The Loneliness Pandemic

For the past three months, I have been an accidental hermit. Having fled Canada to avoid getting stuck there, I have instead been stuck in the Scottish countryside, alone. It was a relief after the hustle and bustle of Toronto; the peace and silence brought recollection, the time to gather my thoughts, and the space to expand them. It was a time of retreat, a chance, after a busy year, to be alone with God.

Gradually, however, the soul-crushing loneliness that plagued my trial of monastic life has been creeping up on me once more. For the Christian, there is the temptation to feel that loneliness is a spiritual defect, the result of an inadequate relationship with the omnipresent God. Spiritual writings on the presence of God can encourage this. William of St Thiery, for example, says that one who is with God is never less alone than when he is by himself, for then he is all for God and God is all for him. There is something in that, of course, and yet somehow we can still feel lonely, for the presence of God does not cure human loneliness. Adam was alone with God in the garden, not yet torn apart by sin, and yet even of him God said, “it is not good for him to be alone.” We were made to be with God, but we were not made to be alone with God, but together with God.

For in fact, when we are alone with God, we are indeed with God and yet we remain very much alone. The presence of God does not in itself cure loneliness, but nor does the presence of people. Ever since the fall, when Adam and Eve realised they were naked and saw that they had opened up a gulf between them, unity has required hard work not just physical presence. Indeed, the vast anonymous mass of the city can exacerbate loneliness rather than cure it: so many people, yet so many strangers, and necessarily so as no matter how hard you might try to get to know them all, you could barely scratch the surface. When I lived in Glasgow I would often choose routes so that, among the anonymous loneliness of the crowd, I would pass by friends’ homes for the consolation of knowing that they were close.

Man is body and spirit, and so human loneliness cannot be fully overcome by physical proximity or by spiritual proximity alone, but only by the two combined. The virtual is neither physical nor spiritual but merely zeroes and ones, and so while digital technology allows us to keep in touch it cannot ultimately bring us together. Where loneliness is concerned, it is a very welcome aid, but it is not a cure.

While God is present everywhere, in the incarnation, the intangible God brought himself into our reach, laid himself in our arms. As one sublime Marian antiphon has it, “he whom the whole world could not contain, enclosed himself in your womb, becoming man.” The entirely other became entirely man. The ineffable wonder of the Blessed Sacrament, therefore, is not the presence of God, but rather the presence of God made man. He who knows us better than we will ever know ourselves in this life has made himself knowable to us: knowable not only intellectually but in an intimate communion. We receive him into us, body, blood, soul and divinity.

The dreaded virus and all that it has brought with it has cut us off not only from each other, but also from God incarnate: we are cut off from Mass, cut off from Holy Communion, cut off even from His Real Presence. We knock, but the doors remain locked. We cut off from him, and he also cut off from us, only a flickering lamp for company in the cold, empty darkness of a silenced church.


One of my greatest fears is that God should ask me to share in the loneliness of the Cross, that heart wrenching loneliness that brought forth the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” His mother and the disciple whom he loved were standing by, of course, but seeing them he did not find comfort. Instead, he said to her, “Woman, behold, your son!” and to St John, “Behold, your mother!” To her, *Woman* not *Mother*; to him, *your* mother, not *ours*. Alone on the Cross, he was called to give up even his mother. From he who has nothing, even what little he has will be taken.

In recent months, many have died in that same loneliness of the Cross, without the company of family, friends, the Sacraments.


Surrounded by the practically infinite, ever-expanding vastness of space, we face east, looking beyond the visible heavens to that Heaven where the truly infinite Son of God sits in his finite, human body, the great Known among the great unknown. We look for his coming again in glory and the coming of the new age when seeing we shall truly see, and knowing we shall perfectly know. The limits of our human nature overcome, we shall grasp the ungraspable. We shall see through the anonymity of the crowd and know what we see, know whom we see. Truly, we shall be friends at first sight. And together we shall look upon God; we shall see Him face to face, and loneliness shall be banished for ever.

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