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By Eva McIntyre             counsellor or spiritual director? If we ask ourselves these   sense our belonging? How do we stop ourselves from
                                                                                                                                  questions, we can then make an informed decision as to   experiencing this process as either ‘There’s something
                                                                                                                                  what to do with a bout of loneliness – to address it by   wrong with me’ or ‘They’re all horrid and ignoring me’?
                                                                                                                                  seeking company, or to sit with it and find out what waits   Affie doesn’t overthink it: she moves round, trying new
                                                                                                                                  for us beyond the loneliness.                        things. There’s a beautiful story about Affie the Arab. One
                                                                                                                                     Back at the beginning of Lent, we had the story of Jesus   day, all the herd was gathered around a pile of hay and Affie
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                                                                                                                                  taking himself off into the wilderness  where he looked   was at the back, bottom of the pecking order and unable to
                                                                                                                                  the loneliness of his mission square in the eyes and faced   get to the hay until the others had their fill. In his pen next
                                                                                                                                  down his ‘demons’. A courageous and gruelling time: he   to the herd was Alfie the pig.
                                                                                                                                  never promised us it would be easy, after all. He comes out   Alfie saw Affie stuck at the back on her own, and he
                                                                                                                                  of the wilderness a different person; more complete, more   poked his head through the fence, pulled a large mouthful
                                                                                                                                  integrated, more ready to face the world. For most of us,   of hay from the pile and carried it down to where Affie
                                                                                                                                  this process is undertaken in stages throughout our lives   was, dropping it through the fence for her. Soul friends can
                                                                                                                                  and not through a short, deep immersion.             come in unexpected guises.
             Exploring aloneness and                                                                                              the road narrow that leads to life, and few find it. They   ones we inhabit, each person is a wonderful, unique and
                                                                                                                                                                                         In that farmyard, just as in communities such as the
                                                                                                                                     In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says that the gate is small and
                                                                                                                                                                                       precious gift of God. We enrich our community through
                                                                                                                                  don’t find it because it’s tough and they are scared to stay
                                                                                                                                                                                       our belonging, and we can only appreciate real belonging if
                                                                                                                                  with the discomfort, so they never discover their own
             loneliness in our lives                                                                                              depths and resources; they stay in the shallow waters of   we have experienced loneliness.
                                                                                                                                  their souls. The poet W H Auden observed with exquisite
                                                                                                                                                                                         If you despair over your feelings of loneliness, it
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                                                                                                                                  insightfulness ;
                                                                                                                                                                                       becomes harder to hold on to this truth; that without your
                                                                                                                                     ‘We would rather be ruined than changed.
                                                                                                                                                                                       be so much poorer and incomplete. As A M Allchin says,
                                                                                                                                     We would rather die in our dread                  uniqueness and your belonging, the community would
             A place to avoid, or an opportunity to embrace                                                                          Than climb the cross of the moment                ‘For a human being is not an individual, but a person:
             and strengthen our faith?                                                                                               And let our illusions die.’                       not a replaceable part of the whole, but a unique and
                                                                                                                                                                                       unrepeatable being in whom the whole (all humankind and,
                                                                                                                                     The phrase ‘the road less travelled’ has become a cliché
                                                                                                                                  but one that sums up what Jesus is talking about. Do we   indeed, all creation) is mysteriously present.’
                                                                                                                                  want to travel on the surface of our lives or do we want to
                                                                                                                                  go deeper where the challenges are rich but will disturb us?  The same – but different
                                                                                                                                                                                       It could be said that loneliness and ‘aloneness’ are the same
                                                                                                                                  A sense of belonging                                 thing, and Christians are splitting hairs when they claim
                  oneliness is a powerful topic and               friendships or due to activities or roles. The greater the      It’s important here to go back to the herd. If we wander   they are different. Well, splitting hairs can be helpful when
                  one we tend to avoid talking                    anticipation of belonging, the more acute the sense of          off and plunge ourselves into the very depths of loneliness   we are trying to understand why we can feel differently
                                                                                                                                  without the support of our community, we are likely to
                                                                                                                                                                                       when we are apparently in the same situation. Why is it we
                                                                  loneliness can be when it’s dashed.
            Labout very much. In fact, it seems                     I’ve been watching and learning about the reality of          find the depths too much, and sink. Loneliness is only   can feel quite content and close to God while alone one
             to carry an element of shame: it’s not               another herd animal; horses. And I’ve learnt a lot from         productive if it is experienced in relation to its opposite: if it  day, and desperately unhappy with the same circumstances
                                                                                                                                                                                       on another?! There is a long tradition of using the word
                                                                                                                                  is experienced in contrast to belonging.
                                                                  them! They are profoundly connected to each other; so
             something people like to admit to                    much that they feel each other’s feelings: that’s vital in the     This sense of belonging takes me back to that herd   ‘aloneness’ among hermits and solitaries: people who
             publicly because it might get them                   wild so that, if one horse sees a predator, they all pick it    of horses I was watching. A small Arab horse called Affie   choose to spend a great deal of their lives alone in order
                                                                  up simultaneously. They also have their own boundaries
                                                                                                                                  was trying to work out her place in the herd; where did
                                                                                                                                                                                       to focus on their connection with God, and a profound
             labelled as ‘sad’ or ‘a loser’. Of course,           and are very clear about their own space. They are both         she fit in? Who was special friends with whom, and was   prayer ministry for the world. This aloneness isn’t free from
                                                                  separate and a community – and, indeed, it’s what is best       there a particular Affie-shaped-space in the herd for her?   periods of loneliness, but it is an active way of being and not
             this is nonsense; society failing to deal  for us humans too. But if this fine balance is disrupted, we              Loneliness and discomfort isn’t only about being on our   simply an absence of company.
             with a basic human emotion – society                 feel that loss: we feel lonely. It’s perfectly normal and it’s   own, we sometimes feel it most acutely in the midst of   Mother Mary Clare SLG puts it like this:
             isn’t good with emotions generally.                  important because feelings are a source of information and      the herd. Where do we look for our place? How do we    ‘Like the solitary sailor, we deliberately choose our
                                                                  we need to ask ‘Why am I feeling lonely at this moment?’
                                                                                                                                                                                         aloneness as part of a personal quest. We are people
             Loneliness is a significant part of                                                                                                                                         engaged on a search. It is always a search for God, but
             being human; we are herd animals,                    Getting to the source                                                                                                  it is also a quest that brings us to a place of exposure
                                                                                                                                                                                         to a deep, heart-searching, listening awareness of the
                                                                  It may be a straightforward case of not having enough
             we belong together and we need to                    human company, and the best solution is to find ways to                                                                fundamental, crying need of the world.’
                                                                                                                                                                                         This choice of lifestyle is not running away, it is more
             feel a connection with others to be                  increase that interaction.                                                                                           like running towards. There is no hiding place from the
                                                                    For some this is more difficult to remedy than for others.
             fully ourselves.                                     Or it may be that something has become unbalanced in us                                                              thoughts and feelings that can be avoided through busy-
                                                                  and we need to address what the loneliness is pointing to:                                                           ness, in company, or the use of social media.
             We tend to have notions about Church communities being   am I yearning for company in order to hide from something                                                          Well, this is a particular vocation, a very specific choice
             better at ensuring everyone feels they belong, but this   in me that is making me uncomfortable?                                                                          of life – not one many of us are likely to follow – but there
             perception frequently doesn’t prove to be the case when we   Is there something I don’t want to address? Is there a                                                       might be useful insights we can gain from it. How can we
             scratch beneath the surface.                         neediness in me and am I trying to get other people to fill                                                          find this rich experience of periods of aloneness in our
               While many churches make an effort to welcome      this need, rather than address where it is coming from,                                                              otherwise busy, even crowded, lives? How do we gain a
             everyone, the sense of truly belonging tends to be true   and what it’s about? Or has a major life event caused this                                                      stillness; a quietness at our very core, when we are pulled
             for those in particular groups, whether because of specific   loneliness, and maybe I need to work through this with a                                                    about by the demands upon us in our daily lives?

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