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.