Monday, July 12, 2010

Surprised by Solitude, Part Two

Second of two posts on solitude, based on the experience of the prophet Jonah. Read the first post here.

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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 a 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 by the burning bush or Jacob by 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--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 loneliness we find ourselves in or the me-time 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.

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