A Receptive Solitude: Thoughts on Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen
"The Gospel doesn't just contain ideas worth remembering. It is a message responding to our individual human condition. The Church is not an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at it's tables."
I picked up Reaching Out on a whim not expected to finish it in just under a weeks time. I originally planned to read Searching For Sunday by Rachel Held Evans as my elective Regenternship book, but as he often does, God had other plans. This book fell into my hands and I couldn't put it down. As appears to be the style of Nouwen, this book is simple to digest but it's themes and it's heart linger. Quotes hovered in my mind well after I lay the book down on my bedside table. This book was just what my weary, over stimulated heart needed. I hope these thoughts and reflections encourage you today. All quotes come from Reaching Out.
As I mature and begin my ascent into adulthood, (I still firmly consider myself a novice or journeyman adult,) I have begun to see the nasty, unpleasant, rotten side of adult relationships. Not the romantic kind of relationships, there's no doubt I am still squarely an amateur in that ring, but in friendships, community, and general affiliations I have much experience.
Something no one can prepare you for is how to deal with crappy folks. Sure, your parents and your adolescent experiences begin to help you and guide you, but they are not fieldguides on how to curate the people in your life that you wish could be eradicated. You will always have co-workers, friends of friends, associates, and contemporaries that you dislike and want to spend no time with. I hope you do not have too many of these folks in your life. I can count (thankfully) only a few of these people in my life, and (again thankfully) they are spread our across our vast Earth, not all centrally located around me.
I write this not to allow hatred or contempt to be rooted in my or your heart, but because I personally spend lots of time wondering why I don't like these people. Sometimes it's clear; perhaps our political beliefs don't line up, but I've had many dear friends who don't subscribe to the same party as me and those friendships have been precious and important in my life. Maybe they are vulgar, or offensive in their speech or behavior, but, while I am not endorsing this behavior, again I have had many friends who probably have said things that I wouldn't dare utter. Maybe they have poor fashion taste, and really there's no cure for that ;)
This is something I've been thinking about regularly and I think I may have finally pin pointed the issue. The number one thing that tends to get under my skin is when I sense that someone wants to spend time with me not because they like me, or my company, but because they just need somebody. Anybody. They are vampires lurking around waiting for a new victim to overburden and drain.
(Caveat I think we all at some point have been this person, I know I certainly have. That could be why this behavior tends to rile me up so much! )
Reaching Out focuses on how as Christians we are to move from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, and from illusion to prayer and meditation. I see now that this behavior of wanting to spend time with anyone comes from a place of loneliness. A place I have been myself many times. Loneliness does not always look like this, it can also come out as extreme seclusion, over stimulating yourself with your phone, or work, filling the void with porn or other avenues that offer pseudo-intimacy, and/or dating or getting married because you believe that will 'fix' you. I have struggled in some way or another will all of these. None of these fix or isolate the problem of loneliness, they only exacerbate it through misdiagnosis and self medication.
"It has become difficult to unmask the illusion that the final solution for our experience of loneliness is to be found in human togetherness. It is easy to see why many marriages are suffering from this illusion."
This is not going to be a post on loneliness, or my past struggles with loneliness, something I still fight and have been fighting since college. Please seek guidance from friends, minsters, or professionals if anything I have written thus far stings strongly.
No, I want to explore the differences between loneliness and solitude, how loneliness is an ugly term of isolation, outsider, alien, unwanted, unfulfilled. Solitude on the other hand is beautiful. And how, as Nouwen postulates, without this movement we can not be people who practice hospitality or meditation.
"No friend or lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness."
So, to quote Nouwen, "what does it mean to say that neither friendship nor love, neither marriage nor community can take that loneliness away?"
Here's Nouwen's answer: "To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. This requires not only courage but also a strong faith."
Solitude is somewhat unfamiliar to me, and probably you as well. I can look back on my life and see very few moments of true solitude. Most of my memories of being physically alone always involve a haze of technology or a tinge of loneliness. It is not often that I have felt true solitude. True, the word sometime conjures images of monks and hermits living in isolation, that is not the purpose of solitude. Being physically alone is good and often helpful in the journey from loneliness to solitude, but solitude can just as easily happen in the hustle of busy urban life in Oakland. "The solitude that really counts is the solitude of heart..." My fondest memories of solitude all seem to take place in nature, or late nights with friends, often with an old deck of cards. Now, as I try to move from a desert of loneliness, to a garden of solitude I have begun to cultivate a space for solitude in my current messy busy full life. It's been hard.
"As long as we are trying to run away from our loneliness we are constantly look for distractions with the inexhaustible need to be entertained and kept busy. We become the passive victims of a world asking for our idolizing attention."
My heart has been so blessed by reading Reaching Out, I find it hard to believe that a book written in 1975 can so heavily affect me today in 2016. As a said, this movement is hard, and I know I am naive if I think reading this book did anything more than simply isolate and correctly diagnose my struggle for solitude.
I am not going to write about the move from hostility to hospitality, chapter two in Reaching Out, because I want to you to read this book too! (It's only 160 pages!) But I will to make a précis of the move from illusion to prayer.
The idea that strongly hung over me as I read this final chapter was how we have to accept silence, something that I think loneliness abhors. Silence means alone, means no friends, means unwanted, means unloved. But, "we will never succeed if we do not reserve a minute, hour, morning, day, week, or month or whatever period of time for God and him alone." What I have struggled with, and what Nouwen affirms is that we will absolutely find it hard at first, and will probably hear our own thoughts SHOUTING to be heard. With patience and with practice "we discover that the silent time makes us quiet and deepens our awareness of ourselves and God." We have to cultivate a "receptive solitude."
My cop-out for this practice is reading the Bible, I think "well I'm not praying or meditating, but look God I'm reading the Bible!" Here's what Nouwen says to that: "Without reading the word, silence becomes stale, and without silence, the word loses its recreative power." So, yes, we need the Bible, really really need it, but we also, I also, need silence and meditation!
As I said just a few sentences ago, I do understand that my "garden of solitude" has not begun to bloom, it has not even begun to sprout. I think I am currently standing in a mess of weeds and overgrowth scared to even begin because I see the mammoth task before me. I know that if I begin this process it will hurt. God will reveal things I like to pretend I have hidden from Him. He will awaken me to tasks he has for me, that I honestly probably don't want to do. Thankfully this is not a task to do alone, many of you out there have "gardens of solitude" in much better state than mine. Many of you may also just be beginning this arduous task of garden clean up.
Here's some good news: God cares for us individually, wants to spend time with us alone as we meditate on and with Him, thus our faith is an individual faith, but it is a faith lived out and expressed in a vibrant and multi-faceted community. I write this knowing it probably sounds very hippie-dippy, but we have lots of gardeners in this wonderful garden, and as we begin to tend these gardens we will eventually see and taste the fruits of our efforts.
As pastors often say "let me close with this"
I hope that if you are struggling with loneliness this was somehow helpful, if you are riddled with hostile feelings, I pray that together we can start to become more hospitable, and that, again together, we can move from illusion to true prayer and meditation on God.
"Once God has touched us in the midst of our struggles and has created in us the burning desire to be forever united with him, we will find the courage and the confidence to prepare his way and to invite all who share out life to wait with us during this short time for the day of complete joy."