When did you struggle?
This year, I struggled with being alone. Sometimes, I was lonely. Other times, I was just alone. This is not complaint: I very much created the situations that left me to fend for myself, to fend with myself. And it is not grandstanding: I have never been utterly alone, not once in my life. I travel always with and toward people who love me, or at least know and willingly harbor me. I have lived in a city teeming with family and family friends who care for me. The solitude is, yes, part physical separation, distance from friends and honest acknowledgement that I live alone, work from home, and move through the world uncoupled. But it is the unending interior solitude howling its way up from the depths that caught me and held on fiercely.
Bread and wine, here in my house, halfway made by my own hands. Communion is and always has been, for me, communing with other people, other souls. Gathering around a big table for a potluck or a love feast, cooking dinner in the BVS house, meeting old friends over lunch. Communing necessarily means more than one person. Right?
I find myself alone a lot, these days. I live alone and I work from home, and there are rarely people present in the flesh with me when I’m not on the road. The days begin and flow on and end with me, just me, maybe a lunch date, maybe a barista, probably a phone call or three, a couple of Skype conversations. But mostly, I am alone, here, quiet or attempting to distract myself with books and the internets.
Communion can’t happen alone, right? Life can’t happen when there’s no one else around, right? I am useless when I’m just me. There’s no one to hear or comfort or enjoy, no one to soothe or serve or annoy. Just me, and my bread, and my wine. Just me.
Ironically, I am not alone in struggling with solitude. The thing is, everyone is alone, and everyone is lonely. The other thing is, there’s no way around it. I’m not even sure that there’s a way through it. There are plenty of avoidance activities: running oneself ragged by throwing body, mind and soul back and forth across a continent for four years on end, say, or perhaps you’d prefer dunking your nagging solitary self in the soothing vat of social networking, cable television, and mainstream media. They’re all just big sticks, staving off the inevitable confrontation of consciousness. And, despite the unending and well-intentioned suggestions, assumptions, and implications of loving friends and family, getting married and having babies won’t do the trick, either.
But: when I give in and acknowledge the solitude, when I assent that there’s nothing I can do to avoid or alter the basic fact of existing alone, I get drawn closer to other people. I’m more compassionate, more attentive, and kinder. That, I do not understand.
Somewhere in all this fallow restfulness, I’d been stocking back up on passion and motivation and willingness to build things back up on top of what turned out to be the bedrock of belief. So, if, for instance, when all else gets stripped away I find that the one thing I can’t let go of is this concept of fidelity in relationship, if that translates theologically into a suffering with, companionship, incarnational presence, then there are other necessary implications that I can be comfortable placing back on top of that.
If fidelity and relationship – the way I read the gospel, the way I understand God – lie at the root, then that translates into my own attempts at living. I try to act that way, and for good or for ill expect that of other people. And in trying, I recognize that I am incapable of true fidelity, true companionship. There are places I cannot or will not go. But the relationship, somehow, persists. And that is not me, and it is not human: that is God’s divine and holy Spirit at work within and between people, weaving us together and imprinting us on one another’s hearts. It is something unfathomable and deliciously mysterious that connects us.
And this is what happens when I am alone and voice the reality of it: a friend, who has struggled this way too, offers companionship for the solitude:
I don't want you to be without a greeting from me when Christmas comes and when you, in the midst of the holiday, are bearing your solitude more heavily than usual. But when you notice that it is vast, you should be happy; for what (you should ask yourself) would a solitude be that was not vast; there is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, difficult to bear, and almost everyone has hours when he would gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial or cheap, for the tiniest outward agreement with the first person who comes along, the most unworthy. But perhaps these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys and sad as the beginning of spring...
As bees gather honey, so we collect what is sweetest out of all things and build Him. Even with the trivial, with the insignificant (as long as it is done out of love) we begin, with work and with the repose that comes afterward, with a silence or with a small solitary joy, with everything that we do alone, without anyone to join or help us, we start Him whom we will not live to see…
…And be glad and confident.
- Rilke to Kappus, 1903