A Lonesome Ministry

Loneliness has been on my mind since meeting with a Harvard senior the other day. While reflecting with her back over her time at Harvard, I asked her what some of the biggest challenges of life at Harvard were. She answered that many relationships were simply about the mutual goods that the two parties could offer each other, and so it was hard to find many friends who took a genuine interest in the other person as a person. Some people, she thought, never really found meaningful relationships during their time – though thankfully she had! She saw loneliness as a rampant problem. Though I already knew it was a huge problem, it is always fascinating and a little frightening to hear students speak to the experience of it directly.

When I thought about loneliness, my mind wandered back to an essay of Marilynne Robinson’s that I had read a few weeks back. In that piece she holds forth that old ideal of the American west:lonesomeness.

The peculiarities of my early education are one way in which being from the West has set me apart. A man in Alabama asked me how I felt the West was different from the East and the South, and I replied that in the West “lonesome” is a word with strongly positive connotations.[1]

It strikes me that much about loneliness and lonesomeness is similar. Yet they are exceedingly different. Loneliness is born out of an inability to connect with others. Sometimes that inability is due to our own bad habits of relating; sometimes it stems from a situation that is completely foreign and inscrutable. Hence, one can be lonely in the middle of a crowd or in a bustling metropolis or on the top-ranking college campus. Cities and college campuses might just be some of the loneliest places in the world.

Lonesomeness, by contrast, is a pursuit. It is a purposeful exile – in order to find something, learn something, or even to clear one’s head. Perhaps there’s something temperamental about it. (My wife is a verbal processor, but I need time to my thoughts to come to a conclusion.) Perhaps it is the critical distance we gain from standing outside of a situation for a while. Perhaps it is simply the time and the quiet that give us room to think – room to think Robert Frost’s “long, long thoughts of youth.”[2] I, for one, wish I had more lonesomeness in my life.


Perhaps there’s something to be learned here about a healthy spiritual life. Loneliness is spiritually deadening. The Christian faith – like most human action – thrives in community, and all the more because the Spirit – the Lord and Giver of Life – is active in it. And yet the church is often noise, busy, and unreflective. My own work in college ministry is better off for the clarity I gain when I have time away from students and weekly schedule. It is a luxury of my job, I know. I wish more Christians could pursue lonesome time, especially pastors.

[1] Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 88.

[2] Robert Frost, “The Later Minstrel” in Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays (New York: Library Classics of the United States, 1995), 511.