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Find the lonely place: it’s very near to you

22 February 2013

The sense of loneliness in the modern world makes the Church's ministry of connection all the more vital, argues Rachel Mann


"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 clerics.

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 underestimated.

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 admission

Is free, if you purge yourself

 Of desire, and present yourself with

 Your need only and the simple offering

 Of your faith, green as a leaf.

The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas's, Burnage, Manchester, and poet-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral.


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