Recently, the British Government appointed a Minister for Loneliness.
It came as the result of a government report that suggested that 9 million Britons or 14 percent of the U.K.’s population suffer from loneliness. The appointment of a minister briefed with the task of alleviating this problem appeared, if nothing else, a bureaucratic response to a very personal issue. Some observers have ridiculed the move asking what can a government minister do for lonely people the length and breadth of the land?
Looking back now, I realize that I have met many lonely people, more perhaps than I was aware. In a metropolis of approximately 14 million souls, there are many who rarely speak to anyone from day to day, other than to those with whom they work, and then there is the loneliness of the elderly, the sick, the unemployed. In London it is not difficult to find confirmation of the words of Mother Teresa who, on visiting such cities, remarked: “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love.” The saint went on to identify this as the real “poverty in the West” with at its root “a hunger for love… [ultimately] a hunger for God.”
This city, so full of people, seemingly suffers an emptiness at its core, one that penetrates the souls of some. A number of years ago, there was a headline in London’s evening paper that was as macabre as it was sad. For reasons not altogether clear, a young woman had died alone in her apartment. Her body remained there unnoticed for three years, illumined only by the light of a flickering television screen whilst circulars and mail piled up by the front door, until, finally, the property was repossessed by bailiffs and the discovery made. In that drab apartment at the top of a gray tower block which was as socially isolating as at least one of its occupants appeared to be, these skeletal remains were a peculiarly morbid insight into an aspect of city life about which most of us would rather not think.
Many saints when asked about loneliness have simply replied that with Our Lord, especially in the Blessed Sacrament, there could be no such thing as loneliness for the Catholic. It is depressing, therefore, when one finds one of London’s Catholic churches locked and firmly bolted against the public. That said, when walking around the city, it is always a joy to come across a church that is open. To be able to exit the hustle of the street, and, if only for a few moments, sit in His Presence: to tell of sorrows, to ask for favours, to listen for inspirations. These moments offer a time of real communication, a real encounter with a faithful companion; such visits never fail to strengthen, to cheer even. They are “food” for the journey.
There was a tale I came across some years back. It concerned a priest walking in rural France where he met an old woman who greeted him “and his company.” Since the priest was alone, he was surprised by these words and asked what she meant. The woman replied, “And your Guardian Angel, where did you leave him?” It made the priest reflect. Subsequently, in his private oratory he arranged a corner dedicated to his constant “company.”
As St. Gregory the Great writes, “…Ever since we have acknowledged our King, the angels have recognised us as their fellow citizens. And seeing that the King of Heaven wished to take on our earthly flesh, the angels no longer shun our misery…They have now no difficulty in regarding man as companion.”
As Catholics, therefore, we need to be more convinced that we are never alone. Our Guardian Angels, in particular, to say nothing of the whole Communion of Saints, are constantly with us. When feeling alone, afraid or depressed we should try a conversation with our Guardian Angel, a favorite saint, or, with our constant companion in trials, Our Blessed Mother, or address the still more intimate Holy Spirit — the Comforter — dwelling within. We may be surprised at the “conversation” to be had.
For Catholics living in the United Kingdom, our need for the services of the newly appointed Minister for Loneliness is, therefore, not so acute, ministered to, as we are, every waking moment by unseen spiritual companions, and reassured by them that we are not alone, and — if we only realized it — never have been.