I Kings 19:9-13; John 6:10-15
The Rev. Tom Herbek
October 8, 2017
Elijah was overwhelmed with the feeling that, facing overwhelming odds, he was all alone. Jesus, time and time again, surrounded by clamoring people needing him, took every chance he could to find some solitude. For most of us, I would imagine, we don’t like loneliness at all, but enjoy moments of solitude whenever we can get them. Since both of them mean we are by ourself, what’s the difference?
The problem is that, for many people at least, there are times when we truly feel isolated, alone, separate from God and from other people. One of the worst things about going through pain is the extreme sense of isolation we get. It doesn’t matter whether the pain is physical, emotional or spiritual.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen tells a wonderful story entitled “Kissing the Boo-Boo”:
We have been taught since childhood that pain is “poor form” and often react to it almost as if it is a breach of good manners. In other cultures, pain and loss are not as lonely. Facing loss alone makes us even more vulnerable and causes unnecessary suffering.
A new client came in after missing an appointment and told me that she had been in the emergency room the week before at the time she was supposed to be here in the office. I had not known this and I asked her what had happened. She told me that she had suffered a temporary obstruction of her bowel from adhesions caused by the radiation used to treat her cancer years ago. The pain had been severe and lasted for a day, but now it was over. When the pain began, she had recognized it as something of significance. She had packed a small bag, putting in her makeup, a nightie, and a mystery she was in the middle of reading. Then she had driven herself twenty-five miles to the hospital.
Having had several intestinal obstructions myself, I knew how severe such pain could be. I asked her how she had managed to drive. She told me that she had driven until the pain came, then she had pulled off the road and waited for it to pass. She had been very sick but she had gotten to the hospital. It had taken a long time.
Surprised, I asked her why she had not called a friend. She told me it was the middle of the day and everyone was working.
She had spent the next day in the emergency room alone. I asked her why she hadn’t called anyone even then. “Why would I call anyone?” she responded with irritation. “None of my friends know a thing about intestinal obstruction.”
“Then why didn’t you call me?” “Well, it’s not really your field either,” she replied.
“Jessie,” I said, “even children instinctively run to others when they fall down.”
With a great deal of heat she said, “Yes, I’ve never understood that. It’s so silly. Kissing the boo-boo doesn’t help the pain at all.” I was stunned. “Jessie,” I said, “it doesn’t help the pain, it helps the loneliness.”
Many people deal with pain like Jessie did. When Jessie was in pain the only thing of value that another person could offer her was their expertise. Her mother had died when she was born. It had never occurred to her that anything could be done about the loneliness.
–Kitchen Table Wisdom
The problem with pain- in fact, the problem with much of life for many people- is that we feel so alone so often when we are going through the toughest times. But as Mitch Albom has the “Blue Man” say in his wonderful book The Five People You’ll Meet in Heaven, “No life is a waste. The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we are alone.”
The truth is that we are not alone; we are not isolated, either from God’s presence or from God’s hands and feet on this earth: people who care. When we are in pain, often what we need most is someone to listen. But listening is not something we are all that good at.
Two men were talking over coffee one day. One said: “I’m concerned about my wife. She talks to herself a lot these days.” The other said: “Mine does too, but she doesn’t know it. She thinks I’m listening.”
Not everyone takes the time to listen. In Marjorie Kellogg’s Tell Me that You love Me Junie Moon, Junie declares: “The trouble, Arthur, with you is that you seldom listen to me, and when you do you don’t hear, and when you do hear you hear wrong, and even when you hear right you change it so fast that it’s never the same.”
In order to hear the whisper of the voice of God, we have to listen with all our senses- with our ears, our eyes, but also with our heart. As Mother Teresa once wrote: “We need to find God and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. The more we receive in silence, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to be able to touch our souls. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us.”
It is only the whispered voice of God that helps us to know we are not alone. It is only when we listen with all our being, our ears, our eyes, our hearts – that we can truly hear.
It is in such quietness that the sighs too deep for words can be heard. It is in the quietness that our cries for help can be heard. It is in the quietness that we know that we are not alone, that God does indeed hear us and respond- no matter how quietly we cry to God and even when we have no words.
in 2010, author Brene Brown wrote: “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.”
I really appreciate that description, and In her recent book, Braving the Wilderness, she says:
Right now we are neither recognizing nor celebrating our inextricable connection. We are divided from others in almost every area of our lives.
We’re not showing up with one another in a way that acknowledges our connection. Cynicism and distrust have a stranglehold on our hearts.
If we’ve hunkered down ideologically and geographically with people who we perceive to be just like us, doesn’t that mean that we’ve surrounded ourselves with friends and people with whom we feel deeply connected? Shouldn’t “You’re either with us or against us” have led to closer ties among the like-minded? The answer to these questions is a resounding and surprising no. At the same time sorting is on the rise, so is loneliness.
“Sorting” means spending time only with people like us. She explains the reason for the loneliness that comes from it:
Common enemy intimacy is counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging. If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection. It’s fuel that runs hot, burns fast, and leaves a trail of polluted emotion. And if we live with any level of self-awareness, it’s also the kind of intimacy that can leave us with the intense regrets of an integrity hangover. Did I really participate in that? Is that moving us forward?
When a group or community doesn’t tolerate dissent and disagreement, it forgoes any experience of inextricable connection. There is no true belonging, only an unspoken treaty to hate the same people. This fuels our spiritual crisis of disconnection.
When we are around people who don’t connect with us in any but a very superficial way, it does not take away our loneliness. In fact, it may exacerbate it. Sometimes, in order to feel less alone, we actually have to get away from people, away from all the noise and busyness.
Joan Chittister, who has spent a good deal of her life alone, writes:
There is a pathology of noise that drips into the soul of contemporary society until the soul simply disappears under the weight of it. Then there is only the shadow of a person left looking for itself. Sound drowns out thought until all we find within ourselves are questions where the cuttings of answers ought to have begun taking root.
It’s in solitude that I decide whether I really like myself or not. It’s easy to practice the fine art of fitting in, of course. What is difficult is to learn how to withhold myself from the dictates of the crowd enough before, unconsciously, I become them instead of me. And without even realizing it.
Solitude acquaints us with ourselves, with what we really think and deeply feel. Or, perhaps, do not feel at all.
But for those who practice the leisure that comes with solitude, solitude is a resting place for the soul. It brings respite, repose, quiescence. It allows the quiet that thinking demands.
Solitude enables us to bask in a world without clamor. It renders us capable of hearing the songs within us, of singing the songs within us, of writing the songs within that wait to be discovered. It welcomes us to the world of contemplation.
“Language,” Paul Tillich wrote, “has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.”
- Between the Dark and the Daylight
I find that most of us do not have much solitude, even if we are often alone. Rather than reframing it or seeing it as a valuable time- this being alone- we are sad because it feels lonely. For many in our society, being alone is an entirely new and novel experience. While we may be looking forward to getting away from stress and discord, we just don’t know what to do with time alone. Joan Chittister calls us to recognize that there can be a fullness in discovering our own separateness, a fullness that we can only find in solitude. She describes what can happen when we face our separateness and discover a fullness of life that is quite unexpected:
So full are we of the fullness around us that we miss the fullness of emptiness itself.
So accustomed have we become to the false fullness that comes with noise and the pressure of strange masses of people, the loss of physical space and the mental chaos that comes with unending technological availability, that we have lost our awareness of the gift of disjunction – of a sense of pure selfness- and the genuine fullness of soul it brings.
Separateness, the willingness to live inside ourselves rather than to live off the thoughts and words and chaos and clamor around us, heightens our very awareness of being alive. It brings our senses to the point of dry heat and laser acuity. For the first time, we are free to really see the world in which we live. We can suddenly hear what we have not been able to hear for years – our own thoughts, our personal concerns, our own ideas.
We can finally be whoever we know to really be ourselves – whoever that is and whatever that means. With our souls focused on our own capacity for life and our senses detoxified of the extraneous, there is space now for newness, for I-ness, for the experience of being totally in charge of my own soul. I can attend it and shape it and claim it as my own.
In solitude, our separateness is not seen as a depressing and energy-draining fear, but as an opportunity to discover who we are in ways that were never available to us before. The irony is that, out of that understanding, that new self-awareness, we can then connect with people in a whole new way. As Brene Brown comments: “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
It is ironic that the way we learn to be together in an authentic way requires us to find our path from loneliness to solitude, from the sadness and fear of being alone to the deep peacefulness of discovering our most authentic self when we are alone.
And then we discover ways to reach across the loneliness of those around us- to kiss boo-boos, to listen, to comfort- as we are enabled to be the hands and feet and voices of God in our world.