When I moved to Winnipeg in the summer of 2017, my furniture took quite a few days to catch up with me. A friend had accompanied me on the road trip here from southern Ontario, but she flew back before the moving truck arrived. Since I didn’t start working at the Centre for Christian Studies for another week or two (thank goodness, as all my work clothes were on the road somewhere!), I was left in an empty apartment in a new city. Alone.
This is the first time I have ever lived by myself. After moving from my parents’ house in the small town where I grew up, I lived with roommates, and then with my daughter and eventually my (now ex) husband and a second child. I have lived with parents and partners and kids and friends and cats and dogs and goldfish and even a turtle. But the move to the prairies coincided with moving into the empty nest stage of my life. Even my dog and houseplants stayed in Ontario!
Some of the adjustments to living alone are immediate, concrete, and practical: grocery shopping is different now that my 20-year-old son is no longer in my household! Other aspects of alone-ness sneak in like fog – it took me a while to notice how often I could spend a weekend without talking to another person. I’ve learned to be a bit braver with offering invitations, and also go by myself to concerts or other events.
The circumstances of alone-ness shape our experience of it. Alone-ness can feel like a restorative retreat, a heartbreaking loss, spacious freedom, or numbing loneliness. The circumstances that transition us into alone-ness can be sudden or gradual, freely chosen or devastatingly foisted upon us.
Our experiences of being alone shape the ways we offer, receive, and participate in ministry, from who is invited into leadership roles to which secular holidays we celebrate in worship, to how we navigate coffee time. Our sense of being alone – of who is alone and whether alone-ness correlates with being single or partnered, how alone-ness and loneliness are connected – shapes our decisions.
Some of us appreciate the quiet and space of being alone more than others. Some of us associate being alone with being lonely. Others have experienced loneliness most acutely in broken relationships or at the edges of community.
I find stretches of time alone with myself restorative, and I have to more actively work at not letting myself become isolated – especially as following my call to ministry has included many moves into new communities. I suspect many introverted clergy struggle to reserve enough energy to forge and maintain social connections; it is easy to feel “peopled out” by Sunday afternoon!
And yet there are times when being alone feels haunted by grief, when Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 feel less like an exhortation and more like a lament:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
What kind of love do we need to “have” in order to avoid being a noisy nothing? Are love and alone-ness discrete from one another? Does alone-ness itself generate needs?
A widely held belief in the Church seems to be that Being Alone + Being a Certain Age = Needing a Visit. Preferably from the minister. And the practice of pastoral visitation is one which generates feelings of inadequacy amongst clergy – visiting is easy to let slide down the priority list. Pastoral visitation often falls by the wayside when parishes can no longer afford full-time clergy. Part time (or unpaid) ministry often only covers Sunday worship and pastoral emergencies. Lay people may not feel well equipped for to become pastoral visitors. The differences between social and pastoral visiting are not always clear, especially for “regular” visitation (rather than visitation during crisis or loss).
In my experiences of visiting older parishioners who lived alone, the state of alone-ness did not create a common visitation situation. Some people were isolated and mourning the absence of loved ones and the loss of social connection. Others were fiercely independent and had busier schedules than I! Some visits were with wise elders who deftly oriented me to the community through storytelling, others filled with long pauses as a deeply buried spiritual concern started to surface. Prayers and stories and tears and wisdom were shared – but I am not convinced that their alone-ness provided anything other than the opportunity to make time to visit. I wonder how many visits were missed because people weren’t identified as being alone? I wonder who might be better served by a strengthening of their community ties rather than a visit from the minister.
The gravest danger of assigning pastoral visitation to clergy is that it risks displacing the pastoral ministry of the community.Congregations are strengthened when the laity is empowered and equipped for the ministry of visitation – taking fellowship and community with us beyond the sanctuary doors. Time spent together can alleviate moments of loneliness, but, more importantly, knits us together in community.
Being alone can mean many things, and will be experienced differently by each of us at different moments in our lives. We give a gift of honesty when we acknowledge the deep pain of loneliness and the reality that loneliness is not a state limited to people easily identified as alone. We give a great gift of presence when we visit with one another in a spirit of grace and kindness, by not being in a hurry. Sometimes we give ourselves the gift of alone-ness – a stretch of time to be at peace with ourselves, to listen to our own concerns and joys.
At its best, alone-ness grants us the understanding that we are never alone at all. That the One who loves us – Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer – is always at our side and in our hearts. Already waiting in the quiet empty apartment in the new city. Always ready to welcome us home.
Michelle Owens is a diaconal minister, and the Principal of the Centre for Christian Studies, a national theological school in Winnipeg with connections to the Anglican Church of Canada and The United Church of Canada.