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The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other

Charlotte Donlon
Broadleaf Books, 192 pages

The pandemic ushered in a new way of living, highlighting our need to connect as we work, worship and gather together on screens. Even with the relaxation of social distancing restrictions, loneliness beckons. Writer and spiritual director Charlotte Donlon has written a timely response for such a time as this in “The Great Belonging.” Part spiritual memoir and part guide, Donlon approaches loneliness as a helpful messenger rather than something to be feared, denied or ashamed of. Donlon’s insightful essays weave back and forth, centered on the power of loneliness to help us remember our belonging to ourselves, each other, art, place and God.

A courageous storyteller, Donlon orients us to the rocky terrain of loneliness, and nowhere is this lesson more evident than in her vulnerable stories on living with bipolar disorder. She writes sparingly of her childhood, but she shares generously about her suffering with an adult onset bipolar disorder diagnosis — how it teaches her to slow down, appreciate tiny moments of joy and structure her days with prayer. As she finds meaningful ways to connect with God through the Daily Office and praying the psalms, we witness Donlon’s graceful strength in learning to dance with pain rather than be diminished by it.

Donlon’s magic is allowing loneliness to broaden her perspective on intimacy. With loneliness as her guide, Donlon explores sex, friendship, church relationships, times of solitude and precious pets through spare yet erudite prose. Her memorable essay on friendship stands out for me; loneliness reminds her to pray to receive new relationships, but also to give thanks for friendships, including lost ones, inspiring us all to bow in gratitude for our friends.

Donlon moves through elegant tales of loving and leaving her various adult homes and how art, music, poetry and nature soothe and challenge us to practice our place in the world. In one essay about place, Donlon’s gift for vulnerability returns; she poignantly describes her experiences of revisiting the home she and her family once shared, reminiscing how homes root us to the earth. Another favorite essay of mine describes her practice of visio divina at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum near Santa Fe, New Mexico. She recognizes through her soulful responses to O’Keefe’s breathtaking art that God loves all of her, her lightness and dark and calls the reader to step into our own belovedness.

The book ends abruptly as Donlon leads us through perhaps the trickiest part of loneliness: feeling disconnected from God. She rightly affirms our belonging to God by gently busting the patently false wisdom that we should never feel lonely for we have Christ as our God. In fact, in her shortest and most instructive essay, her pastor reassures her that even in her most intense times of separation, God holds her tenderly. As I have returned to her resource guide again and again for spiritual nourishment, I let out a contented sigh of thanks that loneliness does not have the last word. In the end, Donlon’s book is a beautiful celebration of our God-given belonging: all our moments are doorways to connection, love and the goodness of God — especially our lonely ones.

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Jenn Zatopek is a writer and mental health therapist from the flatlands of North Texas. She blogs at theholyabsurd.com.

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