Prayer is one way to use those moments of simple loneliness. CNS photo/Chaz Muth

A hermit’s guide to handling loneliness

By  Isabel Armiento, Catholic Register Special
  • May 2, 2020

Loneliness is certainly not unique to this time of pandemic, but it is no surprise that under quarantine we are lonelier than ever.

Yet, while modern discourse considers loneliness a disease and even an epidemic, the Catholic Church considers it a possible cure: religious hermits choose to live in physical solitude, using loneliness as a tool for prayer, reflection and spiritual growth.

By social distancing, we are all currently living hermit-like lives: we can leave the house to buy groceries or see a doctor, but we mostly choose to stay isolated indoors. The difference is that, unlike hermits, we don’t feel like we have any other choice. Why, we may wonder, would someone choose to live in solitude? And how can the average person cope with, and even grow from, their experience of loneliness?

The Catholic Register asked Sr. Laurel O’Neal, a hermit practising at Stillsong Hermitage in Oakland, Calif., how to avoid loneliness while social distancing.

“I once heard a priest say to a group of retreatants, ‘Hermits never feel loneliness’, ” said O’Neal. “Nonsense!”

O’Neal is 70, and has been a hermit for 35 years. She believes trying to eliminate loneliness is the wrong approach because it would be near impossible to achieve; instead, we can learn to accept feelings of loneliness and find meaning in them. She said hermits distinguish between two types of loneliness: simple loneliness and complicated, or malignant, loneliness.

“Simple loneliness is a form of suffering natural to human existence,” she said. “It reminds us we are made for and capable of loving others. We experience simple loneliness when, for instance, we read something beautiful, have an insight, or otherwise experience something inspiring which we want to share with someone.”

O’Neal spends much of her day reading, writing and praying, and these moments of simple loneliness give meaning to the limited time she spends with others.

“Solitude is about communion, not isolation,” she said. “Allow time together to be as sacred as it would be at Mass.”

Fr. Innocent Okozi, a clinical psychologist at Southdown Institute, north of Toronto, a facility that supports the mental health of clergy, also sees benefits in solitude.

“Solitude helps us to examine the quality of our human relationships, and to genuinely care for others as well as seek to share our gifts, time and talents with others who are more vulnerable or less privileged than we are,” he said. “Solitude could help us know that we have more in common with each other than what divides us.”

Simple loneliness is a normal, even necessary, part of life; however, in order to thrive in isolation, we must accept and value solitary moments of inspiration and resist the urge to constantly share them.

"Solitude is about communion, not isolation"

- Sr. Laurel O’Neal

Social media serves as a useful platform for creating community, yet if we feel compelled to turn every private moment into a public one, our simple loneliness could become malignant. O’Neal notes that malignant loneliness “represents a kind of existential emptiness, usually hidden by workaholism, shopaholism and other ‘isms’ and addictions.”

We often hear a defence against the loneliness of quarantine is to busy ourselves with work, hobbies and Netflix. But while these distractions have merit, they make it easy to avoid meaningful solitude.

“Solitude helps us accept the reality that possession of things, wealth and power may make life somewhat easier in some instances, but does not equate to human wellbeing, life satisfaction or happiness,” said Okozi. “Solitude helps us (deal with) the different challenges we face each day (and) accept the things beyond our control…. It helps us to know who we are as people and strive to live an authentic human life.”

The words we use when speaking and thinking about loneliness can therefore transform our experience and the phrase “social isolation” can carry harmful connotations.

“I live in solitude, rather than in isolation,” said O’Neal.

“I see being isolated as more than mere physical solitude; it means being personally, not just physically separated from others.”

She thinks of isolation as a state of self-centredness and misanthropy. Solitude, on the other hand, has the power to build community.

Many people living in quarantine suffer from a disrupted sense of self as things that once defined them — career, community involvement, intimate relationships — feel out of reach. Like those quarantined by the pandemic, O’Neal didn’t choose a life in isolation; rather, a chronic seizure disorder forced her to do so, as her seizures compromised her ability to teach and could be triggered by ambient sound.

Becoming a hermit allowed her to transform her isolation into solitude: “Over time it became clear that my life is immeasurably meaningful apart from the standards ordinarily driving us, namely work or career, wealth,  success and so forth,” she said.

She recommended that we “give ourselves permission to love and be loved — especially when we are separated from our usual ways of knowing and valuing ourselves.”

Those suffering from mental illness will likely have an especially complicated or malignant experience of loneliness. O’Neal suggests asking a friend or a professional for help to work through any complicated emotions.

She emphasized that we should allow ourselves to be vulnerable now more than ever, to “drop our masks even as we don medical masks.”

(NOTE: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect number of years O'Neal has been a hermit.)

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