Aloneness and Loneliness

If the national statistics are correct then half the individuals reading this live alone. For some, living alone is a gift and opportunity; for others it is a burden bordering on a curse.  I have had only one experience of living alone for a period longer than a few days. The context of my solitary living was slightly exaggerated by the fact it was in an Italian city where I was undertaking a course of study. It was very challenging and I believe it gave me an insight into the problems and potentials embedded in how the other half live.

Since returning to my usual, heavily-peopled home situation I have had several conversations with people of all ages who live alone, trying to work out what is needed in terms of  a ‘rule of life’ to make solitary living work in a fruitful way. One term that kept cropping up in these conversations was ‘discipline’. I found this in my own little experiment. It became essential to plan ahead, to make sure that tasks were thoroughly completed. If one simple task was left undone it had a domino effect on everything else. In my usual situation everything is shared, from the planning of an activity to its execution. Living alone means that planning, shopping and preparation for a meal becomes a major operation (not to mention the washing up). It made me realize that I had lived a very sheltered life! On the other hand another word that was repeated in my conversations with ‘loners’ was ‘freedom’. I have to say that my personal life of prayer had a real boost in terms of regularity and quality of time in my few weeks of solitary living. I was also free to pursue my personal interests without any need to consider the preferences of anyone else.

After this period of lone living I participated in a pilgrimage, ‘In the steps of St Francis’. Here was a man who, in his youth, was renowned as gregarious who, following his conversion, alternated between community and solitary life. It was pointed out to me that, whereas many monastic communities became centres of a larger community due to hospitality, commerce and the ministry of care for the sick or education, the early Franciscans often sought aloneness in great heights. Visiting the Carceri – or little cells – high on Mount Subasio, or the little hermitages in the Reiti Valley, and chiefly on La Verna (the place of St Francis’ stigmata) one was deeply impressed by the lengths that they went to be alone.

Jesus, we are told, often went ‘to lonely places for prayer’. It must be the case that, despite the great emphasis in the Christian life of community, and the living out of God’s love in mutual care and relationships, there must be a deliberate discipline to balance this with aloneness. If our life in Christ relies entirely on fellowship and the presence of others something is amiss. Jesus taught his disciples to ‘go into your own room and close the door. Your father who sees what is in secret will hear you’. It is the possibility of communion with the Lord that is found in aloneness. It is the acid test of faith and prayer to turn to the unseen God when one is unseen. In aloneness God gives gifts to those who seek Him.

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House