Loneliness – My Column full text

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.

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Journey


I’ve been planning three journeys this year. I’m going up to the Scalan mass in June then in July I’m going to Benbecula for an ordination. I’m no sooner home from that than I’m off to Canada to visit my son and his family. I used to enjoy journeys but I don’t find them so interesting now. Maybe I’m getting old. (You don’t need to agree with that too quickly)

I don’t enjoy driving on long journeys on busy roads. The traffic is heavy and you really need to keep a good lookout for people doing foolish things. You don’t get a chance to see what’s around you. Flying is no better. Our flight to Canada will entail going to Manchester, the only way we can get a direct flight to Vancouver. Glasgow to Vancouver was always popular but that’s gone. Long waits at airports are a real pain.

We go on journeys to find something. I’m going to the Scalan to find and celebrate a little bit of our history. The other journeys are to catch up with family and find out how they are living. Most of all I suppose I’m going on journeys to find something about myself. It used to be fashionable to go on a journey to find yourself. The Beatles went to India to spend time with the Maharishi and find themselves. That puzzled me at the time. I thought that was strange to look for yourself in a place you had never visited before..

I’ve since realised that they were probably right. When you move out of your normal environment and encounter different people in different cultures it shows up aspects of your own life you took for granted. Travelling in Africa I’ve encountered people who would give you their last cup of water or bowl of rice. That made me question my own commitment to others. I might give some spare money to a charity but these people literally gave away all they had.

Young people are often encouraged to take a ‘gap year’ to find themselves before getting into work. The emphasis is all about ‘me’. We are encouraged to empower ‘me’. To achieve our potential we must concentrate on ‘me’. We are in a modern cult of ‘me’. We have become the focus and centre of our own lives. I think this is a mistake

Life is a journey. Not just cradle to grave but a journey from being a baby knowing nothing growing to discover the world and our place in it. Some have a long journey and some have a short one. Do we get tired of the problems we encounter and miss the interesting things on the way? Life throws up problems that can threaten to overwhelm us and we worry so much we risk missing the important stuff. It can be easy to miss finding out who we really are. Sometimes we are defined by where we live or the job we do. Sometimes it’s about what we own. All of these miss the real ‘me’.

Now I never remember the words of songs but one phrase that has stuck in my memory from the sixties is “You’re so vain I bet you think this song is about you.” I think that sums up the cult of ‘me’. If I focus completely on me then I’m missing out on everything else and because I don’t exist in isolation I’m missing out on part of myself.

I exist as part of something much greater. In John’s gospel we find Jesus explaining just that.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing.”

John 15: 5

So the real you is not just the person I see on the train in the morning, making your way to work, coming home and putting your feet up. You are really part of Christ’s being, part of His work in bringing His kingdom to reality on Earth. Our journey through life is part of that great work. Whether we live in a one bedroom flat or a fifty room mansion is irrelevant. Whether we owe money to the bank or own the bank makes no difference to the real importance of our lives.

Losing sight of that is one of the great tragedies of our times. Our society measures the worth of a person by their wealth, position or celebrity. The poor can be ignored but the rich must be listened to. The media seek out the opinions of celebrities more often that finding people of intellect when reporting events and the great questions of our time.

When we deny the presence of Christ in our lives we reduce human life to that of a commodity we can seek or dispose of as we please. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children reported that in Scotland 13,286 unborn children were aborted in 2018. The National Records of Scotland tell us that the most common cause of death in Scotland in 2017 was Ischaemic heart disease: 6,727deaths.

As we can see abortion is almost twice as lethal as heart disease yet those unborn children are not counted in the statistics. Is that because we might be victims of heart disease ourselves? Do I focus on what might affect me because my life is important and the unborn are not? As a society we certainly seem to have cut ourselves off from God. Cut off from God do we achieve nothing?

We live in an age of great technological advances and of great wealth. Has that helped us to solve the problems of our time? We certainly see advances in medicine, combating diseases that swept the earth in the past. Are we happier now? Some of us live longer, happier lives but we live in a world that seems to be facing growing problems that we might actually be causing.

We see mass movements of migrant trying to escape danger and find a better life. The world’s oceans are predicted to rise and flood coastal cities. The air we breathe is polluted by the vehicles we drive around in. (I confess to driving one of those vehicles.) Scientists warn us that we are changing the planet so that it will not sustain life.

We don’t seem to have achieved much. We don’t seem to have achieved happiness as measured by our society’s values. We are not rich enough, beautiful enough, popular enough or whatever. Only by Gods measure can we see the real value we have.

So when you are trying to find the real you please bear this in mind. It’s not all about ‘me’ it’s about ‘us’. You are important because you are a branch on that vine. You are so important that God sent His only Son to die for you. If God values you so highly why would you even consider the popular values of today?