In this third part of the series about spiritual companionship, we take a look at loneliness as an example of a common experience that might motivate us to seek out the support of a spiritual companion. While uncomfortable and difficult, the experience of loneliness can become a fruitful place in our life with Jesus, as we are helped to encounter him there.
I have a memory that is imprinted on my mind’s eye like a full colour photograph. I am riding my motorbike along the road that contours the hillside between where I work and my home. The road runs parallel to the coastline that I can see sparkling below me. I am aware of so much beauty in the way my life is unfolding in this season: fulfilment in ministry, rich friendships, a community I love, a happy marriage. Just then, clear as anything the thought comes to me, ‘Drink this in, life won’t always be this way.’
This wasn’t a morbid thought rooted in pessimism or fear. It was simply part of the acknowledgement of deep gratitude that comes with the recognition that these moments of ease and connection are pure gift.
For most of us, the current experience of pandemic and politics is far from being one of ease and connection. Indeed, it might be more honest to characterise it as an experience of dis-ease and dis-connection. Just before sitting down to write this, I heard from a friend who is single and lives alone in a European city. Due to restrictions on gathering socially, in the past two months she has seen a friend on only half a dozen occasions. In the past month, she has only been hugged once. This is the reality of the sort of isolation and aloneness that, while rife in western cultures, has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Social isolation has been a particular characteristic of this unusual season. But loneliness can also be part of what we consider more ‘normal’ life. Indeed, some would say that loneliness is not just a common consequence of life for those working cross-culturally, but also rife in our modern societies. You have probably read something about loneliness among the elderly in western societies, or loneliness among young people who are connected online but have few real friends, or the loneliness of stay-at-home moms, or the loneliness of single people living alone, or the loneliness that hits us even when we live in a busy city. The truth is, all of us are likely to experience loneliness at some time in our lives.
While choosing to be alone – to practice the discipline of solitude – can be a very good thing, loneliness is unwilling solitude. We want to be in relationship with others but we are not experiencing the connection we want and need. We are wired to be relational beings, a reality long affirmed by Christian theology and now also supported by neuroscience, so much so that loneliness has been shown to cause a type of stress that leads to chronic inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes. Loneliness hurts, and the pain compounds into physical sickness, which isn’t cured with medication but with connection.
While our primal need for connection and intimacy can drive us to God at times of loneliness, the experience of loneliness can form some bitterness in us which arises from a sense of not belonging or of being excluded. Ironically, we can withdraw, even when the possibility of connection exists, because we struggle to believe that we are wanted as part of the group. Loneliness can become its own destructive cycle.
All this happens because we are wired to share our lives with others, to experience our feelings being shared by trusted others, and to have our experiences acknowledged and affirmed. We are meant to share our needs and our longings. We are made to offer love and friendship in ways that build a strong bond of connection between us – and not just for the sake of ministry but for the sake of the relationship itself. These unmet needs can feed our compulsions, or can be used to free us from them.
There are a few reasons why it can be helpful to bring the experience of loneliness into spiritual direction. Perhaps the first and most obvious is that, while it is very common to have seasons of loneliness, it can be difficult to talk about with those around us. Admitting to loneliness can make us feel weak and needy, a feeling that many of us find uncomfortable. Our awareness of the needs and sorrows of others can cause us to diminish the experience of loneliness, making it hard to talk about. Perhaps our loneliness is related to a difficult marriage or other unmet needs that are not easy to share with others. And maybe we have tried talking about our loneliness with friends or family and they have not offered the sort of listening that makes us feel affirmed, or held. For these reasons, it can be especially helpful to have the reliable support of someone who is trained to accompany you through just these sorts of experiences.
The experience of loneliness may become an area of unanswered prayer. We pray for companionship and connection, for a community where we can flourish, and our prayers seem in vain. How could something that seems so in keeping with God and God’s ways remain unfulfilled? Spiritual direction is not a place to ‘solve the problem’ either of loneliness or of unanswered prayer, but rather to explore further our experience of prayer and the feelings that arise in us when prayers for apparently good things seem to go unmet. These explorations could take us into rich places of discovery.
A spiritual companion can extend compassion to you during the difficult experience of loneliness. He or she can serve as a reminder that even when you feel lonely, you are not alone. With their help, you are able to acknowledge that our need for friends, community and intimacy is legitimate and good. But is there something more than comfort available to us at times such as these? How might we be changed for the better through an experience of loneliness? Is it possible that loneliness might even be used for our good, that is, that it could become part of our Christian formation?
A spiritual director is available to help you become aware of your own heart, and then aware of how God might be meeting you in the reality of where you are. Instead of pushing aside the feelings that arise in us when we are lonely, we are able to sit with the feelings with an awareness that God is with us. For example, we may find ourselves invited by God to grieve the absence of longed-for connection in this season. Perhaps, in our loneliness we become aware of an unhealthy need to be seen by others, or to be busy, or to fill our lives with people-oriented activity. As we grow in this awareness, through responding to open questions that help us to wonder about our own patterns and feelings, we can bring this awareness to God. Similarly, loneliness can challenge our sense of belonging. This can become an opportunity to pay attention to the subconscious ways we envision our relationship with God and our place in God’s good world. As we mine this experience for God’s invitations to us, we may find that our sense of belonging with Father, Son and Holy Spirit shifts and deepens. Times of loneliness can cause us to reach towards God in ways that enrich our connection with God, as we become more aware of our needs being met in God’s presence.
The meeting time with a spiritual director, or as part of a group being facilitated by a spiritual director, can become a safe and hospitable place. In this place of safety and trust, we are able to take a good look at how we are experiencing loneliness, what it is bringing up in us and how God is using it to get our attention. This open and non-judgemental space offers us an opportunity to be attentive to the ways God might be inviting us to respond to God, responses that move us more deeply into a place of relational intimacy with God by the Spirit. In this way, the experience of loneliness – so often one of isolation and exclusion – can become a doorway into a deeper sense of connection and belonging. This offers us more freedom to continue to bring to the world the unique contribution of our true selves, free from reactions of withdrawal or grasping that commonly spring from experiences of loneliness.
Turn your attention to the way God is present to you by reading slowly through Psalm 139:7-18. Pay special attention to the words or phrases that jump out for you.
- As he gazes upon you, in love, today, seeing the extent of your loneliness, what does God feel toward you? What is his heart for you?
- If you could picture God actually being with you today, what would he do or say? How would he respond to you?
- How may God want to meet you in the midst of your loneliness?
- What happens for you, as you encounter God in that place? How do you want to respond?
- Beyond Loneliness: The Gift of God’s Friendship (Trevor Hudson)
- The Path of Loneliness: Finding Your Way Through the Wilderness to God (Elisabeth Elliot)
- Look out for the prayer guide called The Invitation. The February 2021 edition invites us to pray around the theme of loneliness.
- In March, look out for resources on the theme of Building Authentic Community on europellc.eu
In our first two posts about spiritual companionship, we explored some reasons why you might seek out the support of a trained spiritual director. In the first article, we mentioned that ‘You don’t have to be a ‘hot mess’ to seek out a spiritual director, although if you do feel that way – if you have doubts, or wonderings about your faith that you find hard to share with others – then that’s fine too. Really, you can talk with a spiritual director about anything that seems important to you in the moment.’ Then, in the second article, we suggested that a trained spiritual director could be helpful at times of making significant decisions.