As Term 2 progresses, the return of students to classes has meant for me that ministry at school feels like it’s also returning to something approaching normality. Well, as normal as it could be, with (for us) Chapels being pre-recorded and then streamed to students; classes looking like exam rooms with individual desks, 1.5 metres apart; students struggling to maintain the idea of physical distancing; and the aroma of liquid cleanser and hand sanitiser everywhere you go. If there’s one thing that I’m grateful for in the challenges of this strange set-up, it’s that the separate desks are a visible reminder for me that each and every student is a unique person. They each bear God’s image in a manner that has never been, and will never be, replicated. Each one – and also me! – is alone in their precious identity – in their experience of the world – and in how they lead and direct their existence between life’s advent and life’s conclusion.
It’s been a reminder that has built on things that I’d had cause to reflect upon during the Easter holidays – possibly forever remembered now as the ‘Iso Holidays’! Along with many others, I had the opportunity to “attend” the online Barnabas Conference towards to the end of those weeks; and amongst several other valuable and thought-provoking presenters, it was the words from theologian Miroslav Volf on ‘Aloneness, Togetherness and Solitude’ that pushed me to deeper thinking about the value and importance of solitude, particularly for the ministry that I engage in as a school chaplain.
As Volf reminded us, aloneness is seen, usually quite rightly, as an enemy of what it is for us to be human – the first negative evaluative judgement in Genesis coming from God’s mouth: ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18). Being alone, with no prospect or hope of companionship, is indeed ‘not good’. Yet aloneness is, of course, a part of the human condition – each of us being alone, as mentioned, in our experience of the world in birth and death, joy and suffering; no matter how many others are with us.
Yet solitude, or choosing to be alone, in the midst of that companionship in all the areas of our life, has value – something that has been evident, and indeed practised, at many times in the history and tradition of our Church. To withdraw from the “herd” (Volf’s term for the societal group in which we live and serve), even if it’s under compulsion of Coronavirus regulations, was helpful for me during that ‘iso’ Easter break. There was opportunity to consider how I might have made the “herd’s” values and judgements (for better or worse) my own. To ask what person I could have been becoming in the “herd”. And to free myself from the “herd’s” preoccupations and priorities – thus returning to whom I am called to be, under God. Indeed, to obey the call of Psalm 46 to ‘be still and know that I am God.’