Loneliness, part 3: Pope John Paul II and ‘Original Solitude’

Filed in Relationships by on October 24, 2014 3 Comments


The early chapters of Pope John Paul II’s theological project, The Theology of the Body, develop a philosophical anthropology based on a close reading of the Genesis creation stories. John Paul II contends that the story of Adam and Eve illustrates how “the meaning of original solitude enters and becomes part of the meaning of original unity.”

What does John Paul II mean by “original solitude”? The two creation stories exhibit different theological emphases and these, he believes, offer us insights that can contribute to a more complete and convincing anthropology.

In the first account, man is created as male and female. In a single act of creation, God creates human beings with differentiated sexes in order that they may immediately complement and relate to each other. “God created man in his own image…male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27.

In the second account, “man is alone,” a detail that strikes John Paul II as significant. He notes that the Hebrew word used for “man” in this account is “Adam” which translates as “human being” and not as a “male human being”. So, the aloneness that God identifies with man is an existential loneliness that applies to all human beings. The primordial fact is that Man was created, in the first instance, to be poignantly alone. John Paul II writes:

This appears as a fundamental anthropological problem, prior, in a certain sense, to the one raised by the fact that this man is male and female. This problem is prior not so much in the chronological sense, as in the existential sense. It is prior “by its very nature.

Thus, loneliness is one of the fundamental structures of human consciousness, providing a hermeneutical tool for a more accurate description of the human person. According to John Paul II, this fact becomes clear in the first test that God presents to Man: the naming of the animals. When God is aware that Man is alone, he “formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them.”

However, it is in the very process of cataloguing other species, that man comes to a heightened awareness of his distinction from them and, through the use of his superior powers of intellect and language, of how he stands apart and alone before the natural world. “Adam now knows what it means to be human and what it means to be different from all the other creatures,” writes John Paul II and this moment of self-realisation confirms that:

Right from the first moment of his existence, created man finds himself before God as if in search of his own entity. It could be said he is in search of the definition of himself. A contemporary person would say he in search of his own identity.

Man finds himself alone before God aiming to express, through a first definition, his own self-knowledge, as the original and fundamental manifestation of mankind.

Man’s self-knowledge depends, in large part, on a profound awareness of his being alone, that he is one of a kind before nature. Alone among all creatures, man possesses this kind of knowledge. In his essay, God’s Lonely Man, Thomas Wolfe, finds a literary key with which to express this existential insight:

The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people…not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul…we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.

John Paul II believes that the self-awareness of his loneliness marks the completion of the creation of man in the second Genesis account. God putting Adam to sleep occurs, John Paul II speculates, “in order that the solitary “man” may by God’s initiative re-emerge from that moment in his double unity or as male and female.” Without man’s sense of being alone and understanding of himself, the possibility of spousal unity would have been frustrated. Without understanding himself as a human being distinct from all other living things, he would have been incapable of entering into a spousal relationship with another.

Priests are not immune to this existential reality. In fact, by sacrificing the spousal union that most men and women enjoy in marriage, priests are confronted by the full force of this “original solitude”.

[For Part 1 of this series, click here]

[For Part 2, click here]

[For Part 4, click here]

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Fr Martin Boland

About the Author ()

Fr Martin Boland is a priest in the Diocese of Brentwood. He is currently Dean of Brentwood Cathedral. Some of his articles here were first posted on his personal blog The Invisible Province. They are used with permission. See: http://theinvisibleprovince.blogspot.co.uk/

Comments (3)

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  1. mags says:

    God began by making Heaven and earth ~ and thus all things were brought into being not alone but in absolute relation and unity to something other.

    “Let us make mankind in our image, to be like us.” ~ us ~ mankind ~ us ~ in this oldest account He created them. Never singular ~ Never lone.

    It is true from the very beginnings that our aloneness was absolutely first and foremost born of relationship. There may well be an existential aloneness, but firstly and deeper still this aloneness only comes into being from a beginning of unity.

    Just as a lone child can be born but only ever from another, thus rendering any aloneness a togetherness. Just as twins can be born, never alone, but with their own aloneness ~ One of Union.

  2. Mary says:

    It is possible that our conceptualization of love is in need of expansion, or at the least of having more light shed upon it.

    Our conception of love posits sacrifice and self sacrifice as higher than any other aspect of love. Working with this conception, the Priest is the lonely sacrifice. He must essentially be alone, save for, if he is fortunate, close friendships with other men.

    This is however an exclusive conception of love which silences other equally important dimensions of love and without which, sacrifice to loneliness is all too often hollow, and all too often, thought also hidden and silenced, something which leads to falling short of promises to remain strung out alone.

    A crucial aspect of love is emotional maturity. Without it there is little (I stress little not, no) hope of truly understood compassion and mercy. Aloneness and exclusively same sex meaningful relationships is a very unlikely crucible for the formation of emotional maturity. It is something more likely to emerge in relation to otherness. The family ideally begins this formation when we are young but intimate adult relationships, ideally marriage between a man and a woman is the true crucible for bringing about emotional maturity. Particularly (but not necessarily only) if children are the result.

    Emotional maturity is the ground, root, source, of mercy and self sacrifice.

    Without it, without adequately sanctioning its formation, the imposition of self sacrifice, looks like human cruelty, on many fronts, not just to the Priest. The crucial formation towards self sacrifice has been left out.

    God, the original crucible of creation contains male and female. Two that is One.

  3. P Edward Murray says:


    At least most priests do live with others…

    What about folks who are not in the religious orders?

    I am frequently reminded of that old Catholic Hymn that says in part: “…or else I pray that loneliness is gone when I awake….”

    Half of our Adult population here in The United States is Single and that includes those Religious..Priests , Nuns, Brothers.

    But at least they get to live with others…

    What about the rest of us who are alone because we are widows, widowers or have just moved or are away from our families or don’t have too much family or those of us who are older and who never married because God, for some reason, chose for us not to marry?

    Our Church really doesn’t talk about us or our needs until we get old enough to be Seniors….

    Father, I will keep you in my prayers!

    Good luck and God Bless!

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