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Just after Easter on my day off and bank holiday, I went away for two nights to Ilkley, by myself. I stayed right beside Ilkley Moor and had a relaxing couple of days going on big walks (and getting sun burnt). As an introvert I am happy going away by myself, although I do recognise my need for some socialising! That’s why on my recent week of leave I decided against going by myself to Belgium and instead went to the exotic land of Hitchin, Hertfordshire. A couple of good friends moved there with their two young children. I had a really nice time just being around them and I came back as refreshed as I did when I spent two days by myself on Ilkley Moor. Why am I telling you this? Well, this week is Mental Health Awareness Week with a special focus on ‘loneliness’. I recognised that I have a tendency to spend too much time by myself, which at first can be refreshing but can become unhealthy and turn into loneliness.
I guess the reason for the focus on loneliness for Mental Health Awareness Week, is that the pandemic has exacerbated one of the biggest problems that already existed in our society. In my last sermon at the cathedral, I focused on the alienation and loneliness that Peter would have felt after disowning Jesus three times. One of the ways Jesus addresses this alienation is to give specific attention to Peter and to the cause of his alienation and probable feeling of loneliness and disconnection. Jesus doesn’t brush the issue of Peter’s denial under the carpet but says three times “do you love me?” which mirrors Peter’s threefold denial before the crucifixion.
Loneliness is hard to face. Our culture is increasingly sophisticated at avoiding pain, whether physical, mental, or emotional. Henri Nouwen says that “we need to stop filling our time with busyness that can be a game that helps us avoid loneliness”. Even though social distancing is ending, and we are expected to get back to ‘normal’ and our calendars fill up, this can be used an excuse to avoid paying attention to the loneliness we feel, the alienation and genuine closeness we feel to others. Even though I spent time with friends at the weekend, it still required attention, to be vulnerable with them, and to truly listen to how they were doing. This is also the case in our spiritual life. We can turn up for services, say the right things, but in our hearts feel lonely and alienated from God’s love.
As we focus this week on mental health and loneliness, let’s be brave a say a prayer, asking God to take us on a journey of paying attention to those things that may be the cause of loneliness – both with those around us and with God. The good news of the Gospel is that we are talking to the resurrected Christ who paid close attention to Peter and in faith we believe that he also pays close attention to us.
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