The prodigal son parable is a parable about loneliness. This may sound strange since it is usually considered a parable of mercy. However, the two concepts are often linked. Loneliness is a desire for connection, for love and mercy. For this reason, a prisoner or an exile is often seen to be both lonely and in desperate need of mercy.
Two Kinds of Loneliness
There are two kinds of loneliness described in this parable. The first is the loneliness experienced when a soul seeks happiness in the world. This kind of loneliness can lead back to the Father. It can enkindle a longing for the spiritual food which is offered by living in the father’s presence.
The second type of loneliness comes from doing God’s will but feeling a longing for worldly connections. The older, obedient son feels that he has done all he should do, but yet has never experienced the companionship he needs with his friends and father. That aside, this loneliness is also a sign of how, even while doing God’s will and living in His house, a person may feel far from God since God has the prerogative of making himself felt. We can do the things necessary to feel the peace of God, but we cannot actually give ourselves this peace. It is a gift.
I’ve experienced both kinds: the loneliness of finding myself far from God through sin and the more subtle type of loneliness that results from serving God with a divided or bitter heart, a heart that really wants to fill itself with something other than the Father. Sometimes these types of loneliness seem to coincide. I can be straying from God even as I appear to be serving him.
Sin and Loneliness
The other day scrolling through Facebook, feeling lonely, I saw an ad for online counseling which mentioned the word lonely. I often feel guilty for feeling lonely, as if it were something I should have fixed. It’s tempting to think if only I were married I wouldn’t be lonely. From what I hear, loneliness is part of everyone’s life. Even the saints have written about intense dryness and a feeling of being distant from God. Loneliness is not a weakness but rather something quintessentially human. It is quintessentially human because we are quintessentially separated from God.
Perhaps we’ll never get over the phenomenon of celebrities with yachts and beach houses going into rehab for drug addictions. It just seems that if anyone would be happy it would be the rich and famous. So the prodigal son might have looked anything but lonely as he squandered his inheritance. It’s an irony that the more happy the pictures I feel compelled to post, often the lonelier I feel. It’s a deeper irony that the peace I want is often something I’ve turned my back on like the prodigal son. Josemarie Escriva puts it this way in The Way:
“When you have sought the company of a sensual satisfaction, what loneliness afterward!” (point 136)
There is a connection between sin–especially indulgence–and loneliness. Rather than admitting this, we are faced with the temptation to simply cover up our loneliness with more indulgence.
Loneliness and sonship
What does this all mean? I think it means that loneliness is really a call from God. It’s a slight experience of just how far each and every soul is from God in this valley of tears. It’s also a sign of how much we need the Father and his Mercy. It appears hateful because it often comes with a calamity: the loss of a loved one, the loss of our health or freedom, the loss of a job, etc. Again, Escriva describes this in The Way:
“After losing those human consolations you have been left with a feeling of loneliness, as if you were hanging by a thin thread over the emptiness of a black abyss. And your cries, your shouts for help, seem to go unheard by anybody. The truth is you deserve to be so forlorn. Be humble; don’t seek yourself; don’t seek your own satisfaction. Love the cross—to bear it is little—and our Lord will hear your prayer. And in time, calm will be restored to your senses. And your heart will heal, and you will have peace” (point 726)
If loneliness is a sharing in the cross, it must naturally be a sharing in the sonship of Christ and through this sonship the mercy of the Father. Yet tragically many will go on experiencing this loneliness because they lack the humility to embrace the cross before them and to accept their neediness. They cannot imagine returning to a father they both fear and hate. I strive to see my loneliness as the grace that can bring me back to the Father.