Solitude, Community, and Service

The experience of lockdown, whether it is long term or just for a few days, highlights the balance we all tread between our need for solitude, for community, and to be connected to the world in general. In his book Spiritual Direction, priest, professor, and writer Henri Nouwen, speaks of our need to constantly, and mindfully, cycle between three realms. They are the realms of solitude, of community, and of the wider world. To illustrate this movement, he tells this old Hasidic tale called ‘Darkness and the Dawn’:

The rabbi asked his students: ‘How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night    ends and the day begins?’

One of the rabbi’s students suggested: ‘When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?’

No,’ was the answer of the rabbi.

‘Is it when one can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?’ asked a second student.

‘No,’ the rabbi said.

‘Please tell us the answer, then,’ said the students.

‘It is then,’ said the wise teacher, ‘when you can look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognise your brother or your sister. Until then it is night, and the darkness is still with us.

As a Roman Catholic priest, it is not at all surprising that Nouwen found the exemplar of the spiritual journey from solitude to community to service, in Jesus. He points to the story of Jesus and his disciples found in Luke 6:12-19 as a story of relationship that begins in solitude at night, moves to community building in the morning, and ends in active service in the afternoon:

Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he  called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles… He went down    with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples were there and a great number of people  from all over… who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits    were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.

Nouwen makes much of the sequence of prayer at night, community in the morning, and service in the afternoon. He describes night, morning, and afternoon as symbols for the movement from solitude to community to service that Jesus lived out. He further suggests that we can all benefit by seeing these three disciplines as something we are called to practice on our long journey home to God. The first practice is deliberate solitude or communion with God in prayer. The second practice is recognising and gathering together in community. The third practice is compassion or service in the world.

To translate this idea into life in lockdown is to suggest that a greater level of intentionality behind the sequencing of time can help. I have certainly found that paying attention to the solitude of self-reflection and prayer remains important even in times when ‘home’ is the only space I can occupy. Also, that this enables a better connection to the online community that we form together with our students and others in periods when we cannot meet in person. In such times I’ve found that this sequence from solitude to community then enables me to look further to the ‘world’ and feel connected to all the joys and sorrows that constantly unfold. More than feeling connected, to answer that call to compassion and service. So, in lockdown or otherwise, I intend to hold onto Nouwen’s wisdom about time to be alone, time to be in community, and time to serve. The lockdown experience of all time feeling the same can, in fact, help us to see and to live this cycle of spirit. It might even provide some of us the opportunity to read, or re-read, Nouwen’s great book in full!

Eleanor O'Donnell Written by:

Eleanor was ordained priest in Tasmania in 2002 and took up her first school chaplaincy position at St Michael’s Collegiate School in Hobart in 2005. From there she went to Melbourne Grammar School as Wadhurst Chaplain for four years. She was the Senior Chaplain at both Geelong Grammar and Ballarat Grammar before taking up her current position at Hale School in Perth WA in January 2019. Eleanor maintains that the essential element in the role of any School Chaplain is to teach, to tell, and to live out the Christian story in such a manner that it becomes a shared value and a common language for every member of a school community.

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