness. And they really can’t. And so, when we still feel lonely, even in the company of people we love, we become angry with them because they don’t do what we think they’re supposed to. Which is really something they can’t do for us.

These quotes and ideas have been rolling around in my head for the last few days. Anyone who’s been following along knows that the last couple of weeks haven’t been exactly peachy. Discomfort has been pretty commonplace. When I’m honest, most of that discomfort takes the form of loneliness for me.

It was the Mullins quote in my last post on the pain of being loved by God that sent me looking for other thoughts of his on the discipline of pursuing God through the pain. I remembered Lewis’s statement that “If you find yourself with a desire that no experience in this world can satisfy, then the most probable explanation is that you were made for another world.” I remembered comments by those close to both Manning and Henri Nouwen that spoke of their struggles with feeling deep loneliness.

I found this Nouwen quote:

The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief… The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.

I think one of the big things that’s dying a slow and painful (and noisy) death in me through the process in which I find myself is the idea that I’m going to find ultimate fulfillment on this side of heaven. I won’t. I just won’t.

I have that experience. I think I feel the loneliness my heroes talked about. Not that I’ve even remotely gotten to Lewisian/Nouwenian/Mullinsian levels, but I feel that emptiness. I think that it’s human nature, but mine in particular, to try to fill those unfillable holes with something … with anything, really. Sex, money, intimacy, friendships, drugs, alcohol, ministry, even ideas about God … all of them are things we try to shove into that tiny abyss that will always cry out for more because it is not shaped to be fillable by anything but Jesus, and that in glory eternal.

So, in the meantime there’s always this part of my heart that will cry out for filling. It’s not going to go away, and it’s not going to be satisfied. It’s not that I should ignore it, set it aside and just wait for heaven. I think in a very real way, this is what it means to be made in God’s image.

This is a deep need that I am called to share with others. I guess I believe that what we’re really called to do in each other’s lives is to break off pieces of God’s provision for us and drop them into the needfulness in our brother’s hearts. It will never fill it. But we’re called to the futile endeavor anyway.

At the same time, I am beginning to understand how ridiculous, unfair, and cruel it would be to both members of a friendship to ever think of the other as capable of meeting that need. In a very real sense, it’s not even fair of me to think my “through a glass darkly” relationship with Jesus will meet that need.

I don’t wanna be that guy that says that unless yer suffering, it’s not Jesus. But, well … there’s part of this that I think will always hurt … until I finally feel His physical arms enfold me in a embrace that will never end. I think that’s supposed to be the only thing that will stop the hurt.

I think that letting yourself acknowledge and feel that loneliness and pain might be one of the purest forms of worship.

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