A pen appeared, and the god said:
‘Write what it is to be
man.’ And my hand hovered
long over the bare page,
until there, like footprints
of the lost traveller, letters
took shape on the page’s
blankness, and I spelled out
the word ‘lonely’. And my hand moved
to erase it; but the voices
of all those waiting at life’s
window cried out loud: ‘It is true.’
R S Thomas
I came across this poem while I was writing a discussion paper on using words in worship and faith. It struck me immediately as beautifully crafted, spare, profound and honest. The poet is traditionally a lonely figure, along with the writer. But here, Thomas is claiming that loneliness is the universal human condition, affecting us all. He accepts this with reluctance, wanting to erase the word, but has to face the fact that it is true.
Being a writer means being prepared to be truthful about human experience, not write what we think people ought to feel. And being truthful begins with ourselves. It can be one of the hardest challenges to face.
I, and no doubt some of you, have been told that being close to Jesus, having fellowship with God, means never feeling lonely. But R S Thomas pictures himself open to God’s leading and voice, and conscious of the invisible presence of others, and yet still lonely. Their company does not reduce the reality of his loneliness.
Those who experience loneliness know this to be true. It is not just being in company, not even the company of loving friends and family, that takes away the pang; often loneliness is increased by company because it emphasises our isolation. I wrote the following poem years ago while I was surrounded by other Christians at a retreat weekend:
I have not lost my way,
I should be where I am;
a shepherd need not search
for this lost lamb.
But if he looked inside,
he’d see within my heart
the wolf, with cruel claws,
tears me apart.
There is comfort, though, as there is in all suffering – the fellowship of others who also feel lonely. That is why I love Thomas’s poem: because he understands, shares and truthfully expresses my humanity. And there is comfort in discovering that Jesus thoroughly knew the loneliness of the human condition. You only have to read the accounts of Gethsemane to see this, where he is left alone while his friends sleep, even though he has asked them to stay awake with him.
There is also a positive side to the loneliness of being human – it creates in us a sensitivity towards others, an awareness of true love and friendship, and it draws us towards the heart of our Creator. For the writer, it gives us insight, vulnerability and motivation.
We are not yet at journey’s end, we also wait at life’s window; not waiting to be born, but to enter the new society where God and humanity will dwell face to face in perfect fellowship. I met someone once who described her pangs of loneliness and discontent as feeling ‘homesick for heaven’. And that is a feeling to bring us hope and tug us closer to God.