Therese of Lisieux was much photographed. Her sister, Celine, loved using a camera and took lots of photos of Therese. Many of these survive. And there’s an interesting element in them, as Ruth Burrows once observed: In all her photographs, Therese is always alone, somehow by herself, even in a group shot. There’s a quality of loneliness about her in virtually every picture, no matter how many others are in the photo.

This is curious because Therese was a friendly person, had good social skills, was very attractive, and in many of these photos is pictured standing with family members whom she loved deeply. Yet there’s always a loneliness, an aloneness, that’s evident. But her loneliness there radiates a particular quality: It’s not the pain of someone at odds with family and community, but rather a moral loneliness. What is this?

It’s something that Jesus suffered from. How so?

Looking at the passion narratives, we see that what the evangelists emphasize in the suffering and death of Jesus are never his physical suffering. These sufferings must have been horrific, yet the gospels never dwell on them. Mark’s gospel, for example, puts all Jesus’ physical suffering into a single phrase: “And they led him away and crucified him.” What the gospels do emphasize is Jesus’ emotional suffering, particularly his aloneness. Again and again, they point out how, in his hardest hour, he was stood alone, abandoned, betrayed, against the mob, misunderstood, unable to make his truth visible, humiliated, unanimity-minus-one.

This is also a clear motif in the way his sufferings in Gethsemane are described. Luke tells us he “sweated blood” there. But key to understanding his agony in the garden is the fact itself that his suffering there took place in a garden. Archetypally, as we know, gardens are not places for growing vegetables, but places of delight, lover’s delight, Adam and Eve naked in the garden of Eden. A garden is where lovers meet. The Jesus who sweats blood in the garden of Gethsemane is not Christ the teacher, the magus, the healer, or the miracle-worker. In the garden, it’s Christ, the lover, who sweats blood – and it’s to a garden where he calls us to meet him in intimacy.

In both Gethsemane and on the road to Calvary, the gospels emphasize Jesus’ emotional suffering, not the scourging, the nails, the blood. What’s emphasized is that in his most trying time, Jesus was very much alone. In his bitterest hours, Jesus suffered from what might best be described as moral loneliness.

What’s moral loneliness?

The term, I think, should be credited to Robert Coles, who first used it to describe Simone Weil. What it suggests is that inside each of us there’s a place, a deep centre, where all that’s tender, sacred, cherished, and precious is kept and guarded. It’s here, in that deep centre, where we’re most sincere, are still innocent, and where we unconsciously remember that once, before birth, we were caressed by hands gentler than our own. Here we remember the primordial kiss of God. It’s also in this place, more than any other, that we fear lies, harshness, disrespect, being shamed, ridiculed, or violated. We’re most vulnerable there, so we’re scrupulously careful as to whom we admit into this space, our moral centre, even as our deepest longing is precisely for someone to share that place with us. More than we need someone to sleep with sexually, we need someone to sleep with morally. We need a soulmate.

But these aren’t easy to find. It’s rare to have a perfect moral partner, even inside of a good marriage or friendship. We achieve moral consummation more easily in fantasy than in real life. Because of this, especially as more of the tensions of life descend on us, we perennially face a double temptation: Resolve the tension by giving into various compensations which, while not the answer, get us through the night; or, perhaps worse still, give into bitterness, anger, and cynicism, and in this way drop our ideals because it’s too painful to live with them. Either way we sell ourselves short and settle for second-best.

What’s to be learned from Jesus’ example in his struggle with moral loneliness? The gospels emphasize that he was bitterly alone in his pain, but that he refused to use either the road of compensatory escape or of soul-hardening cynicism. He stayed and carried the tension to term. Not easy, but that’s the gospel route.

Our own moral loneliness can be tyrannical in the pressures it puts on us. But that’s not a license or invitation to begin jettisoning commitments, responsibilities, morals, and whatever else it takes, to try to find that one-in-a-million romance, that perfect soulmate, who can complete us. What Jesus (and people like Therese of Lisieux and Simone Weil) model is how to carry tension correctly, how to carry solitude at a high level, and how to resist, no matter the pain, calling second-best by any other name than second-best.