Living Alone

Chapter 10

The Way of Service

The fulfilment of living is service. When we seek for ourselves, the end is disillusionment and death. When we seek the happiness and welfare of others, we grow into an organism immeasurably greater than our own insignificant selves. Indeed, we attain to something of the measure of a perfect man, seen as the likeness of Christ. As St Paul reminds us: "We brought nothing into the world; for that matter we cannot take anything with us when we leave, but if we have food and covering we may rest content" (1 Tim. 6.7-8). The acquisition of worldly things, though not in itself reprehensible, becomes demonic when objects dominate our attention to the extent that riches and possessions become symbols of security. I say that acquiring wealth and power is not in itself evil because the things of this world are our means of growth and self-realization. The Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25.14-30) can no doubt be interpreted on various levels, but it continues to have an important mundane application: we must use and husband the world's resources for our own and others' gain. This gain is more than merely making a financial profit; it is a development of the powers of body, mind and soul that are usually alternatively squandered in reckless living and allowed to lie dormant while we lapse into dank apathy and let the world go heedlessly by. By participating in the world's affairs we gain something far greater than money and power: we attain an adult maturity based on a capacity to manage our earthly affairs responsibly and with concern for others.

Nor do the things of this world lose by intelligent human stewardship on their behalf. They are raised up from being mere material objects with only a finite life span in front of them to something of the nature of eternal values that will persist in the spiritual world long after their physical form has disintegrated. Anything consecrated to God and our fellow men undergoes a subtle inner change that is a distant presage of the resurrection of all matter into the spiritual body of Christ. This will be enacted on the "last day" when Christ comes again to us in a form that all of us will instantly recognize as being of God. At present it is enacted whenever a priest consecrates the bread and wine of the Eucharist so that they, while remaining themselves, are also changed into the body and blood of Christ. The whole question of the relationship of what we call the material with the spiritual is still a mystery to minds incarcerated in a purely physical understanding of reality. But there is enough evocative evidence to suggest that mind has a direct effect on matter in addition to the indirect influence it exerts through rational activity. An unpleasant example of the direct effect of mind over matter is the poltergeist activity that proceeds psychically from emotionally disturbed adolescents in exceptional circumstances. A more acceptable manifestation is the phenomenon of psychic healing, but far better is the truly spiritual healing that proceeds from the mind of God by the power of the Holy Spirit through his ministers to those who require help. Intercessory prayer is another example of healing, this time performed at a distance, that comes from God to the one prayed for. As we grow in spiritual grace, so the work of the Holy Spirit will become a natural part of our ministry, and this will show itself not only in more harmonious human relationships but also, I believe, in a more evenly balanced cosmic atmosphere. By this I mean a world less subject to natural disasters such as floods and droughts, hurricanes and earthquakes. To some people this view of the power of human emotions on the physical conditions of our planet will seem simplistic, but those who are aware of the power of psychic phenomena may be less tempted to dismiss the thought out of hand. All this, at any rate, stresses the sacred quality of all relationship, not only human but also material. How we treat our possessions is of an importance that outweighs their material value, for they too are a part of the divine providence.

But the most immediately important service is that which we give to other people. When our human relationships are in order we shall begin to respond in brotherly love to all that lives and to conserve our natural environment as a sacred duty not only for our survival but also for its transformation. How best can we serve our neighbour? By giving of ourselves to him in respectful attention. Service involves three motions: attention, deliberation and action. It does not mean simply doing something at all costs. Sometimes the greatest service we can render is merely to support a person with our attention and concern so that he can muster his own resources and do the appropriate work or make the right decision. Officious interference with the lives of other people in the guise of serving them is a common way of eluding the responsibilities in our own life, or deflecting our attention from our own inner deficiencies on to the troubles of another person. But if we can give of our most valuable commodity to someone, we can initiate the transformation in that person of diffidence to faith, of apathy to vibrant interest and concern. Our most valuable gift is our attention. It is much more important to give a person who is in need our own presence than a large amount of money or possessions. It could be argued that a starving man would prefer food to my presence and concern, but until I can confront that person and give him my full attention, I shall remain ignorant of his deepest needs. The relief of an immediately pressing problem, though of burning urgency, is best brought about by the one who has a wider vision of the person's requirements than by those who see him merely as a body to be fed. Man indeed cannot live on bread alone, but on every word that God utters (Matt. 4.4). The word of God is contained in Holy Scripture, and its central focus is eternal love. I can give a person alms while despising him in my heart and taking care to contaminate myself as little as possible with his presence. But when I give a person my attention, the barrier between us is narrowed so that eventually I shall be able to understand even the most difficult individual. Those who are emotionally disturbed, mentally unbalanced or obsessed with a particular enthusiasm that takes control of their entire life are especially difficult to tolerate when we are in low, earthly consciousness. They are simply a nuisance from whom we would wish to detach ourselves forthwith. But if we can listen to them in patience and forbearance, something of our spirit, that is constantly filled with the Holy Spirit, may penetrate their consciousness. As a result, they may be able to effect a more creative relationship with other people than they had ever previously enjoyed.

The person living alone has, if his life is to be fulfilled, to be much more open to other people than he was previously. This is the first step in filling the void of companionless existence that lies ahead of most of us but especially the solitary person who can look forward to little practical help from those around him in his present desolation. To be open to another person is the first step in knowing him and eventually serving him. It is a way of relationship especially available to the person who lives alone. Many such people on their own would confess complete ineptitude in dealing with others in distress; their own way of life is hardly sociable, at least on a worldly, superficial level, and they would seem the least qualified to relieve the fear and loneliness of their compatriots. But when we feel most inadequate in being able to help someone else, provided we acknowledge this helplessness silently to God and call upon his omnipresent Spirit, our own minds will be filled with wisdom apposite to the situation in which we now find ourselves. And from our secret lips the knowledge of eternal things may issue forth. The less we feel we are, the more useful we may find ourselves in God's service. After all, only the one who knows his lack and has been shriven of all illusions of importance by the cold truth of failure and loneliness is able to enter with authority into the lives of other unhappy people. And the more we know of real life - as opposed to the glamorous surface that passes for success - the more we realize how close we all are in bonds of fear, disillusionment and spiritual dereliction. Indeed, to be made aware of this inner void is the beginning of the spiritual life. As the Wisdom writers of the Old Testament so often tell us: "The fear of the Lord is wisdom, and to turn from evil is understanding" (Job 28.28).

This availability to listen and hear what other people are saying is the authentic way of getting to know them. Eventually we hear with our whole being and effect a deeper psychic communion with them, soul speaking to soul. The end of the work is a spiritual fellowship in God. It comes about therefore that the way of service is the most certain way of effecting a deep relationship with other people, and I repeat once more that the heart of service is availability to give attention, listen, hear and then communicate in word, action and prayer. The way of service has two components. The first is the inner path of intercessory prayer. Its reverse, worldly side is giving of oneself in the actions of availability. To help another person is a very great privilege. But before we can undertake such a bold step we have to get the ego out of its customary seat of dominance so that a more profound spiritual centre of awareness can direct the personality according to the will of God. When I try to do good, I end by dictating to the one I hope to help. When I strive to be still and know the all-pervading love of God, a strength of purpose flows from the depths of my being that amazes me by its excellence and charity. This previously unknown depth of service can show itself in the most unpromising individual when his compassion is evoked in an emergency. While St Paul's spiritual diagnosis of the poor moral condition of the natural man cannot be surpassed - that he does the evil that he eschews with his mind, while failing to do the good that he so admires (Rom. 7.14-25) - it is nevertheless true also that there is a spark of divinity in all of us, Christ in us, the hope of a glory to come (Col.1.27). When we are called on in an emergency, this spark radiates through the grey mist of self-interest and sloth that usually obscures the true self, or soul, of the individual, so that the whole person shines with something of the supernatural light of God. He may perform actions of unwonted nobility and self-sacrifice, even to the extent of being prepared to sacrifice his life for a stranger in peril. Once we move beyond the comfortable limits set by the worldly-wise for our prosperity and self-preservation, we enter into a world of spirituality in which sacrifice is the way to self-actualization and death the portal to eternal life. The person on his own, if he is open to the power of the Holy Spirit in contemplative prayer, will soon know of the presence of the risen Christ in his life. When we confront death in calm acceptance and allow the warm pulse of life to drive us on to the mastery of the self and the service of others, a new way of life is revealed to us. The things of this world are seen to be mere shadows on the way to self-mastery, while the eternal challenge of spiritual values becomes the driving impulse of our existence.

To be of service to others on a practical level, the first action is, as I have already stated, to be still and listen to them. This in itself is no mean achievement in the world of haste and bustle that we inhabit. The specialized agencies that exist to care for people in need - medical, psychotherapeutic, sociological - tend to put their patients or clients in special categories who can then be dealt with in ways that are appropriate to their condition. To label and categorize a person is, no doubt, necessary for his proper treatment as a clinical case or a psychological or social problem, but in the end his essential uniqueness as an individual is severely diluted by this process. The specialized agencies of healing can dehumanize those with whom they operate if they forget or neglect the uniqueness of their clients. This is where a spiritual approach to personality is vitally important: that man was made in the divine image and his end is to partake fully of the divine nature. Alleviating a medical, psychological or social problem is a very necessary step in bringing a person to his full potential, but if it does not affirm him as a human being in his own right, the step leads to a decline into uselessness, disillusionment and final disintegration. "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Prov. 29.18).

A person on his own can complement the work done by specialists in bringing relief to suffering humanity simply by being available to speak to them on a personal level and take an interest in their apparently trivial hopes and fears, trivial at any rate to the high-powered worker whose mind is often filled with his own research projects to the exclusion of lesser things. One may be so obsessed with grandiose schemes for healing humanity that one loses sight of its individual members. The art of healing is simple in essence though profound in its implication. It consists in the ability, to quote Isaiah 61.1-2, of bringing good news to the humble, binding up the broken-hearted, proclaiming liberty to captives and releasing those in prison. The year of the Lord's favour is proclaimed, and (in the addition quoted in Luke 4.18) sight is recovered for the blind. This work is the province of the Holy Spirit and not primarily of human ingenuity and expertise. It is brought about by the agent of healing sitting peacefully with the person who needs help and speaking to him in a quiet, considered dialogue. The one in need opens himself in full confidence, a confidence born of friendship, to the one with whom he communicates. The person who helps has no ready-made solutions to his problems; indeed, real human problems are seldom, if ever, solved by the intellect alone, but by the power of God guiding one on through the darkness of daily living until a light suddenly appears in the distance and understanding breaks into the previously uncomprehending mind. It is similar in its own way to a journey undertaken through the impenetrable darkness of a moonless night until the distantly appearing first rays of the sun herald the start of a new day. We continue bravely in the dark night because we know that the dawn is ever more closely within our vision. Likewise we struggle on in the darkness because we are imbued with a spiritual light of belief that assures us that all will be well in the end for those who love God (Rom. 8.28). The person who is with us in our darkness and supports us with his faith adds his quota to our confidence and fills us with hope. If such a friend has specialized knowledge of psychology so much the better, but an absence of training need not deter one from serving those who are in difficulties. The warm, silent hospital visitor plays his part also in accelerating the recovery of a patient after a major surgical operation or a severe illness. It is not so much what one says that matters - indeed the wise visitor learns to be silent, lest he burdens the one in pain with his own problems - but what one radiates in love and faith. Starting this elementary healing ministry is in itself a pure act of faith, since none of us knows what the future holds in store. But as we persist in the way, so an inner assurance is vouchsafed us, and we begin to divine the welcoming light that lies at the end of the dark tunnel of the present distress.

Faith in the unknown future, whether of this life or the life beyond death, comes as one treads the way. So-called proofs that are sought by consulting those who claim prophetic or psychic knowledge are seldom convincing and often very confusing. But as we move with courage into the unknown, so a light shows itself around our feet, guiding us on until the hidden way is clearer to us than our own identity. And that light eventually illuminates every particle of our body and radiates from the depth of the soul until we do indeed glimpse our full identity, that of a son of God made in the image of Christ. What we show in ourselves we make manifest in others also, and the end is a real healing of the person and finally of all society. This great universal healing takes place when all individuals play their part in spreading the light that comes from God, so that the world is illuminated and the whole creation is freed from the shackles of mortality to enter into the glorious liberty and splendour of the children of God, as St Paul describes in Romans 8.21. It is an awesome thought that this final transfiguration and resurrection of the world is brought about initially by simple, apparently unschooled, unimportant people giving of their essence in prayer and service to their fellow men. This service is paramount in the spiritual advancement of all people; no one is more advantageously placed than the person who lives alone, and can give of himself unsparingly to those who need someone to listen to them and reveal the love that comes to us from God when we are still and attentive.

Service, of course, does have a more executive aspect than this. In the passage from St James's letter that was quoted in a previous chapter, faith is seen to be substantiated by the works that proceed from it. If a brother is starving or naked, our first duty is to feed and clothe him. Merely listening to his tragedy is useless if our attention and compassion do not flow out in positive acts of charity. It follows therefore that we should be available to help a person in need with practical assistance as well as moral and spiritual support in prayer and conversation. The amount any individual can do is obviously dependent on his means; most of us can be of best help to those in need by supporting those larger agencies that exist to relieve poverty, disease and mental distress. This is where voluntary help in hospitals, prisons or institutions for the mentally disturbed is so important. But once again it is the personal touch that matters. The devoted helper is, after all, a very small unit in a vast organization, but the unit can articulate with other units in a way that, inevitably, impersonal organizations cannot. We tend to think that the problems of society are so enormous and their origins so intricate that simpletons like ourselves can contribute little of real help to their solution. But as soon as we get involved in the problems of even one family, we at once enter into the vast, impersonal world of suffering, and by our presence we imbue it with a spark of humanity. The common touch, the compassionate hand on the shoulder, the shared awareness of the glory and the tragedy of the present moment bring something of God into a situation of hopelessness, and a light begins to shine in the darkness of despair and touch it with a ray of hope. No one knows this better than the person who has had to live on his own for a long time, and has had shafts of spiritual light infused into the apparently meaningless journey of his life. And then he sees the light of purpose, and he goes on in joyous courage and determination to the work ahead of him.

The way of service that initiates a true healing ministry is, as has already been mentioned, laid down in the first verses of Isaiah 61. Good news is brought to the poor and humble, that they count as people, that God cares for them. The initial proof of God's care is the love that flows out to them from the minister of healing. We love because God loved us first, and the love of God is transmitted from ourselves, whom we must first love with all our defects and inadequacies, to those around us. It must be stressed that love cannot be manufactured; it is a free gift of God. If I try to love a person I will inevitably condescend to him, and my affection will have a palpably unreal quality. Soon the object of my "love" will wince at my approach, while I will find that I really despise him. But if I open myself to the love of God, I will gradually change inwardly as a person, and I will begin to flow out in real concern to a considerable range of people. The reason for this is that I will approach them at soul level and my heart will be open to their hopes and fears, their glories and tragedies. And then I shall be their friend, just as they will be my friends: as I give of myself, so I receive the other. And the other is Christ, who shows himself perpetually in the stranger who walks along with me on my own particular Emmaus road. The final good news to be proclaimed to the little ones in God is that the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs, that their end is deification, the participation fully in the divine nature as seen in Christ.

The broken-hearted are bound up so that the disintegration they knew previously, when someone or something of priceless value was removed from their lives, is now healed through the self-giving of the servant in God. To support a person during the depth of his bereavement is a great privilege and a testimony to the sustaining power of love in restoring to wholeness the one whose previous purpose in living has been shattered. We have to go on alone after someone close to us has departed from us, but if we know that there is even one person who cares deeply about us and is available when the grief is intolerable, we can proceed in courage with our own lives. To be sure, this movement is painful and apparently purposeless, but as we progress, so a deeper meaning to life asserts itself: we too are to grow into the measure of the stature of a perfect man as seen in Christ (Eph. 4.13).

"How lovely on the mountains are the feet of the herald who comes to proclaim prosperity and bring good news, the news of deliverance, calling to Zion "Your God is King" " (Isa. 52.7). This beautiful passage summarizes the work of the servant who brings the good news of deliverance from past woe and the prosperity that finds an inexhaustible supply of riches in God. For in God alone lies our rest and our strength.

Liberty is proclaimed to the captives, and those in prison are released. The real prison is our own mind, full of past conditioning that will not let the whole person be himself. The prison to which the vast majority of people in the world are confined is composed of the bricks and mortar of prejudice, ignorance, fear and a distorted view of the self. When we begin to learn that we are valued by God for ourselves alone irrespective of colour, race, social position or intellectual eminence, we can at last relax in his unfailing providence. It is the work of the servant, who is also the minister of healing, to expose the one he visits and counsels to the full thrust of acceptance and brotherhood in God. There is an important place for the physical embrace in this acceptance, since we relate to those around us with the body as well as the mind. Society tends to put its members into categories based on such external criteria as wealth, social distinction, education and occupation. In some societies a person's accent immediately identifies him with a particular social and educational class. When we are free from the subtle, insidious, evil prison of human discrimination, we begin to act as real human beings, as willed creatures of God. In fact, the ultimate key to liberty is such a severe tragedy in one's life that the suffering which accrues from it tears off the masks that previously hid one's true nature in a costume of make-believe. At last the soul is exposed, and its natural tendency is to turn to Christ, because it was created in the image of God. Only the one who has suffered knows the full extent of love and is capable of giving unreservedly of himself in love to his neighbour.

The blind see when the servant who visits them tears away the old prejudices and fears that had occluded their sight. When Jesus healed the man born blind, he opened not only his physical eyes but also the eyes of his soul. This is the inner eye that detects the reality that lies hidden behind the façade of surface activities. He was able to say "All I know is this: once I was blind, now I can see" (John 9.25) and again "If that man had not come from God he could have done nothing" (John 9.33). The religious authorities remained blind in spirit, because their prejudice against Jesus prevented them seeing spiritual truth. This blindness based on past patterns of belief prevents so many of us from understanding what our brothers are saying to us in the depth of their being. It also prevents us communicating with others in complete self-giving honesty. The service that the one on his own has to give the blind has two parts. He must aid the physically blind in his struggle for existence - and in this context the blind include that vast population who are incapacitated by various physical defects ranging from poor sight and hearing to lameness and paralysis - by helping to provide food and comfort for those in need. And he must also be the way in which the blind man sees a new purpose in his own life, that his negative feeling of resignation and despair may be transformed into a positive response of acceptance and hope. This hope is not so much for physical healing - which cannot be demanded - as that his life does, after all, have a really constructive basis and that the work he has done, and is doing, will play its part in the redemption of society. Those who can only stand and wait also have their glorious moment of service, like the three women who stood at the foot of the cross, supporting Jesus in unspoken love while the remainder of the spectators passed by in dull incomprehension. It has to be faced that, for every noble soul seeking to relieve the distress of the dark planet that is our little world, there are legions of the uncomprehending whose lives are controlled by destructive thoughts and lustful passions. But their time of redemption will come too, when they will learn that life is more than a garish procession of sensual entertainments. This knowledge will come to them when darkness occludes their physical and mental sight. And in the depths of their despair they too will see the suprasensual light of God in Christ. Then they too will begin to live as fully conscious human beings. Those who live alone are the precious light-bearers of God to the ones who live in the darkness of hell. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light: light has dawned upon them, dwellers in a land as dark as death" (Isa. 9.2). The little ones in God are the precursors, the forerunners, of the new Advent when Christ will indeed be all and in all, as St Paul saw in Colossians 3.11. What is theologically true has yet to be made real in the life of the community where there are still unfortunately racial, social and educational differences that separate man from man. What is required is not a dull uniformity but a transcendence of the limitations of the individual person so that each one of us shows the power of Christ in his own life. Then will the ego be transfigured to the identity of the spirit within the soul, and one will be able to say with Christ, "I and the Father are one". It is to this far-off yet well heralded event that the whole creation moves.

It therefore follows that the service best rendered by those who live alone is being open to all classes of people. This openness invites them to share their hopes and aspirations as well as their fears and forebodings with us who are easy listeners. But discretion is an essential part of service, the discretion that keeps the secrets of other people inviolate in our care, and the discretion to know how far we may proceed with our help and when to call upon the more specialized agencies of assistance. The one who is a true minister of healing does not take the credit on himself; he knows how to share the honours with other helpers more skilled than he is in some special expertise. Service for others means bringing them into our family - in the case of the lone-dweller this is a family of one. But the family grows as those are added who play their part in spreading light and bestowing love on others. Prayer that is not made manifest in outer service to others becomes an unreal ritual that assumes the slavery of a superstitious drudgery. Service that is not fertilized by prayer becomes egocentric and tyrannical towards the ones we wish to assist. To get the ego out of its customary seat of domination into its fitting role of servant to the soul is the beginning of effective service to the world. The end of that service is the establishment of the divine community in the world. This community exists wherever we may find ourselves, and the apparently unpromising people around us are its hallowed members.

The key to effective service is self-forgetfulness. When we have set aside thoughts of our own unworthiness, ineptitude and lack of knowledge and start to do the healing act of caring sufficiently for a fellow sufferer in need, we have entered into the way of service. Experience teaches; indeed it is the only authentic teacher. The hints we may acquire on the way from specialist sources are often invaluable, but they can be assimilated and used only by those experienced on the path of service. In the same way, books on spirituality and mysticism will remain closed in essence to the casual reader; they live only in the lives of those who have moved beyond worldly desires to eternal aspiration. And this too comes by the experience of life, a life of unending enfoldment and pregnant with mystery to those who are aware. One thing is certain: once one moves into service for one's fellows, one is never lonely again - there simply is no time for bemoaning one's own inner tragedies. Instead one gives, apparently of oneself, but in fact of the divine essence within one. That is the way of self-transcendence that leads to the vision of God.

Chapter 11