The popular description of loneliness emphasises its social dimension. Loneliness is the absence of companionship, a failure to create and sustain a web of meaningful, supportive attachments. Circumstance or choice means that some people live without the same relational content and emotional attachments in their lives as other people. They lack a single loving person, such as a husband or wife, or a social network that can sustain them. Developing this psycho-sociological view in his essay, Research on Social Support, Loneliness and Social Isolation: Towards an Integrated View of Personality, the psychologist, K. S. Rook, defines loneliness as:
An enduring condition of an emotional state that arises when a person feels estranged from, is misunderstood or rejected by, and/or lacks appropriate social partners for a desired activity, particularly activities that provide a sense of social integration and opportunities for emotional intimacy.
An article (12 August 2014) in The Independent newspaper entitled “Lonely Britain: 10% of population does not have a close friend” highlighted the sociological roots of this condition. The article reported that following a recent survey by the charity Relate, it was estimated that some 4.7 million people had no intimate friends or close confidants. Professor Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist from the University of Oxford, provided a plausible explanation for this phenomenon:
Since the end of the Second World War people have become increasingly mobile, that means you end up with a social network that would previously consisted of people round about you but now its been dispersed. It’s crucial with friendship to invest time and effort. And because we move so much now – especially young people because of jobs – your cohort of friends wherever you last were gets hammered when you move away.
The relationship between loneliness and mobility in society may well find parallels in the priesthood. Secular priests are designed to live a nomadic lifestyle as they move from one parish to another. They are largely itinerants and, increasingly so, as new pastoral demands have to be met by fewer numbers of priests. If the expectation is that a priest is likely to be appointed elsewhere after a short period of time, then it may be that pastoral and personal attachments with others remain more superficial as it becomes difficult for relationships to germinate and mature at their own pace.
Priests may exist who find themselves geographically isolated or pathologically afraid of letting themselves get close to others. They experience loneliness in a chronic manner. Unable to communicate in any intimate or honest way with others, unsure of their own personal or priestly identity, burdened by compensating for their own frailty and the weight of expectations, such priests go underground. For these priests, creative ways to coax them out into the daylight of a healthier understanding of the loneliness in their priesthood is surely required.
There is another group of priests who experience loneliness in a more oblique, less debilitating fashion. “Sagart 1” by the priest-poet, Padraig Daly, imagines such a priest:
You may have many acquaintances, few friends;
Besides your unreplying God you have no confidant.
Neverthless you lift your hat to all. Old ladies
Especially will seek you out, sometimes a sinner.
You are a guest at many celebrations, a must at birth or death.
Sometimes you wonder whether this is how God intended it.
Daly’s portrait of this imaginary priest is vivid and raw. It is achieved with a few, confident strokes that are charged with truth. A first, casual reading might give the impression that Daly is sketching a caricature based of the tortured, “lonely” priest types that populate so many contemporary films, plays and books. Daly’s poem is not that. This is a skilled piece of poetic surgery where every word has been specially selected to cut away the dead matter of stereotype in order to expose something alive and beating.
Daly’s priest tips his “hat to all,” a greeting that signals that the care of souls is his business. His ministry has acquired a universal scope. He has been careful not to allow his attentions to be hijacked by a few demanding parishioners or to allow himself to become closely attached to those people he finds agreeable. He has ensured that all his people have equal access to him and not just a select few. In order to protect this universal mission he has erected, a series of physical and emotional boundaries that corral and define his relationships. While some of these partitions have aided his ministry, others have become barriers that have excluded any form of emotional intimacy and personal growth. Given this, he has become expert at accumulating acquaintances, but struggles to make or keep close friendships.
The priest has not burrowed away in some Victorian presbytery but, rather, he is visible and accessible, pounding the streets and ringing doorbells. There is a missionary spring in his step. His sacramental and pastoral ministry is performed dutifully and generously.
The issue for this priest is not that he lacks a social network. His parish provides that. People surround him and he is often to be found as the focus of their attention and personally involved in the most significant moments of their lives. He is “a must at birth or death,” but this popularity does not detract from his personal need for relationships where he is permitted to be more transparent and openly vulnerable. One can imagine that his “few friends” would be members of his family (those who are still alive), and if he is fortunate, one or two priests friends.
Those who are familiar with loneliness make their way to him, the elderly, the widow or widower, the sinner, the single person, the desperate housewife, the burdened husband, the misunderstood teenager, the divorced, the grieving, the poor, the sick and the dying. Anyone who carries the wound of loneliness will seek his counsel and prayers. The scent of his solitude identifies him as one like them and attracts them to him.
The priest’s pastoral antennae are hypersensitive to the needs of his people. In God’s presence, the priest and his parishioners establish a solidarity that offers them hope beyond isolation. Through his own suffering, something of the gentleness and compassion of Christ is communicated to those who come to him. In his weakness, he will spill Christ’s healing balm on lives that are chafed or have become suppurating sores.
God is un-replying, not absent. His silence is His presence. “Sometimes”, the priest finds the tension of living with such paradoxes hard to bear. He desires a human confidant, but he has vowed to keep faith with God. The crushing sense of being alone before this mystery threatens to defeat him. Yet, his loneliness is not a fixed or permanent attitude. It is a “sometimes” experience. For him, loneliness is like a shifting weather front, a climatic depression, that shadows his priesthood, but which also, in time, passes.
In the recesses of his mind, the question lingers as to whether this is how it is meant to be. Maybe his loneliness has no meaning outside of itself, but is simply an emotional landfill, leaving him hungry for external stimuli and relationships of dubious quality? At times, enduring this loneliness becomes almost unbearable and the idea of escaping from it seems to offer an answer.
But, perhaps, this is how it is meant to be. In the loneliness of his priesthood, he is confronted with the ultimate realities of life and death. Loneliness is not something to be viewed as a defect, rather it is the making of him. The chiaroscuro of solitude gives his priesthood a distinctive depth, substance and form, without which he melts into a phantom of nothingness. At the same time, his ability to open up supernatural realities to those around him, is honed by the abrasive action of loneliness. He stares into the wound of their loneliness, until it eyeballs him and a flintspark of recognition passes between them. Illumination allows them to see each other in a pure light, stripped clean of all distorting accretions: vanity, jealousy and fear. Through this process of purification, a new clarity is achieved, the immanent and transcendent is bridged. Priest and people, thus, become more susceptible to the salvific power of God. In surrendering to loneliness, they surrender more fully to God. They become his people and he becomes their God.
The temptation is to resist the gift of loneliness, to distance ourselves from it or smother it beneath feverish social activity. When we opt for this course of action, we lack the resolve to admit to a dark truth about ourselves, loneliness is not just a matter of circumstance or choice, it is an existential lesion in our beings.