I think it’s worth considering, as we read the book of Jonah, that the prophet didn’t know that God would send a fish to swallow him up. Nothing in the text indicates that he did: He didn’t say “If you could just drop me by that big ole fish over there . . .” No, “Throw me into the water,” he tells his shipmates, and he and they alike fully expected that he was being thrown to his death. Jonah assumed he would die in defiance of God’s call on him to go to Nineveh.
I wonder how Jonah’s tombstone would read. “Here lies Jonah—he kept to himself”? “Here Lies Jonah—alone at last”? However it might read, Jonah would be remembered in death as a prophet who refused to prophesy, who would rather be left alone, thank you very much.
There are, I think, at least three ways of being alone. There’s circumstantial aloneness—we find ourselves alone, as when my wife has to work late or all our friends have other plans. I have a friend who lives by himself and doesn’t want to; he goes to sleep alone every night and wakes up alone every morning, and in between he goes about his business. But he wishes he were married; he finds himself alone, but he’s not happy about it. Another friend of mine is unmarried and perfectly content: she goes to sleep alone and wakes up alone, and in between she goes about her business, and she’s happy with her life. Aloneness as a circumstance is a perfectly legitimate way to be, but it’s not the kind of aloneness that we’re considering in the curious case of Jonah.
Another way of being alone is more assertive. We hit our limit in our interactions with other people—coworkers whose demands on our time become tiresome, or children who never stop needing us, or friends, neighbors and church members whose quirkinesses gradually morph into nettlesome annoyances—and declare “me-time.” With me-time we remind ourselves and others that we aren’t just cogs in a machine but distinct persons; we may rediscover ourselves from time to time by getting away from everyone else. In some cases this can be healthy: Folk singer Dar Williams wrote of her therapy sessions—a sort of guided me-time—“Oh, how I loved everybody else when I finally got to talk so much about myself.” In some cases, of course, me-time can devolve into something tragic, when we start to believe the insidious notion that we have no need of anyone else, when we forget to remember that the other people around us aren’t just annoying or needy drains on our energy but themselves distinct persons who deserve our honor and respect.
But in any case, like circumstantial aloneness, assertive aloneness is not the type of aloneness under consideration here. No, we look at Jonah as a case study in a third type of aloneness: solitude.
“But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah.” The aloneness Jonah enters into here is orchestrated by God, making it something of a sacramental experience. Henri Nouwen, the late great writer on Christian spirituality, called solitude the “furnace of transformation” because, among other reasons, solitude is uncomfortable. In solitude God puts us to the test.
In solitude the trappings we accumulate, for our protection, for our self-assertion, for our self-indulgence, all are put to the test. We find out which of our everyday accoutrements has slid from mere comfortable accessory to potential idol. We find out in solitude which relationships have dredged up in us an unhealthy dependency or given us license to behave in ways that are unseemly or destructive. In the belly of this fish Jonah comes to terms with his failure to respond to the call God has placed on him. In solitude we are judged by God and brought to a place of understanding that judgment.
But solitude—this sacramental aloneness that we find in Jonah—takes us beyond the judgment of God to the grace of God. “The LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah,” we recall, not as a death sentence but as a deliverance. Jonah’s prayer in chapter two acknowledges the death that awaited him when he went overboard and the grace that sustained him as he came to terms with his failure to live out his calling. God shows Jonah, and us with him, that even in our failures God is still near, and even in our desperation God still offers deliverance.
Solitude strips us of what we’ve come to depend on, in order that we can be reminded that we depend ultimately on God alone. But it’s not some accident that we stumble into. We may find ourselves alone with God, like Moses and the burning bush or Jacob and the ladder to heaven, but solitude is qualitatively different: it’s a sacramental kind of discipline that we enter into by our own volition. As such, solitude takes us beyond circumstance and assertion into the category of sacred practice, part of our everyday call to live out our faith.
And yet, solitude isn’t something that we go hunting for, as if God is a genie in a bottle that we need only to rub. Solitude is itself an act of grace, an invitation extended to us. In that respect, solitude is not so much an act of obedience as it is an act of faith. In that sense solitude is like the act of communion, in which we receive the elements and are reminded of our failings but also of our deliverance, reminded of our shortcomings but also of our salvation. We’re reminded that we haven’t solved our own problems, but that we’ve had the great fortune of entering into relationship with a loving God.
So solitude is different—dramatically different—from the aloneness we find ourselves in or the aloneness we demand for ourselves. In some circumstances we find ourselves alone; in other circumstances we declare ourselves alone. But in solitude we are reminded by the God of the universe and the lover of our souls that we are never alone, and we remember that this fact in and of itself changes everything.