solitude and community...

"... a life in solitude is a life in faith. By leaving behind from time to time our many self-affirming actions and becoming 'useless' in the presence of God, we transcend our inner fears and apprehensions and affirm our God as the one in whose love we find our strength and security."
                                                                                            Henri Nouwen, Solitude and Community

Two of the things I have never quite figured out about church people in all the years I have
served congregations are: 1) why we are so afraid of silence, solitude and contemplative prayer; and 2) why so many of us love ideas but are terrified of our bodies. No joke! Not only are countless people terrified of quiet time - even while we carp about being too busy and frazzled - but another whole gaggle of souls are bewildered about discovering God in our own flesh.

Barbara Brown Taylor puts it like this in her brilliant, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith:

Deep suffering makes theologians of us all. The questions people ask about God in Sunday school rarely compare with the questions we ask while we are in the hospital. This goes for those stuck in the waiting room as well as those in actual beds. To love someone who is suffering is to learn the visceral definition of pathetic: affecting or exciting emotion, especially the tender emotions, as pity or sorrow... To spend one night in real pain (or I might add to share a night of real pain with a beloved person) is to discover depths of reality that are roped off while everything is going fine.

She goes on to note that there is a wisdom to be learned from our pain as well as our pleasure:

Who deserves the way a warm bath feels on a cold night after a hard day's work? Who has earned the smell of a loved one, embracing you on your first night back home? To hold a sleeping child in your arms can teach you more about the meaning of life than any ten books on the subject. To lie in the yard at night looking up at the stars can grant you entrance into divine mysteries that elude you inside the house.

I think one of the reasons I seek out the company of those beyond the community of faith is that they are not as addicted to these two fears as we are who make a home in church. Don't get me wrong, there are other addictions present in the lives of those who live beyond our congregations that are just as debilitating -  and sometimes significantly worse. But for a faith tradition predicated upon the Word made Flesh - the Incarnation - these two are troubling.


I suspect that one reason we shun silence has something to do with the unstructured wisdom that can bubble to the surface in these unguarded moments. If we aren't filling ourselves with noise and activity, we might actually hear what's really going on in our hearts. Or find out that there is more fear and emptiness inside us than we want to know. Or that we haven't really explored  the questions of an adult faith since we were fourteen. Taylor offers another hunch when she reflects on her initial resistance to walking the labyrinth:

The labyrinth may be a set path, but it does not offer a set experience. Instead, it offers a door that anyone may go through, to discover realities that meet each person where each most needs to be met. I suppose this is frustrating to people who want spiritual practices to work the same way a treadmill does...My treadmill is no respecter of person. It delivers reliable results to anyone who uses it on a regular basis. It makes promises it can keep, at least to those who use it the way they are supposed to. Spiritual practices are not like this. The only promise they make is to teach those who engage in them what those practitioners need to know - about being human, about being human with other people, about being human in creation, about being human before God.

In other words, being opened to a holy wisdom within our humanity has to do with a truth we cannot control. Rarely are most of us interested in being asked by the sacred:  "Can these dry bones live?" Ezekiel said with absolute humility, "Only Thou knowest, Lord." To which the Lord said, "Then prophesy to these bones..." And part of the story that I have come to celebrate is that as the prophet obeys, a new spiritual wisdom is enfleshed in once broken and even dead bodies. And so I find that in these days, weeks and months after sabbatical, I keep insisting that we keep practicing, experimenting and trying out new/old ways of making silence and solitude real both within the Body of Christ - community - as well as in our own personal bodies. Nouwen writes - and I have rediscovered - that:

In solitude we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice, cruelty, hatred, jealousy and envy are deeply anchored in our own heart. In solitude our heart of stone can be turned into a heart of flesh, a rebellious heart into a contrite heart and a closed heart into a heart that can open itself to all suffering people in a gesture of solidarity.

In solitude and silence, you see, we learn to be compassionate and honest with ourselves. And when we sense that God embraces and cherishes us just as we are - and aches for us to become more fully whole and holy - then we are empowered to share this compassion with others. "Solitude and community belong together... without community, solitude leads to loneliness and despair, but community without solitude hurls us into Bonhoeffer's 'void of words and feelings." Our fears - our resistance to both quiet and embodied truth - is a sign of how disconnected so many of us have become from the source of all creation.  Richard Rohr linked this to the ever-changing insights of physics:

Just as different ways of interpreting scripture and various types of truth (e.g., literal vs. mythic) are valuable for different purposes, so scientific theories have different applications while seeming to be paradoxical and irreconcilable. For example, we have the Newtonian theory of gravity, Einstein's theory of relativity, and quantum theory. Physicists know that each of them is true, yet they don't fit together and each is limited and partial. Newtonian mechanics can't model or predict the behavior of massive or quickly moving objects. Relativity does this well, but doesn't apply to very, very small things. Quantum mechanics succeeds on the micro level. But we don't yet have an adequate theory for understanding very small, very energetic, very massive phenomenon, such as black holes. Scientists are still in search of a unified theory of the universe.

Perhaps the term "quantum entanglement" names something that we have long intuited, but science has only recently observed. Here is the principle in layperson's terms: in the world of quantum physics, it appears that one particle of any entangled pair "knows" what is happening to another paired particle--even though there is no known means for such information to be communicated between the particles, which are separated by sometimes very large distances. Could this be what is happening when we "pray" for somebody?

Scientists don't know how far this phenomenon applies beyond very rare particles, but quantum entanglement hints at a universe where everything is in relationship, in communion, and also where that communion can be resisted ("sin"). Both negative and positive entanglement in the universe matter, maybe even ultimately matter. Prayer, intercession, healing, love and hate, heaven and hell, all make sense on a whole new level. Almost all religions have long pointed to this entanglement. In Paul's letter to the Romans (14:7) he says quite clearly "the life and death of each of us has its influence on others." The Apostles' Creed states that we believe in "the communion of saints." There is apparently a positive inner connectedness that we can draw upon if we wish.

When I take time for returning and rest, I sense my connection to others and my deepest self. The more I practice solitude and silence, the more love I have for the community. But you can't force this gift on anyone. All you can do is invite. Like Jesus says, "Come unto me all ye who are tired and burdened and I shall give you... rest."

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