Over the Christmas period many people have contacted the monastery for different reasons. Some have wanted help with research; others have needed somewhere to stay; others again have asked prayers for themselves or those dear to them. Among those asking for prayer, the sick and those weary of life stand out. I can sympathize with them because I am myself tired of being ill, of having to struggle with simple, everyday tasks and the lowness of spirits that cancer and its treatment (or non-treatment) sometimes brings. But I do not think I would say I am tired of life. In that I am very fortunate. There are thousands of people who are having difficulty coping with the isolation and loneliness that COVID-19 brings. Not all experience clinical depression but many have heightened anxiety or are otherwise struggling. Today would be a good day for not putting off that telephone call, sending that email or somehow making contact with someone who may be in need. We advance the Kingdom by little steps — just as we prove our love in little things.
Some of my more direct friends occasionally ask me why I haven’t got round to doing such and such yet. The answer I give tends to vary. There is always the honest ‘laziness, sheer laziness’ or the intellectually more respectable ‘lack of inspiration’; but I think I am more likely to try to steer the conversation away from the question, especially if it is something both the questioner and I want me to do. That isn’t as deliberately evasive as it may seem. My not being well can be used as a valid excuse for some of my dilatoriness. Even ordinary tasks take much longer than they used to, as anyone seeing me doing odd jobs in the house or garden will testify. But that is not the point. There is a sadder reason, which has nothing to do with me at all: loneliness and its impact on people who may not seem lonely to others but are, often desperately so.
Much of my day is taken up with the routine of monastic life: prayer, lectio divina, household tasks, and the administrative duties associated with running any organization, to which should be added the community’s online ministry. But most days we also receive a lot of emails/letters and, increasingly, telephone calls, that don’t fall into any special category and can’t be dealt with in a few minutes. They are the cries of lonely people, often not asking for anything in particular but just to be heard. They pose a challenge to us as nuns, but also to society in general.
I am not sure why people contact us, but I think it has something to do with trust. Without knowing us, people trust us to take them and their difficulties seriously — and to be kind. We try, but we often fail, too. The man who telephoned late one evening when I was in the middle of chemotherapy and ‘just wanted to talk’ wasn’t very happy when I explained that I wasn’t up to a long conversation just then. He ‘phoned again ten minutes later and was rather put out to get the same nun on the line, as I would have been in his position; but we are not counsellors or therapists and it is no good trying to be or do what we cannot, especially when feeling drained.
Taking people seriously and being kind: not rocket science, as they say, but it does demand time and effort because, inevitably, need arises according to its own timetable not ours; and truly listening to people is hard work. I think we are immensely privileged as a community because those who turn to us do trust us, and very often they have had bad experiences in the past. What worries me, if that is the right word, is the loneliness behind the calls we receive. I always feel chastened when someone ends a conversation or message with the words, ‘Thank you. I haven’t been able to speak about this to anyone else.’ I can understand that there might be things one would be reluctant to discuss with family or friends, but the matters I am referring to do not, by and large, fall into the category of embarrassing or awkward. It is simply loneliness and the feeling of isolation that makes them difficult to talk about.
So, here is your challenge from the cloister for today: switch off your smartphone, take your eyes off that screen and pay attention to the person nearest you. Don’t be so anxious to pour out your own thoughts and feelings that you fail to notice theirs. Learn to be a friend, to be kind. Not only will you be helping to make the world a better place, you may even, indirectly, be helping a procrastinating nun get something done. Or maybe not.
Many people live alone but do not necessarily live a solitary life. Many people live alone but do not necessarily live a lonely life. What is the difference between being alone, being solitary and being lonely?
I’d say that being alone is principally a physical fact. There are no other people around. One can feel alone in the midst of a crowd, of course, but doesn’t that just mean that there aren’t any other people whom one knows or can relate to in a personal way? It is as if they weren’t there.
To be lonely is more of a metaphysical or emotional fact. Whether there are people around or not makes no difference. If there are others around, one knows that one’s own being there doesn’t matter to them. It is as if one weren’t there oneself. One is isolated: a little island in the sea of indifferent humanity.
To be solitary is something different again. For me the word is full of religious overtones because, in the Catholic tradition, to be solitary, alone with the Alone, is a privilege and a joy. It is not necessarily an absolute solitude, however. There is a solitary side to community life, for example, that few will speak about; but that intensely private life of prayer and sacrifice is an essential part of what it means to be monastic, and I am well aware that it is not confined to monks and nuns. The Church has her hermits, but she also has her ‘solitaries in the world’ whose lives light up the darkness that envelops us. Today would be a good day for giving thanks for these anonymous men and women of God whose lives of quiet holiness, outside the formal structures of religion, are such a blessing to us all.
Aaqil Ahmed’s claim that we have become a nation of religious illiterates should come as no surprise. Even among those who claim to be Christian, knowledge and understanding of scripture and doctrine has been in decline for years. As regards knowledge of other religions, that tends to be even more sketchy. We may know the names of some important Hindu or Muslim festivals; we may be vaguely aware of how the Jewish calendar unfolds; but, for the most part, we rely on having a neat little summary of the main facts given to us in a call-out on the web page or in a sidebox of the newspaper column. I think, however, that it is not just religious illiteracy about which we need to be concerned. There is a cultural illiteracy that includes religious illiteracy and is becoming more and more pervasive in the west.
Literary types argue about the existence or otherwise of a western canon, a body of thought and literature that every educated person can be expected to have some acquaintance with. In a plural, multicultural society such a canon becomes less and less identifiable. Add to that our increasing reliance on the internet for our grasp of ideas, and it is easy to see why one cannot take much for granted. We are not alone, for example, in prescribing a course in Christian doctrine for new entrants. We cannot assume that well-educated, well-motivated people will necessarily have the intellectual grounding in faith of previous generations.
Should we worry about this? Personally, I think there are two aspects to consider. There is a cultural impoverishment when we no longer understand the story of our past—when literary references are not understood and the art and artefacts that embody the story are no longer recognized for what they are. There is also an emotional impoverishment when we no longer relate to the story of our past in a personal way. When we cease to be moved by the holiness of places where our forebears worshiped, or have no real sense of the values by which they lived, we are cut adrift. We become existentially lonely. That is, of course, quite the opposite of what Christianity is about: incorporation into Christ and so into fellowship with all the living and the dead. As we journey towards All Saints and All Souls, it is worth thinking about these things. ‘No man is an island, entire of himself’— not even the religious illiterate.