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.