human development, social justice and sustainable social systems
What loneliness can bring
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COVID-19 has brought many face to face with loneliness, in its negative sense. Yet, in terms of spirituality, loneliness also has its own purpose within us.
Different types of loneliness:
A 12-year-old girl is killed by a high-speed train while trying to take a selfie with the train in the distance behind her. A year later, her mother remains bitter and resentful toward her daughter, who left her with only a void at home and the feeling there is no longer any meaning to her life.
Roland, 24, finishes a law degree, but leaves home to join the contemplative monastery of the Grande Chartreuse in France, forever. His mother talks about the empty place at home as one of the greatest gifts she has received in her life.
These two life experiences illustrate the difference between emptiness and fulfillment. We could describe many more situations of loneliness, such as the brokenness felt when a couple separates after many years or at the passing of one of the partners after more than 50 years of a happy marriage. We can imagine the loneliness of refugees in a camp or the lack of prospects for African farmers waiting for the rain that never comes. We might feel lonely at times, but so many people live with a permanent feeling of not being considered and worthlessness. Recent retirees often do not know how to fill their day and wonder why get up in the morning.
There is a distinction between voluntary solitude – maybe after a long period of exercise and effort – as something positive and life-fulfilling, and involuntary solitude, which is experienced as loss, exclusion and a lack of possibility. During the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, amid tragic loss, some people have used staying at home to regain interiority. Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) encourages people to empty their soul and take leave of what interests them in materials in Gods’ name: ‘At all levels of our existence we need to reach emptiness, to be totally naked in front of God’.
Msgr. Luc Van Looy
Bishop Emeritus of Ghent
President of Caritas Europa 2015-20