For many people, loneliness is that facet of human existence that they most dread and, from which, they tirelessly labour to escape. Yet, loneliness is one of the distinguishing hallmarks of our humanity. It is embedded in the very grain of life itself. We recognise in each other a capacity for loneliness. Alone or together, we plumb its abysmal depths. It cuts through the exposed face of humanity like an ancient geological seam, its primordial origin traceable to the first moments of our creation. Unique among all creatures, we have an intimate knowledge of what it is to be alone. In his poem The Word, R. S. Thomas, describes this intuition:
A pen appeared, and the god said:
“Write what it is to be
man.” And my hand hovered
long over the bare page,
until there, like footprints
of the lost traveller, letters
took shape on the page’s
blankness, and I spelled out
the word “lonely.” And my hand moved
to erase it; but the voices
of all those waiting at life’s
window cried out loud: “It is true.”
R. S. Thomas’s poetic conviction begs a series of questions. Is it true that loneliness is a distinguishing feature of humanity? Are loneliness and industrialisation, urbanisation and, in more recent times, technological “alienation”, causally linked? Is loneliness historically or culturally determined, a post-Cartesian, Western preoccupation? Is it a psychological neurosis, a form of narcissism? Are the terms “aloneness”, “solitude” and “isolation”, properly understood and are they reducible to a fear of loneliness? Does loneliness, in fact, exist or as a university student once assured me, “We have cured loneliness. We invented Facebook”?
Such questions, important though they are, lie beyond the interest of this modest reflection. My more limited concern here is to provide a loose survey of the relationship between loneliness and the priesthood based on my own experience and that of other priests who have been generous enough to be open with me when I posed the blunt, unscientific question, “Have you ever been lonely in your priesthood?”
The priesthood demands an encounter with loneliness if it is to be lived with integrity before God and provide a compelling witness to humanity. The capacity to live our priestly vocation authentically depends, in large part, on our capacity to avoid self-deception. And this involves having the courage to face the truth of who we are. Loneliness is part of that truth and when we admit to this reality, we acquire the courage to be more sublime icons of Christ, the High Priest.
Loneliness, however, can prove to be one of the most challenging and testing features of the priestly life. Few priests possess the natural courage to face loneliness. The drive to avoid it runs deeply within us and motivates many of our associations and social activities. Before this disturbing reality, we retreat, taking cover in the crowd while trying to camouflage our cowardice. Busyness, noise, addiction, entertainment and superficial relationships become the primitive weapons in our arsenal. When loneliness envelopes us, the default response is to grasp at any activity or relationship that might serve to contain its metastatic advance and defend us from its power.
The loneliness in my own priesthood has, generally, been experienced as something weak and amorphous. Yet, there have been times when it has been more clearly defined, with a serrated edge that feels threatening. For the great part of my life, I have preferred to nurse this reality in private and accept it as my own. When it has been particularly oppressive, I have learned to respond to it with my own crude defence mechanisms. Under cruel skies, with the drums rolling, my faith and deep friendships have proved the first line of defence, but, when the threat is more distant, a second line has come to my rescue. Culture and the arts have formed a protecting shield. Cinema, theatre, music, painting and literature have provided me with a legion of consolations.
There have been times when I have been moved to confess to others the loneliness. This has taken place, usually late at night, over a whisky with trusted friends, when a slub of self-knowledge has broken through the hard crust of my fears and found some kind of honest expression. Why have I been so reluctant to admit to the loneliness in my life?
Two reasons immediately present themselves, one general and one subjective. Firstly, our age tends to hold “inter-relatedness” as the principal measure of human maturity. The suggestion that loneliness may contribute positively to our emotional and spiritual well-being runs contrary to this crude orthodoxy. In a climate so hermetically sealed to alternative perspectives, admitting to the value of loneliness becomes an act of subversion. Secondly, my refusal to speak about loneliness has been born out of shame or some kind of moral embarrassment. No one wants to admit to being lonely. To do so is to run the risk of being viewed as someone who is psychically diseased and whose symptoms are potentially infectious.
Loneliness is a fierce, unforgiving power. It challenges much of what we hold to be true about ourselves, the precarious station we stake in the world of human affections and, above all, our meaning before God. Such a power can bring a priest to his knees and blow open a locked heart. Of course, the failure of metaphor, when employed in relation to loneliness, is that it can turn this power into a romantic sentiment that must be either, stoically faced or heroically resolved. For the believer, loneliness exhibits none of the sepia-tinted attractiveness of romanticism. Rather, loneliness is that terrifying possibility of disintegration and recreation in Christ, that process we are so constituted to resist and fear most. Reflecting on this, Thomas Merton, in Thoughts in Solitude, writes:
The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God.
What follows is based on the assumption that loneliness does exist and that it can be considered from the perspective of the priesthood. I propose to train my attention on this religious landscape, with its own distinctive contours and gradients. It is this terrain with which I am most familiar and, though which, I can act as a guide and commentator.
Of course, what is said about this relationship is not intended to devalue the bigger questions nor is it meant to imply that loneliness does not exist in other contexts, for example, the loneliness experienced within marriage. As Anton Chekov, that unflinching observer of the matrimonial state, once commented, “If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.” The same might be said of becoming a priest.