Loneliness and solitude
Grace and Truth: A word from pastorsby Ron Adams
My wife is in Pennsylvania. She and our sons are packing up the rest of the house we still own there. She is also seeing all the friends we left behind when we moved to Wisconsin. Soon she and one of our sons will drive the truck to Madison, and we will move the last of our belongings into our new home. It feels like we are finally settling in here.
Meanwhile, I’m alone in the apartment where we’ve lived for the past nine months. I, too, am moving things to the new house. Boxes and bookshelves and everything I can haul over in our car. Yesterday I painted a bedroom in the new house; it had been an outrageous and entirely unwelcome shade of pink. It’s now a pleasant blue. I’ve been busy while here alone.
The apartment is quiet. This is a good thing, since there is no one for me to talk to but myself. I listen to music. I watch movies. I read. I put things in boxes. I do my pastoral work. And I have time left over to think.
I occasionally feel lonely. Marilou and I talk every evening. Wonderful as that is, it doesn’t really shake the loneliness. In fact, her being in Lancaster makes me even more aware of the friends and things we left behind. Now I’m lonely and sad.
Fortunately, I’m also free to let my mind wander. No one to construct coherent thoughts for but myself. Lo and behold, in this quiet and lonely place I am learning some things about myself and about my vocation.
I am learning the difference between being alone and being in solitude. I’ve tended to conflate the two. But being alone, I am discovering, is to be aware of an emptiness, a loss. Being alone means being without the company of my best friend and companion.
Being alone means regretting what is not there, what is left behind. Being alone is spending time in the company of nothing but my thoughts and memories. And no matter how benevolent those thoughts and memories are, they cannot sustain me for long.
Solitude, though, is about fullness. It’s about spaciousness, room to breathe. It’s an expectant space in which I learn to rest in the loving presence of God. It’s about finding, not losing. Hoping, not regretting. Communing with the Spirit, not just listening to my own head. It’s the kind of space that Jesus entered in order to rest for a while from all the noise we humans make. Solitude is that quiet, holy place where we can lay down everything else but our desire to be embraced by the One who never leaves us or forsakes us.
I’m learning that I can do without aloneness. But I need times of solitude to remember that I am loved.
I’m learning, too, about my vocation. I’m learning that a call to a new congregation does not preclude missing the old. Being called to Madison Mennonite Church does not immunize me against the grief of letting go. It does not shield me from the learning curve or make the change easy. If anything, several months into my new community I miss the old one even more. Being called doesn’t toughen my heart.
But what it does do is this: It tells me that I am exactly where I belong, that the Holy Spirit really was at work in our coming together, Madison Mennonite and me. This frees me from second-guessing. Yes, I miss my old community. And yes, it is right that I am here rather than there, that we are here rather than there.
We’ve got new friends, people we already trust with our lives. Generous people we can count on no matter what comes. People who make us laugh and think and cry and encourage us to be more faithful. People who want only the best for us and work hard to make that best happen. People who desire to offer good news to our community. We are happy here.
I have a few more boxes to pack. We’ll see what else I can learn here alone in this quiet apartment.
Ron Adams is pastor at Madison (Wis.) Mennonite Church.
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