The Journey Toward Essential Solitude
In our Gathering today, we used these readings:
I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough
to make every moment holy.
I am too tiny in this world, and not tiny enough
just to lie before you like a thing,
shrewd and secretive.
I want my own will, and I want simply to be with my will,
as it goes toward action;
and in those quiet, sometimes hardly moving times,
when something is coming near,
I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone.
I want to be a mirror for your whole body,
and I never want to be blind, or to be too old
to hold up your heavy and swaying picture.
I want to unfold.
I don’t want to stay folded anywhere,
because where I am folded, there I am a lie.
and I want my grasp of things to be
true before you. I want to describe myself
like a painting that I looked at
closely for a long time,
like a saying that I finally understood,
like the pitcher I use every day,
like the face of my mother,
like a ship
that carried me
through the wildest storm of all.
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
Reflective Reading (from Luke 3)
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
Response of the People (from Albert Einstein, Victor Hugo, Alice Koller, Paul Tillich, William Wordsworth)
One: Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone, and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.
Many: To give thanks in solitude is enough…
One: …Thanksgiving has wings and goes where it must go…
Many: Your prayer knows much more about it than you do.
One: When from our better selves we have too long been parted by the hurrying world, and droop. Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired, how gracious, how benign is solitude.
Many: The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.
One: Being solitary is being alone well…
Many: …being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice…
One: …aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others…
ALL: …because solitude is an achievement.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
The Sermon: "Journey toward Essential Solitude"
Solitude is a place to which we must journey--physically, perhaps; emotionally in our culture, for sure. Consider this moment the beginning of your seasonal journey to solitude; you will carry it the distance you desire when you leave this place today.
It must have been about a year ago when the Huffington Post ran as feature article on ten benefits of solitude. They were all solid, thoughtful reasons, but three jumped out at me.
The article presented evidence that solitude has a way of increasing self-awareness. In short, the “break from external voices puts us in tune to our inner voices, and it's those inner voices that drive our actions.” If those inner voices are healthy, and we are not hearing them audibly, we may be in good shape. The vast number of external voices clamoring for our attention is staggering for most of us; it seems to me that those external voices are calling us in various ways to conform to group standards and to minimize the importance of our inner voices. Definitely, most of the political campaign rhetoric clearly is counting on the herd instinct in its listeners; and I definitely don’t mean “h-e-a-r-d”!
Lots of folks in I’d say most Christian groups talk about God leading them to do this or that; generally, I am fine with such language, and if you listen to me regularly you know that I believe God who is Love lures us always toward that Love. In any case, the more specific the details get, with reference to what someone claims God is leading her or him to do, the more uneasy I become. If God is really caught up in helping first world people with money to spend decide what color their new car should be, I have some other projects I want to call to God’s attention!
When the subject of God’s leading someone to choose ministry as a career path came up, my major professor in seminary used to say, “If you think ministry may be your calling, the question I have for you is this: do you sense inner consent?” The same could be/should be said about whatever career path one takes, don’t you think? The pastoral ministry means that I do most of my work in connection to my congregation, but it doesn’t mean that I should be or could be more valuable to God or society than someone who chooses a non-religious vocation. In either case, clarity comes not when well-intentioned and influential people rah-rah a career possibility for us, but when in solitude we find inner consent.
The second reason I kept in my memory from the Huffington Post article was that solitude helps with brain health. Like muscles, the brain needs disengagement. So, instead of constantly processing multiple messages from multiple sources, the brain occasionally needs to be allowed to carry us to that place, which is for us the most peaceful, beautiful place we have ever visited or imagined. It should be a place where we are relaxed and at peace; not a beautiful place where in our imagination we are running around in a frenzy. It isn’t a place the whole family has to agree on before we can visit there; it’s our very own memory or image that doesn’t have to be explained or justified to anyone. No one else will accompany us there; it’s just for us. This is not escapism; this is refreshment. Escapism would be trying all the time to live in a place in which one did not live, real or imagined.
The third reason the article gave for making a regular place for solitude in one’s life is that solitude nourishes the incubation period, which is often a prerequisite to accomplishing any creative task--whether that is starting or finishing a creative writing project, deciding on the perfect gift for the special person or persons in one’s life, or putting the finishing touches on the renderings an interior decorator will show or he his clients to give an idea of how a room will look when the suggested adjustments are made. Few projects of quality are completed in a single rush effort; of course, there are exceptions such as the amazingly insightful paper a student wrote during an all-nighter hours before the pivotal paper was due. Seminarians and clerypersons out in the real church world are fond of saying when work hasn’t been completed, “I didn’t have time to finish my sermon work this week, but God will give me the words when I open my mouth to speak.” I tell my students, “Yes, God will do that, but only once in your career so get your work done, and don’t blame shoddy results on God!”
If you have an agenda for your brain, you are minimizing the potential of your solitude. Unlike mindfulness practices that encourage those trying to be mindful to push aside gently thoughts that enter one’s thinking when all the person should be thinking about is breathing, in moments of solitude there are no restrictions on one’s thinking. The mind runs, or not, with whatever thought pops in. Jonathan Schooler, who is Professor of Psychological and Brain Science at the University of California Santa Barbara, insists that such daydreaming is an essential experience for healthy, productive minds.
Remember! We are talking about solitude, not ways of tuning out preachers as a communal undertaking! Aldous Huxley put it this way: “The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.”
At Silverside, we call the season of Advent the season of Expectation. I don't know if that has as much impact as it did when the Deacons first established what we called Silverside Seasons because the traditional church year was not meaningful to our congregation; nonetheless, whether Advent or Expectation, these four Sundays leading up to Christmas are Sundays when followers of Jesus--beginning in the year 336--have traditionally concentrated on the significance of the birth of Jesus--that is, the coming of Jesus into this world. And part of Advent or Expectation is always some taking into account of John the Baptizer.
John was/is of greater import than most Jesus fans realize. He was Jesus’ older cousin. He was Jesus’ spirituality mentor--along obviously with some rabbis who taught Jesus the Torah. They both had been raised in cities. John the Baptizer introduced Jesus to the importance solitude.
John the Baptist affiliated himself with the religio-political party called the Essenes, and their place of focus was away from the hustle bustle of cities; instead, their place was the edge of the desert, the edge of the wilderness. They had a monastic community there, which was called Qumran.
It was a very highly developed community with regimens for spiritual practice, one of which was solitude. John was not antisocial, but he realized the importance of time to himself in order to develop fully his spiritual dimension. He needed time to study; he needed time to pray; he needed time to just be.
He learned that for him the routine activities of day to day life in a city were not meaningful. He didn't wear what everyone else; he wore a camel’s hair garment, which must have been itchy but that's for a sermon in the springtime. He didn't have a complicated diet so that he didn't have to worry about where his food was coming from; he ate locusts and wild honey, which from all indications were readily available. Both will be served at this morning’s reception.
Eating locusts some scholars have tried to explain away as actually a sort of locust plant. For what reason I don't know; I suppose eating locusts sounds disgusting to them. But even in the ancient Hebrew law locusts are specifically provided for as a suitable food. It turns out, however, that fire-roasted-locust--even when topped with wild honey reduction--was not a delicacy, but rather food for the poor. John ate locusts and wild honey and thereby identified himself with the poor because these were what the poor ate. These culinary items were not grown or purchased; they were found “in nature.” Given the community in which he lived and having as many supporters as he had, John the Baptist could have been eating a higher grade of food, but it was his intention to identify with the poor.
John is often remembered only for being the forerunner of Jesus and a powerful, confrontational preacher who told people that when you're heading in the wrong direction in life and faith there's only one way you can hope for a fix, and that is to do an about face. But John was concerned also about social justice, and the food he ate was the tell-tale sign that he identified with them. He was not like one of our modern-day filthy rich media preachers who fly in on their private jets for one day of preaching to the destitute as if preaching is going to get them fed and clothed and housed; rather John was like the Doctors Without Borders who go into the worst of human circumstances and live with those in dire need--or like the true missionaries who live permanently among those to whom they will minister; not by trying to evangelize them but by sweating lifeblood to get their basic physical needs met.
Words from two songs we sang when I was a teenager keep darting into my consciousness as I talk with you about John’s identification with the poor. One was from a popular youth musical back in the day: “Go where the people are. Give what you have to give. Share what you have to share, and help them really live.” The other song was sung as my grandparents as their first retirement project headed off to Mali, West Africa, for a two-year term as missionaries--she as a nurse, and he as a maintenance man.
So send I you to bind the bruised and broken
Over wandering souls to work, to weep, to wake
To bear the burdens of a world a-weary
So send I you to suffer for My sake
It wasn't that concern for the poor was an extraneous thought for John or anyone else grounded in the practice of the Jewish religion--not at all. In fact there is an emphasis on caring for the poor otherwise outcast people. But it seems that not so many folks emphasized that. John was an exception, and John was Jesus’ mentor so we wonder if Jesus learned his appreciation not only for solitude from John but also his extraordinary devotion to the poor.
John becomes exemplary for us as well; there are three tasks to which he gave himself tirelessly.
One was a commitment to spiritual nurture of which solitude was a part.
Another was a commitment to preaching to the larger society; whether you're in the pulpit or preaching by how you live, John’s message should be your message and mine: status quo religion has never and will never be satisfactory because the Spirit of God who empowers us and inspires us refuses to be reduced to a creed or a repetition of what our ancestors did.
And the third trait of John’s that we should emulate is an unapologetic, untiring commitment to people who are in need, especially those who have been pushed so far to the edges of society that even do-gooders don't want to be bothered with them. Jesus learned from John, and so should we.
Solitude isn't like meditation or mindfulness the way most people I know practice those. Solitude means being by oneself but not necessarily being physically inactive; one can experience solitude while doing chores, for example.
Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite brother who lived in a monastery in Paris; he died there at the dusk of the seventeenth century. He had a job that would NOT help me with spirituality; it seems that he frequently had kitchen duty that involved washing dishes. Ugh! Nonetheless, Brother Lawrence learned to use that time for solitude, and in his little book, The Practice of the Presence of God, he made reference to the God he encountered in the monastery kitchen as the God of “pots and pans and things.”
One can experience healthy solitude hiking through the woods or arranging flowers or almost any creative activity. I can't imagine many great writers who wrote with others close by. I can't imagine any great composer except, perhaps, Mozart who was able to write amazing music while in the presence of other people. One of Thomas Mann’s characters said, “Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous.”
We see more runners running alone than we see running in groups. In a gym full of people we see the vast majority with earphones on drowning out the sounds of others, creating their own solitude as they work to keep healthy.
Solitude is of importance for any number reasons, but I think the most important reason to master solitude is that ultimately life’s most significant moments or most significant experiences must be processed by oneself. Yes, somebody may be present with us when we have had a great sadness, a great loss. Yes, someone may be with us at joyous times in our lives, but the profundity of those experiences must be pondered in solitude. I think this is what Stephen Vincent Benét meant when he wrote, “There is a wilderness we walk alone/However well-companioned.”
We become aware of the true depth of happiness when in solitude. We can deal most effectively with painful emotions such as grief in solitude because no one else can manage grief for us.
I'm not talking about the life of a hermit, and I'm not talking about loneliness. I'm not talking about isolation. I'm talking about pulling away from the demands of life, from the hectic requirements of life long enough to allow it to make sense.
There's no such thing as a celebration of Christmas without a spiritual dimension. Of course it's entirely possible and widespread for people in first world cultures to celebrate materialism. But that isn't Christmas if Christmas is attached to the beginning of Jesus’ life, knowing that it would be a life of utter devotion to God and to people in need. So I will say again: there is no such thing as a Christmas celebration regardless of how pretty and bright the decor or how expensive the gifts without spirituality. And we would then have to say there's no such thing as Christmas without solitude because solitude is an essential part of spirituality.
We have to stop from time to time to watch for, listen for the movement of Living Love whom many of us identify as God. Christmas should be a time of pondering in our moments of solitude the beginning of a life that would be filled with that Living Love and who would give his all sharing the reality of that love with those who felt the most unloved.