23 September 2021, The Tablet

A mob of sanctified shut-ins would protest that aloneness can be edifying


St Gemma Galgani – mystic and stigmatist – was reputedly brought coffee in bed by her guardian angel. Learning about this angelic Deliveroo service recently, I was imme­diately taken with the idea – although my own guardian angel has disappointingly failed to respond to hints I’ve been ­dropping to that effect.

Part of the reason why I like the story is my near-infinite appetite for what’s lurid and grotesque in Catholic spirituality. When I first heard of Flannery O’Connor’s proposal that the Church adopt a motto reading: “We Guarantee to Corrupt Nothing But Your Taste”, it felt like a personal attack. But I liked reading about Galgani’s coffee-toting cherub for another reason, too. I found it consoling.

I wasn’t surprised that lockdown made me twitchy and tense. I was surprised by how lonely I became, and how intense that feeling was: how I spent hours and days feeling overwhelmed, not by external difficulties but by a sharp, painful awareness of my own lack. Low moods, hard days, troubled weeks: I had experienced all these before. But my own need for company and conversation; the way in which solitude made me humiliatingly desperate for speech and touch: this was a journey into terra incognita, into the blank spaces on the map of myself.

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