This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on 12th July 2019.
I was recently in the Braes of Glenlivet attending the annual Scalan Mass. Luckily the weather was kind and we enjoyed sunshine although the wind was rather cold. It’s a long time since I had visited the area and driving from place to place I remarked on the distance between neighbours. This is a feature of rural life we tend to forget. There is no chance of nipping round the corner to the shop if you run out of milk here.
Loneliness in the farming community has been highlighted recently. Farms are no longer places where the work is done by manual labour. Farms don’t have crowds of farmhands pitching in to get the work done. Mechanisation has taken over much of the hard labour but also makes farming a more isolated occupation. The psychological effects of isolation take their toll on health and lifespan.
I wondered if I could adapt to living in relative isolation like country folk. When the children were young we enjoyed holidays here. Getting away from the bustle and noise was refreshing but that was only for a short time. We were soon home enjoying a less lonely existence.
Of course I’m thinking of ourselves living near family and friends with neighbours close by. That is not the reality that many people experience living in our towns and cities. Recent surveys have found that more and more homes are occupied by one person. There are many reasons for this. Among older people the death of a spouse leaves the widow alone in their home. Younger people leave home, often moving away to work, and find themselves alone in a flat in an unfamiliar city.
Marriage breakup results in one household becoming two single occupier households. Young people who have to leave care find themselves living alone without the support they have been used to. Strangely, in a modern society where technology has given us the means to communicate across the world instantly, loneliness is becoming a major problem. The human need to contact others is often not being met.
Now you might think this is a social problem and I’m going off topic in a Catholic paper. I would suggest that if we take a closer look we might find that this is at the root of our religion. Admittedly there is nothing in the Ten Commandments about loneliness and I can’t remember anything in the Catechism about it. However if we go back to the very start, the book of Genesis, where we see how God created the world we get a picture of what God intended for us.
In Chapter two we get a description of the Garden of Eden and all the resources God puts there to meet man’s needs, water and plants. God fashions man out of the earth and breathes life into him. Then, when had settled man in the garden He looked at what he had done and decided something was missing.
“Yahweh God said ‘It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate.’”
Genesis 2: 18
Now we often take this passage and find in it the message that it is natural for man and woman to be a couple. I’m just looking at the first part where God plainly tells us that it is not good for man to be alone. It’s clearly not God’s intention that we should be alone and Genesis is giving the Church a clear message about loneliness.
So what can the Church do to combat loneliness? The first thing I notice is that the Church instructs us to attend Mass on a Sunday. This clearly brings us into contact with other people on a regular basis. There we meet people who we have something in common with and provides the opportunity to arrange other contacts. Sunday Mass is not the controlling burden some might imagine, it is a positive step in preventing loneliness. When I was younger there were all sorts of Church organisations that sprung from this. There were societies for women, for men and for the young, all of them bringing us into contact with others.
Times have changed and much of this activity has died away. The nature of parish life has changed with many people attending Mass in other parishes and not getting involved in their own parish. I must confess to being part of that problem. We moved house a couple of years ago, just along the road. That put us just over the parish boundary. Because we have various roles in the parish we continue to attend our original church. We need to rethink how our parishes respond to the growing problem of loneliness.
A good example of what can be done is in our parish in Coatbridge. We have a tearoom in the hall behind the church. The tearoom is open every day after the ten o’clock mass and stays open ‘till late in the afternoon. Because the church is on the main street the tearoom is a convenient meeting place for all sorts of people. It is staffed by volunteers and provides a lunch at minimal cost. People can meet friends there and sit all day with a cup of tea and nobody asks them to move. It is a warm place where people of all religions or none can find a friendly welcome.
Our parish priest has an eye for lost souls. Many people have gone in to the tearoom, knowing nobody and before long they have a job to do. Soon they can be part of the volunteer staff keeping the tearoom going for the benefit of others. This is the real answer to loneliness, including people. At Mass we are invited to include the person beside us at the Sign of Peace. It’s a simple act, a handshake and a smile. I was surprised recently to see someone on Twitter complaining that he was expected to do this. He claimed he would refuse take part. How many of us are unhappy about the Sign of Peace? Do we just give a quick handshake or do we make eye contact? Do we smile? Is there any warmth behind the gesture we make? Now I’ve said this before and it is true. We will never know how our words and actions have an effect on other people. We don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s head and the right word or gesture at the right moment can make a big difference to someone who is struggling. God decided it was not right for Adam to be lonely. Perhaps it’s time we all came to the same conclusion and opened up to others.