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From Loneliness to Solitude - Unitarian sermon by Rev. Robert Hardies


Our reading this morning is from the Unitarian poet, May Sarton. It is from the very first entry in her best-selling book, Journal of a Solitude:

September 15th

Begin here. It is raining. I look out on the maple, where few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself, and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my 'real' life again at last. That's what is strange -- that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life, unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and 'the house and I resume old conversations...

The ambience here is order and beauty. This is what frightens me when I am first alone again. I feel inadequate. I have made an open place, a place for meditation. What if I cannot find myself inside it? [In this journal] I hope to break through into the rough, rocky depths [of life], to the matrix itself. There is violence there and anger never resolved. And, my need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge, empty, silence...


One Sunday morning a few years ago, at a church I served before coming to All Souls, I stood on the front steps of the church -- much as I do here -- and greeted those who arrived. These front step greetings are one of my favorite rituals of Sunday morning. A chance for me to connect, if only briefly, with each and every person who walks through the doors. It allows me to take the temperature, if you will, of the congregation. To feel where people are that morning.

The particular morning I'm thinking of, a woman ambled up the steps to the church. Her eyes were cast down, and a shadow hung over her face. This was a woman I'd seen Sunday after Sunday, but who had never interacted with me at any length. I didn't know her very well. We usually shook hands, but that morning she came up to me and gave me a big hug.

Now, as a minister, I give and receive lots of hugs. It's one of the perks of the job. And having given quite a lot of them, I have a sense for what the typical Sunday morning ministerial hug feels like. It's firm but gentle, and usually lasts only a moment or two. Sometimes, though, the hug is longer and more intense than usual, and that's when I know that there's something going on in a person's life. You can just tell from the hug. And at those times, a simple greeting becomes a moment of healing ministry.

Well on that day, this woman's hug was long and it was tight, and she wouldn't let go. So I held her. And when she was done she said to me with tears in her eyes that the greetings she received at church on Sunday mornings -- the hugs and handshakes from minister and congregation -- were the only human touch she received all week long. "Thank you," she said, and she walked into the sanctuary and took her seat.

Loneliness is a horrible, horrible thing. And it is far more pervasive than we can imagine. Partly because when we are lonely, we always think we're the only ones. But loneliness is not confined to those who live alone, it plagues married and partnered people, families with and without children, people with lots of friends. Young, old, middle-aged -- loneliness runs the gamut. Indeed, therapists confirm that it is the most frequently-cited reason that people seek professional counseling. Loneliness saps our vitality. It makes us feel scared and insecure and vulnerable. The isolation and disconnectedness that it fosters leave us feeling unloved. Or worse, unlovable. Loneliness is an assault on our sense of our own worth and dignity. A worth and a dignity that are our birthright and that we should never have to question.

Being alone for any length of time inevitably brings us face to face with the void. With that series of questions and fears that we don't want to entertain. The fear that we are unloved. The fear that we are alone. The fear of that great loneliness called death. The suspicion that we secretly harbor but rarely utter, that there may be no real rhyme or reason to our life. No purpose or meaning to our being here. In short, loneliness can be terrifying.

And so, we do all we can to avoid it. Don't we? Anything to bring us back from the brink of that abyss. Of that void. Just think of all the time we spend trying to convince ourselves we're not alone. Is it just me, or does anyone else feel like you spend the entire day checking to see who's contacted you? Checking your office voicemail. Checking your home voicemail. Checking your cell phone voicemail. Checking e-mail. Checking to see if the letter carrier arrived. And all the while quietly disappointed that we hear more from those who would sell us something, or demand something of us, than those who would love us.

Even in this frantic and dense urban environment, where the streets are snarled with traffic and the sidewalk and cafes crowded with people. Even here we are alone, the bumping and jostling of bodies on the sidewalk or supermarket aisle a meager consolation for the absence of authentic human touch. We run away from our loneliness, busying ourselves with work and errands and shopping. Racing frantically, fighting traffic, running red lights and cutting corners. Until one day, says Langston Hughes, until one day "you hurry around the corner and the person you bump into will be yourself. And then you'll know there are no more corners to turn." You can't run anymore. All our voicemails. All our frenzy can't save us from our loneliness. Eventually we must meet it face to face and confront what it is we find there.

Only when this happens -- only when we stop fleeing our loneliness and instead allow ourselves to settle into it for a time -- to rest in it -- to tolerate the void, to ask the painful questions that need to be asked -- only when this happens can we begin to transform our loneliness into something richer.

You know, I grew up as an only child. And I've come to believe that one of the gifts (one of the MANY gifts) of the only child is that she develops the ability, at an early age, to cope with loneliness. Only children often find themselves on their own, and as a child you don't have the agency to flee your loneliness. So you learn to cope. You learn to make it your friend.

There was a great piece by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker a few months ago. In it, he expressed concern about his 4-year-old daughter's psychological development. You see, his daughter -- also an only child -- had created an imaginary friend. That childhood play mate who shares our toys, and dutifully takes our orders. But this little girl's imaginary friend was different from all previous imaginary friends in one significant respect. And therein lay the author's concern for his daughter. You see, his daughter had imagined a friend who was always too busy to play with her.

So for instance, the little girl would flip open her imaginary cell phone and, imitating her parents clipped New York speech, would bark into the phone, "meet me at Starbucks in 25 minutes." Nervously, the girl's parents would watch to see if this time, the friend would make good on the play date. After a long pause, the mother gingerly asked, "What did your friend say, sweetie?" Unperturbed, the girl replied, "He already had an appointment."

My point is that children are resilient in their ability to cope with being alone. They make their loneliness a companion (even if an overscheduled companion). And though our adult loneliness is different from a child's, I think we have to learn to do the same. To find in our loneliness a companion. The novelist Ann Packer, who has explored loneliness in her writing, says: "Lonely is a funny thing. It's almost like another person. After awhile, it'll keep you company if you'll let it."

If we spend enough time with our loneliness we will discover that the silent companion of whom Ann Packer speaks is, of course, ourselves. The part of ourselves that lies beneath the busyness of our daily lives. The part of ourselves that resides beyond the initial fear of loneliness and meaninglessness. That place beneath and beyond is a place called solitude. And it is different from loneliness.

A little bit further along in her journal from which I read this morning, May Sarton would write the memorable phrase, that "loneliness is the poverty of the self [and] solitude is the richness of the self." The self is poor because we were created as interdependent beings and therefore, alone, we are incomplete, insufficient, vulnerable. The self is rich, because within us lies the soul. And within the soul a spark of the divine. A piece of the holy. A limitless world waiting to be discovered.

The difference between loneliness and solitude in our inner lives, is very similar to the difference between how we use the words naked and nude to describe our physical bodies. Naked describes the human body stripped and vulnerable. Naked refers to what the body lacks, clothing. Nude, on the other hand, refers to the bare body as a thing of beauty. A work of art. A sculpture. Similarly, loneliness describes all that is lost when we are alone; solitude describes all that is gained.

In our reading this morning, May Sarton called the time that she spent alone with only herself and her thoughts, her "real life." Because for her all the socializing and loving that she did in the world wasn't real unless there was an opportunity to stand back and in silence reflect on it. To discover who she was, and what she cared about, and what she believed. So that she could then bring that fuller, richer self back into relationship with the world.

Solitude can lead to a rich communion with the soul. A conversation with the soul. Beyond our fear and loneliness there is a calm companionship, a peace. We are at home in our own thoughts, feelings and bodies. Here, we are afraid.

In solitude we do as Sarton sought to do in her journal, "to break through to the rough, rocky, depths of life, to the matrix itself." This is a religious task. The conversation that we have our souls in this solitude is the fountainhead of the spiritual life, from which all else flows. The great religious philosopher Alfred North Whitehead says: "Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness." (Religion in the Making)

In fact, the spiritual journey requires that we do two things with respect to our solitariness. It requires that we cultivate a solitude that will allow us to discover the richness of the self. And it requires that we create community so that we might alleviate the poverty of the self.

Friends, my prayer for this church is that we might build a community where the loneliness in each of us reaches out to the loneliness of the other, so that we might offer one another communion. And, further, that we might build a community where the solitude in each of us reaches out to the solitude of the other, so that we might offer one another a glimpse of the holy.

May it be.


All Souls Church, Unitarian: Rev. Robert Hardies, senior minister, February 2, 2003