Friday, 25 September 2009

Never alone

Allowing thoughts to dwell on our friendships is a natural part of belonging to a particular place at a particular time. It is a normal response to our experience of being part of a community of people whose lives are based within that same time and place. Even people who spend much of their time alone have a need for contact with others, however rarely it is felt as a need, and in many cases their solitude may be bearable only because they have the sustaining knowledge of long-lasting friendships.
René Voillaume, who, in 1933, led of a small group of seminarians from Paris to make their base at the edge of the Sahara, and who called themselves the Little Brothers of Solitude, wrote: 'Friendship is something so great and splendid that it is probably indispensable for human perfection. I find it hard to believe that a man without friends can be perfect; at any rate, I am sure he will be profoundly unhappy. Without a friend a man is imprisoned within himself.' (Brothers of Men.)
Unlike Charles de Foucauld, whose life and death in the Sahara was the inspiration for the group, René was accompanied by friends. His words may well have been born of the sense of loss found in merely imagining their absence in such an inhospitable place, and, beyond that, glimpsing for a moment the utter loneliness of such a life without any friend at all, anywhere.

If a man without a friend is indeed imprisoned within himself, it is because it is only with a true friend that he can share the truth about himself, the reality of his experience of this life, and his hopes and fears about what has yet to come. But however indispensable friends may be to some of us, the belief that we cannot survive without them is at the same time an admission of the weakness of our faith.
Solitude is not a prison, and should not be a source of fear; it is a freedom, and our movement towards perfection is enabled far more in that freedom than by human companionship and encouragement. The value of time spent alone is inseparable from the building of relationships within the community; everything communal is based on what men and women have already received as individuals, and the most valuable knowledge and presence we can bring to the communal table is fruit of our own discovery of who we really are. Our real self is what the community needs, and is what the world is waiting for.
However great the contribution of others may be in our journey toward self discovery, the discovery itself, and the realization of what we find and learn, takes place within the mind and heart of the person who rises into life in our time spent alone. We may mature and blossom within a community, bearing fruit in the presence of others, but the seed will have been germinated in isolation, and nurtured in our times of solitude. And once we have been brought to fruition among people, we may find ourselves longing to leave them behind again, until, refreshed and newly empowered, we are called back to take our place among them once more. Jesus’ own life repeatedly demonstrates this pattern to us.

It is our awareness, not of our long-lasting human friendships, but of the everlasting friendship of God through the companionship of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit that sustains us in our solitude.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who found himself increasingly called into time spent alone, instructs us – ‘Do not flee to solitude from community. Find God first in the community, then he will lead you to solitude.’ (Thoughts in Solitude.)
The shape of my journey is not accurately described by those words, but something within me recognizes them as being applicable to my own experience. Much of the first forty years of my life were spent in a form of solitude. I am who I am, and have not only learned a great deal about who I am, but have learned to value the person I have found within. An awareness of the presence of God and of our value in His eyes, cannot help but lead to our valuing ourselves, and in that one altered way of seeing the worth of our lives lies the key to our transformation from loneliness to fruitful solitude.

It is loneliness, not solitude, that is the prison. Many of us have experienced solitude as a form of heaven, and far too many know loneliness as a form of hell, especially when in the midst of crowds who neither see nor hear them. Heavenly solitude is filled with awareness of the presence of God, and needs no other. Hellish loneliness may be filled with the presence of people but is completely devoid of any consciousness of God’s presence: awareness of His and Her love, comfort, forgiveness, strength, friendship, companionship, acceptance, guidance – whatever we most desperately need – eludes us. God is no closer in the one than in the other: the Spirit of God is abroad throughout the world, present to every one of us. It is not the Presence which varies, and nor does it avoid or exclude anyone; the difference – and what a profound difference it is – is between one person’s awareness and another’s lack of it.

Our needs may point us towards a potential reliance on God; that potential may lead us to faith in His existence; and faith will open doors as yet unseen, yielding the awareness that ‘Bidden or not bidden, God is present.’ (Desiderius Erasmus).

About Me

Who I am should be, and should remain, of little consequence to you. Who you are is what matters; who you are meant to be is what should matter most to you. In coming closer to my own true self, I have gradually been filled with the near inexpressible: I have simply become "brim full", and my words to you are drawn from those uttered within myself, as part of an undeniable overflowing that brings a smile to my every dusk, and to my every new dawn.
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