In the spiritual life we have to make a distinction between two kinds of loneliness. In the first loneliness, we are out of touch with God and experience ourselves as anxiously looking for someone or something that can give us a sense of belonging, intimacy, and home. The second loneliness comes from an intimacy with God that is deeper and greater than our feelings and thoughts can capture.
We might think of these two kinds of loneliness as two forms of blindness. The first blindness comes from the absence of light, the second from too much light. The first loneliness we must try to outgrow with faith and hope. The second we must be willing to embrace in love.
Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
This really is my own experience. Yesterday I was writing about silence, but found I had to say, "Silence and solitude are almost the one word to me..." I went on to speak of how I had grown up to love solitude, and to be more deeply at home alone than I ever have been in company, at least until very recently.
As I have spent more and more time alone over the last year or so, people have sometimes asked if I don't get lonely. I've usually replied that I don't really know the meaning of lonely, for myself, anyway. But Nouwen here points to something that is palpable, as real as the presence of another human being, and as individual. If it's loneliness - and loneliness is a kind of sorrow, as most dictionaries define it - then it's a very sweet sorrow, wildly different from the common or garden variety. I'd admit to this kind of loneliness, if that's even the right word for it.
Perhaps this special sort of loneliness is really a sense not of the absence of human company, but of the palpable presence of God. He's not absent, of course, when we are with other people - how could he be? - but we are less able to sense his presence when our attention is taken up with someone else. To revert to the image of silence for a moment, God's voice is still, and small, and easily drowned by other voices. Interestingly, the NRSV translates the phrase in 1 Kings 19:12 as "the sound of sheer silence."