September 6 2020
If you or your family and friends have been fortunate enough to avoid ill health this year, one of the most trying aspects of covid-19 for you has possibly been the sense of isolation it has brought with it.
Of course there have been, and still are, other major setbacks associated with the pandemic apart from the threat to life: the downturn in the economy, the loss of jobs, the failure of usual medical appointments and treatments, holiday and other plans ruined, and so on.
But one experience everyone has had to endure has been that of isolation and loneliness. Although things may be slowly improving at present, distancing, the use of masks, the limits on who we can meet with, and a feeling of pervasive uncertainty, all reinforce the sense of solitude which has become our “new normal”.
Some of us have coped better with this than others. Nevertheless, even those used to a life on their own are starting to miss the routines of being out and about in town, for example, shopping, browsing, just being part of the usual social scenes, to say nothing of going to events such as concerts, theatre trips, keeping appointments, and sporting activities.
What has been the hardest part of all this for you, I wonder?
For myself, it has been having to keep people literally at arm’s length, to avoid close contact, to avoid everything which usually indicates warmth and friendliness, the lack of which we commonly consider to be the cause of our isolation and loneliness. We think we are missing the basic intimacy that living with our fellows normally means. And it has hit hardest those in nursing homes and their families.
However, I’m afraid that is not the full story. Being in a crowd isn’t really what we want. Superficial isolation may be relieved, but loneliness will not. No community will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for togetherness and wholeness, because the lack does not lie outside us, but within.
This is very well illustrated in the example of congregational life. When we came to chapel recently, we observed social distance, we wore masks and sat separately. Despite all the constraints upon us, all who attended said how good it was to be together again. What we were experiencing was the effect of our own response to being there, much more than the effect of other people upon us. It reminded me of a friend who used to say how beautiful and sublime a piece of music was, even though it was being played on his awful tinny transistor radio! It was his response to the memory of the music, not to what he actually heard.
If, for example, we should set out to form friendships, or indeed loving relationships, in the expectation of finding peace and contentment, we are burdening others with a very difficult task. At the same time, we may be preventing or stifling expressions of true friendship and love, which ought to arise naturally.
Friendship and love cannot develop in the form of expectations. Relationships actually ask for space in which we can move both to and from each other.
It’s an illusion that the solution to loneliness lies in togetherness. I am sure that many of us will be familiar with the message in Kahlil Gibran’s well-known words:
Sing and dance together and be joyous,
But let each of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone
Though they quiver with the same music.
Stand together, yet not too near together;
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress
Grow not in each other’s shadow.
Instead of running away from our loneliness, one way of thinking about it is to regard it as something that it is our business to protect. For as long as our feelings of loneliness persist, we can cultivate a garden of quietness within, a fruitful solitude.
Often we turn to wise and good people with our difficulties, in the hope that they will say or perhaps do something which will alleviate our problem, lift our burden, grant some relief. Often we discover that it is only we ourselves who can effect the change. Do not run, but be quiet and silent. Listen attentively to your own struggle. The answer to your question is hidden in your own heart.
It seems we have to take the risk of entering into our own experience. The Dutch priest Henri Nouwen once quoted a friend as saying: “Learning to weep, learning to keep vigil, learning to wait for the dawn: perhaps this is what it means to be human.”
It is certainly hard to fully believe this, because we habitually turn instead to others, to books, experiences, plans, daydreams, — always hoping that maybe this time an answer outside our self may be found.
If we ever do listen carefully to our restless hearts, however, we may indeed begin to find that in the midst of all our fears there is peace, and in the midst of loneliness we can find the beginnings of a peaceful solitude. Amen.
[Our concluding prayer is from an adaption by Sydney Knight]
Hear, O Infinite Spirit, the silent prayer in all our hearts, that in this hour of worship we may come closer to the meaning of life.
Help us to be true to our inner selves, that we may think and speak the truth without fear.
May we love the cause of human welfare, the better life for all, the sacred hope of a free and united human fellowship.
Help us to make our congregation a beloved community, where sorrows are composed, wounds healed, and hearts uplifted, so that our lives both apart and together may be lived with new confidence and hope. Amen.