"AND Jesus said to them:
'Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while'"
(Mark 6.31 RSV).
Few versions of the Bible
translate Jesus's word for "solitary" or "deserted" as "lonely".
Yet I do not think that it is simply because I write poetry that I
find the phrase "lonely place" striking. It resonates with a number
of truths about our Christian discipleship, especially during Lent,
and also with the cost and risks of ministry.
In my work as a spiritual
director and parish priest, one of the most common refrains of
people who see me is how lonely they feel - as human beings,
Christians, and priests. As a single person in ministry, I am
conscious that one of the greatest challenges and opportunities I
face is not only being alone, but dealing with loneliness.
I am also convinced that
you do not need to be single to feel lonely; in an increasingly
individualised society, marked by the rise of single households,
the nature of both aloneness and loneliness will become fundamental
to Christian mission. If the challenge of our Christian calling is
to discover what it means to live in community, we can hope to do
this only if we are honest about what it means to be alone.
There is obviously a
difference between the notions of aloneness and loneliness. Jesus
repeatedly seeks out "aloneness". He also invites others into the
wilderness - that most lonely place - and, most famously during the
period we keep as Lent, is driven into the lonely places.
The lonely places are
contexts for transformation, communion, rest, and preparation. Such
places expose us. Jesus's 40 days and nights in the wilderness are
no mere feat of survival, a biblical I'm a Celebrity . . . Get
Me Out of Here. They expose him to his very self, and to
temptations at the heart of his calling - temptations of hubris,
worldly power, and idolatry.
But the lonely places are
also where Jesus goes to pray, and to be refreshed. If there are
wild beasts, real or imagined, in the lonely places, then there are
also God's angels, ready to comfort us and bind up our wounds. In
Jesus's journey in the wilderness, he discovers the shape of who he
is called to be, stripped of the props of ordinary life.
IT IS not surprising that
the lonely places have always exercised an attraction for Christian
pilgrims. In Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of
Christ, John the Baptist tells Jesus that if he wishes to meet
God, he must go into the wilderness. The God of the Hebrews is a
god of the desert places: Moses encounters Yahweh in the desert;
the Hebrews are "proved" over 40 years of wandering in the lonely
places; and the coming of the Messiah is proclaimed by John in the
wilderness rather than in palaces and temples.
Equally, the impulse to
commune with God led generations of early Christians - people such
as Anthony the Great and Amma Syncletica, whom we now call the
Desert Fathers and Mothers - to seek out what Professor Belden Lane
calls, in his book of the same name, "the solace of fierce
landscapes" (OUP, 1998).
These are the kind of
places where grace might come in unexpected guises - as Jacob found
when he wrestled with an angel at Peniel (Genesis 32.24-32). Grace,
as Jacob found, is not offered simply in the lush oasis, but in
wrestling with an angel, who is as likely to gouge your eye out as
offer blessing when the fight is over. He discovers blessing in
both the struggle and the comfort afterwards.
The interest in the
retreat movement, fostered by television programmes such as The
Monastery, have turned a new generation to the notion of
stepping away from the frantic rush of modern living to encounter
the divine in stillness and aloneness.
Much as I am encouraged
by the increasing numbers of people who have started taking
retreats and quiet days, and seeking out spiritual companionship, I
am equally struck by how often loneliness is a theme of prayerful
conversations I have with spiritual directees, especially
Perhaps there is
something in the dynamics of modern ministry that especially
invites the clergy, whether single or partnered, into loneliness.
Two familiar classical metaphors are helpful. Clergy - as people
with all sorts of increasing parochial and diocesan demands - can
be tempted into the loneliness of Atlas. Just as Atlas was required
to hold the weight of the world on his solitary shoulders, I know
how tempting it is to act as if the Church will collapse if you do
not, like a parochial Titan, try to hold it up.
Or perhaps clerics find
themselves engaged in a version of Sisyphus's solitary task. Just
as he for-ever pushed his boulder up a hill, only to see it roll to
the bottom again, so clergy can find themselves rehearsing the same
routines, constantly moving up the hill of ministry, until we find
ourselves depressingly returned to the start again.
There are, of course,
great numbers of wondrously supportive and committed lay people,
but, in many parish contexts, the pressures of a small group's
keeping the show on the road places immense pressure on leadership
teams. Even in large, well-staffed churches, I know of clergy who
feel the isolation of "command", trapped in the loneliness of the
leader forever required to smile in public, and yet unable to set
aside enough time for significant relationships.
Ordained ministry is, as
a vocation, a way of living without obvious borders. It can be
unclear where your personal life ends and where public ministry
begins. One of the ways in which God invites Christians, lay and
ordained, to be their true selves, however, is by invit- ing them
to discern what is at the heart of ministry, and what they must let
go. As Jesus faced temptations, but met them by return- ing again
and again to a humble dependence on God, so must we all.
YET I also sense that
there is a gift - a bleak and unsolicited gift, perhaps - in this
loneliness. Sometimes, our Christian vocation is the place where
loneliness and aloneness meet. To return to Professor Lane: "God's
grace comes sometimes like a kick in the teeth, leaving us broken,
wholly unable any longer to deny our need."
Admittedly, such a
conception of grace sounds grim. Our pilgrimage through Lent, as in
the rest of life, is not meant to be a rehearsal of Jesus's
ministry of pain, rejection, and crucifixion. If, in following
Jesus, we are seeking to grow into his likeness, however, then we
must be prepared to take seriously what that growth may entail. We,
too, shall seek out the lonely places in order to pray and be alone
with God; but we shall also have to accept that it is there that we
may be most exposed to our loneliness and, therefore, to the depth
of our need for God for and wholeness.
Our fullest lives lie in
community and communion. This is one of the truths revealed by the
notion of God as Trinity: that at the very heart of God is
community. The proper theatre for our growth into the likeness of
Christ is the Christian community and the eucharistic assembly. One
of the challenges for the modern Church is to rediscover the power
of "the lonely place" that may lie in our midst.
Some jokers will quip
that, given the tininess of some congregations, it is hard to feel
anything other than alone in the modern Church. This is a real
anxiety, but clearly there is a deeper point. In a world where more
and more people are living alone, and perhaps experience
loneliness, the church can be a focal point for community. If it is
to be more than a club and mere shelter from the difficulties of
modern life, however, it must be able to offer places of real
communion with God.
Our eucharist and our
communal worship and praise are clearly examples of this, but
equally the modern Church is rediscovering other ways of meeting
the wildernesses in our heart. Increasing numbers of churches -
including the one where I serve - have discovered the power of
prayer through labyrinths, and have developed Taizé and Wild Goose
services, and many forms of creative, alternative worship. And the
power of the simple prayer or meditation group should also not be
Such often simple acts of
worship, old and new, enable people to reconnect with silence and
stillness, and thereby expose participants to both themselves and
God. Equally, where alternative worship integrates vital aspects of
modern living - such as film, popular music, or our increasingly
online lives - into acts of prayer, worshippers can be given space
to reflect on the nature of their lives.
Just as the physical
wilderness is characterised by space and exposure to the elements,
and also to ourselves and God, so worship opens up emotional and
spiritual space to meet the living God.
It is easy to imagine
that we have to go far away from our ordinary church setting to
find God waiting for us in the "lonely places"; but the truth is
that the power and challenge of the wilderness, the lonely place,
can be discovered in our local church.
As R. S. Thomas puts it,
in his poem "The Kingdom":
It's a long way off,
but to get
There takes no time and
Is free, if you purge
Of desire, and present
Your need only and the
Of your faith, green as
The Revd Rachel Mann
is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas's, Burnage, Manchester, and
poet-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral.