“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
Uncertainty is once more upon us, as we face another January living with the reality of Covid-19. As I write I have just reached the end of ten days of isolation following a positive PCR result. Aside from the illness itself, and the concern about family members who contracted it from me, the isolation definitely had an impact on my wellbeing. Extroverts don’t cope well with days and days of being alone! I’ve had time to reflect, though, on what we mean by community and solitude, and where Christian community and solitude differ from what we see around us. The quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together, cuts to the heart of the question of whether should favour one over the other. More of an extrovert? Community’s the answer. Identify as an introvert? You’ll prefer solitude, then. Actually, we all need both, says, Bonhoeffer.
Solitude, the practice of choosing to be alone with God, is essential to deepening our relationship with Him. Where isolation can be a selfish, lonely and terrifying experience, solitude involves intimacy with our Father God. Our busy culture shouts loudly in order to tempt us to amusement, distraction and self-preservation. To thrive as followers of Jesus, we need to find ways to follow his example: seeking out quiet places to be with God, communing with Him, waiting on Him, worshipping Him. That might mean putting down my phone for a while or setting an alarm and choosing to sit for 5-10 mins in silence with God. Solitude is not isolation. Isolation cuts us off from other people and God. Solitude draws us closer to God and sharpens our awareness of others. Find solitude whilst remaining in community, says Bonhoeffer, or you’ll end up plunging into a void of words and feelings.
I suspect we’ve all learned to appreciate our immediate community in deeper ways in the last two years. But as restrictions tighten, forcing us to retreat from unnecessary contact, we need to be careful not to fall in step with how society sometimes defines it. When I get to choose my community, I will usually opt for it to include people who are like me. In fact, given carte blanche, I’ll probably opt for my community to consist of people who LIKE me. Good community should always offer acceptance and trust, but the fellowship we see in the New Testament is not like a filtered Instagram version of a happy bunch of friends who all look alike. Look at the ragtag bunch of misfits who comprise Jesus’ disciples or consider the descriptions of the members of the early church. This community is made up of unlikely, imperfect human beings choosing to live with passionate spirituality and radical love for others. Real Christian community – the kind of community where we bear with one another and forgive one another despite our differences – is hard work, but made possible by the empowering work of the Holy Spirit. He helps us to love one another even when we don’t really feel like it, or worse still, when we don’t really like one another. It’s often in those times, just when we begin to think it might be easier to opt out, that it’s good for us to be reminded of the glorious, beautiful, messy reality of being part of God’s family. Maybe it means I need to reach out to the person I find difficult or to find ways to encourage the person who is quick to share their struggles but never asks how I’m doing. Find fellowship whilst seeking solitude, says Bonhoeffer, or you’ll end up perishing in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.
Solitude not isolation, community not superficial connection. These are not easily won. They don’t just happen. They can feel like hard work at times. But like good fruit on a tree, or healthy branches on a vine, they are a sign of healthy growth. My prayer for you is my prayer for my own community and my own life: that through solitude and community we may grow more like Jesus in the months to come, whether we’re extroverts or introverts, or something in-between.
Fiona Stewart (Creative Director, Foolproof Creative Arts)