OPINION: My underlying loneliness has reached a new level in a wretched 2020
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Are you feeling more lonely than a year ago like our columnist?
When I was in my final year of theological college in the weeks before I was ordained, a priest I knew said to me he was worried about me and my future ministry. I asked him why. He said because it is a lonely calling and you are a bit of loner – despite all your bonhomie and skill at getting people to like you.
I dismissed this observation almost immediately. I pointed out that I had plenty of friends and a supportive family.
He made no further comment. But his words have stayed with me, as words do when they are words we know deep down someone has seen us for who we are, spotted something about us we like to hide.
He was, of course, right. I am, perhaps, a bit of a loner and I do find my calling to the priesthood can be, on occasion, lonely. It is a way of life which demands certain standards of behaviour long dismissed by the rest of society.
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Clergy are subject to expectations from the community to be kind and forgiving, to be available, to rarely snap back at insult or slight, to think selflessly, to serve – and if we don’t, even for a moment, we are easily charged with being “not much of a Christian”, “typical of the church”, “hypocritical” or whatever. As a result, it seems to me, we are easily bullied, and indeed sometimes even mal-treated by the communities we are trying to serve.
This is part and parcel of the calling, and not one clergy would often mention publicly – to mention it is to appear to complain and to complain is to admit that we are not only selfish but also that serving God can be difficult and often unpleasant – hardly a positive advert for spreading and encouraging the faith or meeting the rather too often perceived demands of the church hierarchy in getting numbers up and helping ensure financial viability.
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Rarely do I hear the truth told that being a Christian does no only require application and perseverance but is also a lifetime’s struggle often in tension with how we like to live and how we often behave – loving thy neighbour as thyself is something very few achieve, and certainly not me.
Christians, nonetheless, have the immense joy of faith, and the comfort of prayer as well as a variety of spiritual tools to get them through. And clergy are, hopefully, well supported and well looked after by their colleagues and senior clergy. Indeed I count myself lucky.
But that does not mean that loneliness is not part and parcel of the job. And at a personal level I cannot help thinking that 2020 has brought an underlying loneliness for me, and for so many others to the fore. Lockdown, social restrictions and anxiety and fear, have created a toxic mix for those of us who are on our own, as well as for those who aren’t.
Talking about loneliness is not easy nor really something people want to hear. It is a subject we avoid in company, at least we did.
I think some of my own anger at what I see as a disproportionate national reaction to coronavirus is partly due to the fact it has held a mirror up to my own loneliness and I haven’t much enjoyed being forced to look at what I’ve seen. The anger has had to go somewhere.
Indeed I suspect, deep down, this feeling has nothing to do with my role as a priest either and in fact my calling to the church and the communities I find myself in is assuaging loneliness rather than causing it.
Nonetheless I feel I know something of what is happening to so many of us who are forced to face up to who we are and what is really going on under the surface of our lives. 2020 is a year like no other – we can no longer hide from ourselves, the myth of earthly immortality has been shockingly debunked and that is why we are reacting as we are.
In the meantime, 2020 has given us a new language and confidence to talk about subjects we traditionally avoided. We have been enabled, like never before, to empathise with each other in new, more meaningful and deeper ways.
This gives me hope as once we know what the trouble is – whether it be loneliness or anger or whatever – we can begin to see what needs to be done in order to make a kinder, gentler world.
What do you think? Is James right? Write to him at email@example.com