Loneliness is a killer disease. Loneliness is never desirable. Many people experience loneliness even whilst in a crowd. The truth is people can belong to a faith community such as ours and still feel very lonely. In fact it is not just people who live alone that are subject to this horrible experience as oftentimes even within our families we can experience that sense of not quite fitting in. It can be difficult to describe this experience sometimes. Whilst physically it can be located in the gut it is known to manifest itself in a whole host of other ways. Of course many of these ways are not physical at all. Loneliness can lead to sadness, anger and fear. In turn, for some, it can lead to various addictive behaviours as people try to escape from, or even temporarily block out, the emptiness that comes with it. Sometimes loneliness or isolation can be part of a price we pay for taking a particular stand or as a consequence of a life choice. However I repeat it is never desirable or good for us. It is possible we are lonely and unable to name it as such. Sometimes it has names like, feeling unloved, or that I belong to no one, or simply that I don’t matter. If it is a significant part of our lives we need to address it, as unchecked it can act like a rust, slowly steadily gnawing away at us.
There are people who argue that loneliness is simply a part of life. Inescapable. Unavoidable. However this is to confuse the dis-ease of loneliness with its first cousin, Solitude. This is quite different. Not only is solitude a key part of all of us, it is actually essential. We need solitude. If there is no solitude in our lives we cannot claim to be either soul or psyche healthy. The draw in Jesus to the mountain top or lakeshore is within us as well. This is the whispering of the Spirit within. This is the Holy Spirit prompting us to understand that there are times in our lives when we just need to be alone with God. It is a call to rest. It is a call to gaze. The only focus here is the Lord. It is this fundamental need to engage in soul-work that leads us to the monastery, as resident or guest! It leads us to pilgrimage, novena and retreat. Even after only dabbling in this it becomes apparent how good it is for us. This deep resting, profound listening and intense gazing all work to recreate us. We become rejuvenated. There is now abundant evidence that ‘meditation’ decreases stress and actually lowers blood pressure. However a note of caution; whilst there is a certain amount of good in many of these practices they should not replace Christian Meditation nor become a substitute for Contemplative Prayer. Perhaps a simple yardstick might be to ask, what is my focus. Is the centre-point myself or Jesus?
Essentially what we are speaking of today is the inner ache. The first step is to acknowledge that it exists and to try and ascertain is it loneliness to be treated and rooted out or is it our friend solitude that helps us to stay focussed on Jesus. Obviously we can do nothing of substance until we are sure which of these it is. Correct diagnosis leads us to either get busy routing or cultivating. Once we are sure though, it still begs the question how exactly do I deal with this inner ache? If it is loneliness we must avoid the temptation of either burying it, or simply hoping it will go away. There may well be need for some initial wrestling here. How long is it there? Has it stalked you for years? Maybe it goes back to childhood? Did it first arrive as a result of loss or bereavement? Do I try to drown it with alcohol, food or simply noise? If I was to confront it gently in a calm, quiet and sober moment and invite it to step out into the light of day so that we could see it what might it look like? By what name is your loneliness known? Is it really a surprise to discover that it is called after your much missed Mum, or your lovely husband? Sometimes we have to rub our eyes a little as its not that obvious what name is on our loneliness. It can take us by surprise to discover that it’s named after that little boy that stung us so much that day in the playground or that teenage conflict that so badly bruised our ego. Imagine if we could cast out this loneliness, exorcise it, banish it. Imagine if it could be transformed into a gentle and beautiful constant companion called Solitude. Is such a transformation possible? The short answer is yes. In Jesus’s name. Jesus is never called loneliness but solitude is certainly his comfortable companion. The inner ache is not from God when it makes us anxious and afraid. The inner ache that shuts us down and isolates us and leads to sustained navel gazing is not from the Lord. However the inner ache that leads us to search, to not give up, to be on the move, to move outward, is grace itself. Freedom, not to be confused with licence, is a hallmark of the Lord.