[This first section contains only very minor spoilers for Moon Knight, I’ll warn when we move to the spoiler-heavy section!]
The recent “Moon Knight” Marvel television series begins with an excerpt from the song “A Man Without Love” by Engelbert Humperdinck. It fittingly takes a moment to play the first part that references “Moonlight,” and then jumps to the chorus as the main character awakens: “Every day I wake up, then I start to break up. Lonely is a man without love.”
I thought it was fitting to write a short reflection on this theme as we celebrate Trinity Sunday! The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God in three Persons, and we are created in the image and likeness of this triune God. God, therefore, is a communion of Persons, which points to the fact that we are created for communion with God and for community. Loneliness seems to be an inverse illustration of this truth, as its painfulness highlights that something essential is lacking. The amount of fellowship desired may vary by personality, but faith and practice show that at our root we are social creatures. On this point, I first want to spend a little time exploring the concept of loneliness (including in the context of marriage/celibacy), and then briefly apply these concepts to the plot of Moon Knight.
Interestingly enough, the above-mentioned song doesn’t describe loneliness as the mere absence of people. It says, “Lonely is a man without love.” The presence of others can in fact heighten the experience of loneliness if a person doesn’t feel a sense of love or connection. A person may feel alone at a party, in class, or at work – despite the presence of many people around them. A lack of authentic community in many cases can be what pushes a person to seek out unhealthy sources of connection/coping (e.g., toxic people, selfishness, addiction).
On the other hand, a person that has a sense of love may be able to endure physical separation from others as a peaceful solitude instead of painful isolation. Silence forms a space for reflection and rest rather than a reason for fear and escape.
Often I encounter the assumption that celibacy (i.e., not marrying to embrace a religious vocation) necessarily leads to loneliness. However, as mentioned above, I think this is a misunderstanding of the cause of loneliness. This is not to say that loneliness never enters in or that it doesn’t present challenges in some ways. Yet, marriage is not an automatic way to avoid loneliness either. At times married couples experience a break down in relationship such that they feel as if they are strangers living in the same building. They may glide along on the natural proximity of life or on physical intimacy without developing a more profound bond. Circumstances may change, and their foundations seem to fall away.
Therefore, in whatever state of life – married, single, celibate – relationship proves to be something that must be actively fostered rather than something to be taken for granted and assumed to naturally develop. CS Lewis gives a helpful articulation of four types of love – family, friendship, romantic, and spiritual. Each of these has its unique forms of expression, but each is a pathway to the community for which we were made. Divine love (Lewis uses the word “agape”) provides a foundation that gives a basis to deepen and support the other relationships in our life.
Celibacy does involve the sacrifice of a particular type of closeness and intimacy. However, it does not mean the loss of profound relationships. From my own experience I can testify that it is a path to joy and meaning. Something is set aside, but something is also gained. There is a freedom to delve into the spiritual life and to connect with families/friends across a broad range that isn’t possible with the particular commitment of marriage. There is a capacity for solidarity with the struggles of those who for whatever reason never married or are widows/widowers, and a chance for additional service to others. Celibacy and marriage are complementary vocations rather than in competition. Marriage reminds us of the call to love, and celibacy shows that this love must move beyond merely the physical in order to grow and be sustained. If each vocation offers a challenge, they also offer opportunities to live our calling to divine love.
[Spoiler warning! This is where my comments switch back to Moon Knight. This will spoil major plot points of the show]
It’s no accident that Moon Knight begins by invoking the concept of loneliness. The show explores the impact of this in many different ways.
The first striking realization is that the main character is dealing with some sort of split-personality syndrome. What is driving this? Ultimately it is revealed that the situation developed out of a breakdown in family life. The main character was accidentally responsible for the death of his brother, and this caused his mother to effectively reject him. The split in personality developed to deal with the pain of losing this love. There is an interesting parallel with the Trinity here as you see the same dynamic of multiple persons, but it is one that grows out of trauma. It is connection outside of the self that can bring healing.
A second aspect of the main character is that he has undertaken service to the spirit of Khonshu, an Egyptian deity bent on punishing evildoers (reminder, this is a show based on a comic book!). At first this seems noble, but later it proves to be toxic in its own way. Khonshu is manipulative of him, and able to prey on the character’s wounds and guilt to get him to do what he wants. When someone makes an idol of a relationship (here this happens both literally and figuratively!) then they open the way to disillusionment, addiction, use, or abuse.
Last, we learn that one of the split personalities has married. In the course of the show the wife realizes how much has been hidden from her and how little she really knows her husband. The bond helps alleviate the main character’s pain in some way, but is not a healthy relationship and needs healing as well.
I won’t reveal the ending of the series or to what extent these tensions are resolved. They highlight something important, though, and I hope these reflections may be helpful in pondering this aspect of the human condition. When we experience the pain of loneliness we are tempted to run away in the quickest way possible, often in unhealthy ways. Yet, love grows to maturity by letting the grace of God, family, friends, or a spouse sustain us in the moments that we struggle. St Augustine wrote, “[God], you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This restlessness/loneliness is an invitation to develop connections, deepen bonds, and seek more established foundations to our life. Those who have experienced the fruits of this process can make the words of the steward at the wedding feast of Cana their own: “You have saved the good wine until now” (John 2:10).