At present, being on one’s own — be it in a situation of shielding or vulnerability, or just a question of old age or living in a single household — is the topic de notre jours. It is much discussed as being a cause of danger and of mental health problems. Endless articles in the press chew over the horrors of being on one’s own for long periods — and offer lengthy lists of antidotes for staving off the heebie-geebies should you need them. Some of these are well-known. For example:
- Take a walk in nature (if you can find any in Malta that has not been built over by petrol stations or five-story flats —‘Long live the gods of car and profit!’).
- This ‘wandering’ is merely a version of Wordsworth’s famous antidote to loneliness, the legendary ‘host of golden daffodils’ which lift the spirits and store away the joy of nature for those sad, COVID times of ‘vacant or pensive mood’ (or worse!).
- Daily exercise is enjoined — back to school with games’ afternoons!
- Read a book —who would have thought?
- And (naturally) cut down on alcohol, rich foods, long lunches and midnight feasts — the puritans always slip in a few pleasure prohibitions if they can under guise of medical advice!
- Think of others — and why not pray for them?
- Practice ‘mindfulness’ — that is live in God’s present moment.
One sees that Christians have had these handy ‘Daffoldil Spirituality Packs’ to hand for centuries – ready for COVID and other plagues, pandemics, periods of siege, isolation, illness, war, exile or other pestilences (including noisy neighbours, lack of fresh fish, or even just a sense of futility) together with a whole host of other persecutions, mortal or minor.
Saint Paul put it neatly in his letter to the Philippians [4:11]
For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through Jesus Christ who strengthens me.
The Christian says,
‘God is here now. In this very moment. I don’t need to go outside or travel to Jerusalem or Rome, to Jarrow or Redcar, Bugibba or Gharghur. I don’t even need daffodils to make life worth living, or a meal out with friends, or a trip to the theatre. God is with me and Jesus will strengthen and nourish me now (if I give Him a chance). He is my emergency pack.’
Of course a meal out with friends would be very nice and a trip to the opera would be (so to speak) heaven – or whatever it is that takes your fancy. But — and here is the point of my title for this blog — being solitary is not the same as being lonely. It is not a punishment for Christians. One can even be lonely when living the solitary life but that does not mean we wish to give up solitude as part of our spiritual discipline. All through the ages, taking the example of Jesus Himself who went aside, apart, alone to pray, Christians have chosen solitude over action or activity however worthy that activity might in itself be. They have recognised, in imitation of Christ, that solitude is necessary to live a full, God-connected life. It is nothing to be feared. Rather one must to some extent ensure solitary times are part of our discipline as Christians, so we can listen to the Lord. Avoiding solitude is a sign of inner unhappiness and psychological sickness. Those who cannot be alone are actually saying that they cannot bear to be with themselves.
S Bruno, my patron saint (in the sense that his feast day falls on my birthday) is a good if extreme example of what I am saying. He was a renowned teacher, a righteous man, well-respected, and was rightly often called upon to be a bishop — a call he refused in favour of living the solitary life in the hermit-monasteries of places like the Grande Chartreuse (that of the delicious green liqueur!). Now no one is suggesting we literally become hermits as he did. Nonetheless for many of us life is more solitary, more restricted and far less social than it has ever been. But this is where our faith shows through — and of course being human it won’t always be welcome at least not without a bit of a struggle — but nonetheless we can strengthen ourselves by a reminder that this is what faith is for. It is a medicine for times of stress and difficulty.
Faith comes into its own in times like these. God calls us to live on, feast on, His truth and His love, for now is the acceptable time, now is the time of salvation. The restrictions, the removal of things we enjoy or the pleasures we had planned should not make an appreciable difference to our faith and our strength in Christ Jesus. They can even be welcomed as ways of beefing up our faith. Of proving (to ourselves if no one else) that we do believe what we read in the scriptures and profess with our lips as we say the creed and the Lord’s Prayer. S. Paul was so right — however hard his ‘rightness’ can be hard to swallow sometimes. We need to live so that the circumstances of our lives really do not throw us off course (and I am not obviously talking here about people with real medical or mental health issues which need professional help — just about the regular lives of most of us).
We can survive, indeed prosper, in these times of pandemic as well as in times of plenty. These times are times of hope and of salvation which being solitary more than usual might inspire us to recognise. Yes we are lucky, most of us, having a home that is ours and recourse to the garden or the beach. We have friends and neighbours who help and support us too maybe. Probably what I am saying would be not so easy if we had two children under five and we lived in a flat 30 storeys in the sky. I realise that most of us live lives of privilege. But this also the challenge: to help our neighbour, to support by word, deed or acts of charity the poor and the needy. There are ways of doing this globally if we wish even while in lockdown and certainly in solitary prayerfulness. Indeed this increased time for prayerfulness is in itself a blessing and a call to spiritual action.
What will we do to make use of the silence and the solitude which our lives most likely have in far greater abundance now than they did last year? Can we use this blessing profitably for God and His Kingdom? Since this pandemic may not neatly conclude in a month or two, by any optimistic measure, I think it worth asking what we might do to utilise this unexpected opportunity. It should give us something to think about when lying on our couch and find our mind vacant, pensive and wandering… whether like a cloud or no!
Feast of S. Bruno, Carthusian monk and Solitary.