Monday, September 07, 2009

The Day Alone

The Day Alone
Greenville College Chapel Address
September 7, 2009

Standing on high places can be both a dizzying and an isolating experience. Whether gazing down at the Colorado River valley at the Grand Canyon or at the remains of Glastonbury Abbey from the tor above, there is a sense of utter aloneness that comes from the feeling of the wind cutting into the flesh and the sense of perspective that comes from seeing an entire civilization at one’s feet. The monks at St. Meinrad’s Abbey in Indiana, where I take my class every fall, inhabit what they refer to winsomely as “the hill,” a summit first occupied in 1854 when a few brave Benedictines built a cabin in the- then western wilderness. Over the next fifty or sixty years they would drag huge blocks of Indiana sandstone from the quarries miles away up the formidable climb using horses, donkeys, mules or whatever animal power was close at hand. The current abbey church, completed in 1907, stands as a stark monument to all of this hard manual labor which must have gone on day-after-mundane-day. That labor enables others who come to the monastery the rare experience of being alone as the chill of the night air steals across the grounds on a cold wintry evening or early morning.

Though this experience of “aloneness” was common for our ancient ancestors, it has become something of an anomaly for modern men and women. Wherever we go, we find ourselves constantly accompanied by others or, at least, by “virtual” others. For instance, I have noticed a trend on our own campus that has developed primarily over the last five or six years. Between classes, it used to be that our quad was lined by small groups of people in conversation with a few lovers sprinkled about. While I still see these smaller beehives of activity, they are fewer and particularly less noticeable in this ten minute interlude. Instead, they have been replaced by scores of individual conversations going on between persons crossing the quad and the “unseen other” at the opposite end of a cell phone conversation. It would be interesting to try and add up all of the variegated conversations happening at once during this brief span as we ignore the real presence of one another while engaging an invisible conversation partner at the end of an invisible communication uplink. Being “plugged-in” in this way, whether on a cell phone or a computer, has become “normal” for us in a way previous generations would find extraordinarily abnormal.

This desire to constantly be “connected” creates an environment where noise is our constant companion. Barbara Brown Taylor (When God is Silent, 13-16) points out that we live our lives against a wall of constant noise. For some, it is company, like the “white noise” that comes from the hum of electricity. For others, it is an addiction, like those who seem to have IPOD plugs permanently implanted in their skulls. The result is something of a paradox: we have become hard of hearing even as we have become afraid of being alone. We do not know how to listen well and, instead, have substituted the endless chatter of talk radio for the dinner table believing that we are engaging in an actual conversation while all the time we are simply droning on without listening to one another. And, because we can no longer really listen, we have turned elsewhere for “listeners”: to places like chat rooms, radio hosts, or psychotherapists. Our worst fear, after all, is that we might actually have to be alone in a world of silence.

It is in this, our own present existential predicament, that Bonhoeffer’s words seem perhaps prescient: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . (and) Let him who is not in community beware of being alone,” (77). The German theologian points out that neither can we escape ourselves, nor can we escape having to stand alone before God, concluding with, “If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called.” This model is clearly imbedded in the gospel tradition where we see Jesus continually withdrawing for solitude and prayer in order to face the challenges of the day and the “life together” he attempted to inculcate in this little band of disciples. This retreat into solitude remains one of the unique traits of our Lord’s Galilean ministry.

In his little book, Clowning in Rome, Fr. Henri Nouwen develops further this connection between solitude and community:
Solitude is not private time in contrast to time together, nor a time to restore our tired minds. Solitude is very different from a time-out from community life. Solitude is the ground from which community grows. When we pray alone, study, read, write, or simply spend quiet time away from the places where we interact with each other directly, we enter into a deeper intimacy with each other. It is a fallacy to think that we grow closer to each other only when we talk, play, or work together. Much growth certainly occurs in such human interactions, but these interactions derive their fruit from solitude, because in solitude our intimacy with each other is deepened. In solitude we discover each other in a way that physical presence makes difficult if not impossible. Writing later in The Way of the Heart, Nouwen claims that, “solitude is not simply a means to an end. Solitude is its own end. It is the place where Christ remodels us in his own image and frees us from the victimizing compulsions of the world. Solitude is the place of our salvation,” (17).

During the dozen years or so that I was serving as a full-time parish pastor I found myself growing ever more frustrated trying to live up to the demands of ministry—particularly in cities like London and Toronto. The cries of occasionally well-meaning, but ill-informed, church leaders to grow the church ever larger and to buy into an entertainment-oriented, celebrity-pastor-focused congregation began to grate on my ears and were counter to everything I read in the gospel. At times, I’m sure I sounded biting and cynical with some of my colleagues. No matter how many hospital visits I made, how many sermons I wrote, how many committee meetings I attended, it was never enough. Time with others was considered essential and necessary, while time alone was thought to be simply retreating for the next charge up the hill.

It was at such a juncture that my friend, Fr. Henri, wrote to me in a personal letter:
There was a time when I really wanted to help the poor, the sick, and the broken, but to do it as one who was wealthy, healthy, and strong. Now I see more and more that it is precisely through my weakness and brokenness that I minister to others. I am increasingly aware of the fact that Jesus does not say, ‘Blessed are those who help the poor,’ but, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ For me, this means that I have to come in touch with my own poverty to discover there the blessings of God and to minister from that place to others. . . I pray that you embrace your own weakness and your own suffering and your own pain with trust that, in this way, you can follow your Lord and make your own wounds a source of healing for others. Thus you can also become a true light for the world and a sign of hope and a prophetic voice that calls for peace and justice, (Private Correspondence, March 28, 1991).

As a result, I returned to what I knew to be true and began to try and live out the importance of time alone and the embracing, not of my own gifts and talents for ministry, but of my weakness. That meant intentionally carving out more time alone whether for a run in the park, a day on retreat, or a week in the summer secluded in a cabin in the north country. Building definite blocks of time into my daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly calendar became absolutely necessary and helped to save my own soul, as well as those around me who were in danger of my misplaced attempts at salvation. When we engage such solitude, as Bonhoeffer points out, we cannot lay down conditions as to what we expect from the encounter. We must simply accept what we are given. He suggests: “There are three purposes for which the Christian needs a definite time when he can be alone during the day: Scripture meditation, prayer, and intercession,” (81).

Scripture meditation requires us to carefully ruminate over the text for the day and to hold it up like a mirror to our daily lives. As we do so, we don’t ask what it has to say to other people, but what God is saying to us—now. At such times, the text is not some desiccated object upon which we perform surgery, but it has the possibility of being transformed into God’s living Word. I tell my Homiletics students that you know when this word is ringing true because it should both “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That is, as I wait upon God and allow the words to wash over me and deep into my heart I am always asking, “What is the word for me today, Lord?” This takes time; it cannot be rushed. A few years ago a company even came out with a product intended to reduce the Bible to a singular 100-minute exercise.

We live in a world that confuses the gospel with efficiency, as if God really cares whether we worship according to a script carefully integrating the latest technology. Instead, the gospel message tells us of the first disciple, Mary, Jesus’ mother, who “pondered all these things in her heart.” Scripture meditation is a bit like making a good stew. One does it slowly, over low heat. Over a several hour period you keep coming back to it and sampling it, adding a bit more salt here and there, dumping in another onion or clove of garlic. And, just as the stew doesn’t always turn out to be what we expected, meditation oftentimes results in dry patches. Bonhoeffer suggests that we should not be discouraged at such times: “’Seek God, not happiness’—this is the fundamental rule of all meditation. If you seek God alone, you will gain happiness: that is its promise,” (84).

Scripture meditation then leads us to prayer, which Bonhoeffer defines as, “nothing else but the readiness and willingness to receive and appropriate the Word, and, what is more, to accept it in one’s personal situation, particular tasks, decisions, sins, and temptations,” (84-85). Learning to pray, though, takes time. We live in a world of distractions where we are constantly being entertained. I sometimes find it helpful to allow certain ideas and persons to come into my head, and then to incorporate them into my prayer. Above all else, such prayer is more about “listening,” than “telling.” We think that we have to tell God what is going on and what He needs to do about it. Instead, learning to simply wait with one’s ears open is central to private prayer.

Such prayer usually brings us back around to intercession—the lifting before the throne of God the needs of others. In fact, Bonhoeffer maintains, “a Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses,” (86). Of central importance is owning up to and confessing before God our inability to get along with others. Intercession provides us with the opportunity to be open and transparent about our need to paint the other as our enemy. Bonhoeffer says, “Intercession means no more than to bring our brother into the presence of God, to see him under the Cross of Jesus as a poor human being and sinner in need of grace. . . to make intercession means to grant our brother the same right that we have received, namely, to stand before Christ and share in his mercy,” (86).

Now, if you are anything like me with a tendency to demonize a large portion of humanity, you could spend your whole day in intercession. Learning to lay one’s burden down for critique and self-judgment comes harder for some of us than others. But this is at the heart of what the apostle Paul understood to be putting to death the “old man.” We are no more alone than when we are with ourselves and when we begin to realize the deceitfulness of our own hearts. Intercession, if done regularly, reminds us of our common need for grace and of the lying in which we daily engage, if only to ourselves. This is why it is absolutely necessary to find time to be alone--even if it makes us extraordinarily nervous at first. For some, it will come as close to peering into the abyss as any other encounter.

Today, the necessity of finding time to be alone has been exacerbated by our unwillingness to face up to our own mortality. Behind our extraordinary need to be connected at all times, our desire to be immersed in a culture of toxic noise, and the value we place on sheer busy-ness, lies, I am convinced, our fear of death. No topic is perhaps quite so off-limits in our culture of youth as is this ultimate and final appointment. One scholar has even gone so far as to suggest that whereas in the Victorian era the forbidden topic for discussion was sex and everyone was obsessed with death, today the obverse is true.

Thomas Lynch, in his wonderful little book, The Undertaking, sketches out the history of many of the rituals we have devised to avoid having to think too long or deeply about death. He says, “a person who has ceased to be is as compelling a prospect as it was when the Neanderthal first dug holes for his dead, shaping the questions we still shape in the face of death: ‘Is that all there is?’ ‘What does it mean?’ ‘Why is it cold?’ ‘Can it happen to me?’” (21). Lynch posits a connection between the emergence of both the toilet and the modern-day funeral home: “Just about the time we were bringing the making of water and the movement of bowels into the house, we were pushing the birthing and marriage and sickness and dying out. . . And just as bringing the crapper indoors has made feces an embarrassment, pushing the dead and dying out has made death one,” (36-37). Barbara Brown Taylor goes so far as to claim that death is God’s final defense against our idolatry, that, “when we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God,” (When God is Silent, 39). As we approach death, “the breath goes out and it does not come in again. No one knows it was the last until it is gone, and the silence that follows it is like no other sound in the world,” (Taylor, 37).

I was seventeen the first time I watched a man die. By that time, I had already witnessed half a dozen autopsies. I had stood by as the coroner’s saw had done its worst—severing sinew from bone and carving thin slices of tissue from the brain, heart, lungs, liver, and various other organs in order to look for signs of disease. But those had been lifeless bodies which, while striking a certain curiosity in one so young, I had been able to depersonalize. But working with the doctor on call that night on a man younger than I am now, sending volt after volt of electricity into his non-responsive body was somehow different. Yes, a typical cardiac arrest could be construed as essentially accidental, as the author, Joan Didion, writes: it is a sudden spasm rupturing a deposit of plaque in a coronary artery, with ischemia following, and the heart, deprived of oxygen, entering into ventricular fibrillation. But to the emergency workers gathered around, it is also, as my British friends would say, “bloody hell.” For, when it was all over and the doctor had pronounced the inevitable, I looked down at my hands which, in those days before AIDS, were blood-spattered and devoid of gloves of any kind. Someone had mentioned reaching for the rib-spreader which would have meant everyone donning gloves, but it was clear that cracking the man’s chest would have been an exercise in futility.

Because this was my first time to prepare a body to take down to the morgue, the veteran nurse, Barbara Dungee, came and walked me through the entire procedure. I won’t attempt to mortify you with the details; they only serve to reinforce the ignominious nature of death itself. By the time I was twenty, your age, I had performed the routine so many times that I could almost do it in my sleep. But what never changed was the cold, antiseptic chill of death itself that pervaded the room after yet another battle with the great enemy. The monitor which had faithfully belched out its blips and alarms always stood silent sentinel next to the remains. In that brief window of time, between life and rigor mortis, the body almost miraculously retains its warmth and only gradually yields to its waxy glaze of morbidity.

In those liminal moments, I would oftentimes reflect on the conversations I had had with the deceased as I would circulate from room to room emptying catheters, supplying ice chips, carefully washing the flesh and applying lotions and ointments in an attempt to hold death and disease at bay. When a man who is used to commanding others finds himself alone in a room, draped only in a hospital gown with a pimply-faced adolescent extending a warm cloth with which to wash his privates, the conversation can oftentimes turn quite personal. I found myself, not necessarily by choice but by default, playing father confessor to more than one wayward executive. I heard confessions of sexual indiscretions, unethical behavior--all the loves and hates that make up a man’s life. There were requests for morphine, for smuggled-in pornography, for forbidden foods. One time I even had to sneak a girlfriend out the back when a wife arrived early, rather unexpectedly, at the nurse’s station.

But, in the end, each person had to face death alone and prepare to meet his or her Maker. At such times it was my privilege—something I didn’t recognize at the time, but have only come to realize in hindsight—to listen to final confessions and to overhear tearful good-byes. Later, as a pastor, those death-bed experiences would come in handy when I stood guard beside loved ones with dying family members. Watching the divine breath (the ruach of life) leave a person is a holy and sanctified moment. One is tempted to turn away from beholding the face of God. The ancients developed a process called the ars moriendi, the art of facing death, and spent a lifetime preparing for the inevitable. Because death was so prevalent in their society, they learned to be prepared at any moment. We, on the other hand, go through life glibly denying its reality and so find ourselves always surprised by its inevitable knock at our door. We find ourselves reduced, as Didion reminds us in her prize-winning book, The Year of Magical Thinking, to “the most terrifying verse I know: merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”

The best way to prepare for the event is by learning to live in the silent interstices of life, recognizing the need to be alone with God and to listen for all we’re worth. Because what deadens us most to God’s presence within us is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, there is no surer way than by keeping silent, (Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets, 105). Out of that void you will find prayer happening: waking at night when the silence in your room is palpable, or rising in the morning to trace the emergence of the autumnal sun against the horizon. But, whether it is alone in the dark or alone in the breaking light, it is then, and only then, that you begin to recognize that still, small voice and you know in your heart of hearts, that it is He, the One you have longed for all along. And in that fragmentary moment when the fear of being alone, truly alone, is realized, then, and only then, is it that you recognize that you have never really been entirely alone after all.