Living Alone

Chapter 11

The Universal Relationship

The end of living alone is being in a more complete relationship with everybody. What on the surface appears to be paradox carried to its extreme absurdity is true if we consider what the substance of a real relationship comprises. It might be argued that a person who spends his life habitually alone has proved his inability to establish, or at any rate maintain, a constant relationship with any other human being. The impediment may be crippling shyness or else such a difficult personality that effective communication with another person is well-nigh impossible. How can the solitary one enter into a complete relationship with his fellows until such time as he ceases to live alone and enters into a full relationship with at least one other person?

The meaning of a real relationship is the topic that has reared its head so often in these pages that it is in fact the central theme of this dissertation on which all other considerations are essentially variations. A real relationship with another person is one in which the one can bare his soul to the other, in which neither will be shocked at the most scandalous revelations of intimate details of the other's life and in which mutual respect shows itself in loyalty and confidentiality that ultimately blossoms in self-giving love. Such a relationship should find its fulfilment and apogee in marriage. Admittedly a high degree of intimacy is to be cultivated during the growing period of shared existence, punctuated by the responsibility of rearing a family and the years of financial stress. But even after many years of living together a high degree of shared happiness, of true intimacy, is not a very common commodity. All too often in even an apparently successful marriage, there is some aspect of the one partner's life that has to be shielded from the other, who will in some way feel threatened by it and therefore seek to undermine it with the subtle cruelty of derision and disdain. Many married couples get along together more because of a basic need for survival than because of any deep personal love. The shallowness of sensitivity that marks so many marital unions is disconcerting to behold, and it heralds the numerous breakdowns of marriage that are so common a feature of contemporary life. Whether the assessment would have been notably different in previous eras is debatable, but in those days it was more usual to stay the course in quiet discontent and discreet immorality than it is at present. Nowadays if satisfaction is not soon forthcoming there is a tendency to walk out and leave the other party stranded.

The truth is that one's chances of relating successfully to another person are remote until one has learnt to relate effectively to oneself. Until I am at peace in myself, accepting the manifold elements of my personality - the dark as well as the light, the unpleasant together with the admirable - I will never be at peace with anyone else. Until I am becoming integrated as a person, the split-off portions of my personality that have as yet eluded integration into the whole will insinuate themselves into my consciousness and act treacherously against me. Thus I will be fighting an interior battle while I believe I am relating effectively to another person. I may, for instance, relate on the level of genital sex to someone who relieves my basic physical need while the remainder of my mind is preoccupied with some completely different dimension of concern that has nothing to do with the person who is satisfying my sensual desire at that moment. Once the need has been stilled, the person is no longer relevant in my life and can, as far as I am concerned, go away. Thus, in the language of Martin Buber, I have used another human being in the I-It relationship that should be relegated to physical objects that are here today and discarded tomorrow. But we cannot treat fellow humans like this; the retribution in store for us later on both in terms of broken relationships and our own disintegration is terrifying to behold. Furthermore, if one lacks some quality and especially if one is unaware of it, one will tend to seek it unconsciously in some other person. Instead of relating as a whole person to the other, one will be using him to complement one's own deficiencies. Such a relationship will inevitably prove unsatisfactory, and the cause lies within oneself even more than in the other person. One is looking for healing of oneself elsewhere instead of seeking it in the depths of one's own being. On the other hand, when we are centred in the self that secret place of the Most High, we speak to the other person with our true being, and there is a genuine relationship between us. In this respect neither of us need be particularly bright intellectually or even good morally, but at least we are revealing our true nature to the other. The truth may not be pleasant at first, but where truth is unashamedly proclaimed, the Spirit of God is not far away, and that same Spirit will illuminate the relationship and bring healing to all the parties concerned. Soon they will begin to know each other and see each other's true value. This esteem that we give to each other is the foundation stone of an ever-deepening reverence which will in due course blossom into real love. This love unites the many into one body, the full body of Christ. What starts in the lives of the few will bring an increasing number of people into deep relationship with each other and with ourselves also, because on the level of love we are, as we have already noted, all parts of the same body, all "members one of another".

In many relationships a period of hatred may be inevitable before love can be established. The most negative state is one of apathetic indifference, in which one does not care about the other person at all. Quite a large amount of permissiveness in society is a manifestation of frank indifference; people are allowed to do what they will with their lives even to the extent of ruining them with excessive dependence on drugs and alcohol, or by various perverse actions. Nobody cares, since each is allegedly the master of his own life. Frank hatred is preferable to this; at least it articulates a concern for the other person even if this acknowledgement is destructive in tendency. When one's hatred reaches its peak, one may at last confront the object of one's loathing, and suddenly, for the first time in one's life, see that individual as a fellow human being, at the same time feeling human emotions of affinity in oneself. Jesus' command that we should love our enemies and pray for our persecutors, remembering that God bestows his love on good and bad alike, and only in so doing can we be authentic children of our heavenly Father (Matt. 5.44-45), is a counsel of perfection that is fulfilled in the course of a life of prayer and renunciation. If we are naiäve enough to believe that this supreme work of love can be attained by an act of unaided will we shall soon be disillusioned. If I make up my mind to act henceforth with love towards my bitterest enemy and I go about it simply by beaming good will at him, I will soon discover that I am not relating to him as a real person but am in fact subtly condescending to him. I am not giving my full being to his full being but am eluding a full confrontation by keeping my inner eye fixed on a surface thought instead of looking deeply into a brother's soul, sore and suffering as is mine also. But if I acknowledge my detestation, knowing that it is a wrong, destructive attitude, and pray to God in confession and petition that my heart may be changed from its habitual stoniness to a fully palpitating heart of a human being, then relief will come and a changed relationship will follow. The dark reign of hatred will be succeeded by the illumination of love, as it did with dramatic force to St Paul on the road to Damascus. Those whom the great apostle to the Gentiles hated most were to become the objects of his self-giving love. Harmony usually comes after strong conflict, just as the peace of God which passes all understanding is appreciated best by those whose lives have been rent asunder by turmoil and anxiety. In the same way health is seldom acknowledged as a divine gift until one has recovered from a severe illness.

What I am saying is this, that we have to be honest in our relationships. Honesty requires the discipline of awareness to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us in the depths of our being. He speaks to us unequivocally in the sacrament of the present moment, so that we are in no doubt about our basic motivations or our attitudes to other people. Jesus had the same effect: in his presence the other person showed himself as he really was, the aspiration that lay hidden in the tax-gatherer and the prostitute no less than the hatred and jealousy that disfigured the piety of many religious observers. This was because Jesus, like all holy people, was transparent, and in his transparency the grime and filth in the other's personality was fully revealed. It could be cleansed according to the will of the person concerned, but pride occluded the radiance of God from penetrating the souls of the hypocrites and the religious bigots, as it does today also.

When one lives alone one cannot evade this penetrating blast of God's Spirit. As a result one really does begin to know oneself, and then it becomes easier to know other people. When the power of God has come to us and we know we are loved by him and are made lovable by him, only then can we flow out to other people without shame or base motives. We know that the priceless gift we have to offer is in fact ourself, imperfect no doubt but incontrovertibly unique. We do not have to display exceptional gifts or talents, wealth or social eminence, physical attractiveness or intellectual brilliance. These may be additional graces but none of them gives us peace and joy; God alone fulfils this purpose. The one thing needful, that Mary possessed and her obsessively busy sister Martha lacked, was stillness to hear the word of God (Luke 10.38-42). When one is alone the word comes to us loud and clear, and at last we can give up our time to listen and obey. Once we have heard God, we can begin to hear what our fellows are saying. One can indeed relate effectively to other people only when one has related to God and to oneself. To be at home with God and in oneself makes one constantly available to other people also. The heavenly guest within welcomes each weary traveller on the way of life. Come to me, all whose work is hard, whose load is heavy, and I will give you relief. Bend your necks to my yoke, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble-hearted; and your souls will find relief. For my yoke is good to bear, my load is light (Matt. 11.28-30). The yoke of Christ is in fact the burden of all creation that groans as if in the pangs of childbirth, but in him the weight becomes bearable and the pain is invested with visionary hope. It is in this spirit that a full relationship can be established with another person, for God is there too and his Spirit sustains all who are involved.

These great spiritual truths that are at the heart of an enduring relationship find their fruition best in the soul of the person who has striven long on his own, and has had to bear the pangs of doubt, fear and disappointment without the glib reassurances that flow from the lips of the worldly-wise. These have never faced the inroads of desolation or failure, and their advice is as shallow as their lives are superficial. They see with the hooded eye: one that is shielded by a comfortable attitude to life from anything that would tend to disturb the uneasy equilibrium on which their existence is based. The same criticism of smooth superficiality can be levelled at many conventionally religious people who believe they have the complete truth but cannot face the searing implications of a full commitment to God in prayer and to their fellow men in service. How many say "Lord, Lord" while failing to do the will of God! They will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 7.21). The Kingdom is above all else one of intimate relationship with one's fellows through a participation of loving openness with God. The peace of God that passes all understanding is one of wholeness of personality so that we can enjoy all the good things that God has given us in his company through eternal union. Once the conflicting elements in our own personality have been brought together and healed, we can enter into a healing relationship with our neighbours, with all created things, and finally with the whole universe through the integrating power of God's love for us all. The mystic knows of the divine harmony that sustains the heart of the universe, bringing together the surface conflicts into a synthesis of reconciliation and dedication to God. We in our lesser awareness realize this synthesis in our own personality as God redeems what was split off and perverse. And then we can relate in wonder with our fellow men. Heaven is like a clear crystal, transparent and self-revealing. In it nothing lies hidden; when we enter we are accepted for what we are. The wounds we have borne that have scarred our personalities now assume the beauty of something holy, as the wounds of the crucified Lord are the object of our special veneration and love whenever we follow him through agony to triumph, through crucifixion to resurrection.

The end of living alone is the regeneration of the personality, so that even if one is on one's own one is no longer alone in the world. Man was never meant to be alone, but when we disregard the divine law through human greed, as portrayed symbolically in the story of the Fall in Genesis 3, we have to grow painfully into self-knowledge and self-transcendence. Only then can we give of ourselves unreservedly to our fellows in a true relationship. The qualities of a loving relationship are trust, loyalty, and the willingness to give of oneself freely and without desire for recompense. There is indeed only one reward worth its name, and that is love. All else is illusory. Through the way of service and the gift of being available to many others that is often less open to the person limited by family relationships, the one who lives alone can, and indeed should, become the centre of an ever-increasing number of people. These come at first for help, but later stay and offer themselves for a greater service to their fellows. These people may well form the nucleus of a beloved community; at all events they begin to assume the qualities of true friends rather than casual acquaintances: as we noted previously, the qualities of friendship are trust with its reverse side of loyalty together with the giving of oneself to help the other person. Such a friend is a rare being; that is why, even if we have two or three real friends, we should regard ourselves as fortunate. To have around one those who will respect one's secrets and guard one's private life is the basis of practical friendship. Eventually this loving community will be an inseparable part of one's life, so that nothing private need be guarded and all secrets are part of the knowledge of our friends. Then we will be in the divine company, "to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden". In other words a true relationship depends on the absolute freedom of all its members to be themselves. This freedom flows out to the wide world and embraces all manner of human beings with acceptance and love.

It was in this spirit that Jesus widened the concept of family. It is recorded that early in his ministry his mother and brothers came to fetch him while he was at work amongst the common people. He replied, "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?" And looking round at those who were sitting in the circle about him he said: "Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, my mother" (Mark 3.31-35). The family unit is both the foundation of the civilized community and its ultimate limitation and downfall. This adverse effect occurs when the little family assumes a dominance and stranglehold in the life of its members. It becomes a roaring animal, predatory and vicious, seeking its own at all costs and intent on preserving itself against the inroads of the stranger and the dispossessed. But the family cannot be discarded without serious social repercussions, nor can it be diluted and broadened by a communalism that practises sexual promiscuity so that the integrity, indeed the sanctity, of the individual is sacrificed for the specious ideal of group solidarity. The way ahead is not by destroying the family as we know it, but by transcending its natural limitations. This is done by extending its excellence to other people around one, so that the love and service, the loyalty and the self-sacrifice of real family life may be available to the stranger in need. This was the way of Christ, and indeed it is taught that whenever we feed the hungry and give drink to those that thirst, whenever we entertain the stranger in our home and clothe the naked, whenever we help the sick and visit those in prison, we are doing it to Christ also. "Anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did it for me" (Matt. 25.31-46). It will be a good thing also when we extend our understanding of the Holy Family from the rather cosy, complacent Christmas image that now prevails to a grasp of the divine community grounded in eternity but to be realized also in the common life we share in the world this day. These immense insights are especially real to the person who has had to live alone and has passed through the bitter desert of loneliness to the oasis of service for other people less fortunate than he is, through the wilderness of isolation to the heavenly city of unrestricted love for all men. When one has come to terms with the loneliness that is a part of all human endeavour by living alone, one can also reach the point of self-transcendence where one is able to give up one's life freely for one's friends, who, at this stage are all God's creatures.

This view of community helps us also to understand the necessity of the experience of bereavement in the full growth of a person first to independence of people and then, by paradox, to a full involvement with many people. When we have lost the support of the person who meant most in our life, we now have an opportunity of opening ourself to him at the level of spiritual reality. This means in effect making ourselves more available to our fellow men who previously passed unnoticed in the procession of life, since we were totally engrossed in a selfish relationship with one person only. As we give of ourselves to those whom we had previously neglected or dismissed out of hand as being irrelevant to our needs, so we find that our loved one can communicate with us on the highest level of awareness. When we are dedicated to service and open in compassion to the meanest creature Christ himself is with us and he brings all whom we have loved with him to us. Some people who have shown hospitality have, by so doing, entertained angels without knowing it (Heb. 13.2). Indeed, whenever we do a noble action or a charitable work, Christ is with us both as inspirer and as companion. The truths of the highest states of being come to us when we are least aware of ourselves and most dedicated to the needs of others. Grace is eternally available, but it is to the person most empty of conceit and selfish craving that grace will be revealed. Once empty of the selfish desire for a loved one now departed this life, we shall be filled with the love of a wider, more comprehensive community at whose head is Christ bringing with him the spiritual form of the loved one.

In this respect I am persuaded that our departed friends do not want us to grieve over them. According to the life they led on earth and the concern they showed for others less fortunate than they were, they are now in a new relationship with God and in all probability learning much about themselves that was hidden from their gaze during the period of their earthly toil. What they want most of us is our prayers, especially if their lives on earth were not particularly edifying, and that we should devote the remainder of our days on earth to living as perfectly in love as we can. In the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, it was the desire of the previously selfish man of wealth, now sequestered in hell and deprived of all intimate relationships of love as the result of his way of life on earth that his brothers might learn in time to amend their own lives. Only thus would they escape the desolation that was his present lot (Luke 16.19 - 31). While I personally cannot bear to consider any sinner as eternally damned no matter how evil his earthly life may have been, it is clear to me that the state of damnation persists until one confesses one's sins and offers one's future existence to the unreserved service of one's fellow creatures. In other words, the state of being of anyone in the future, whether here on earth or in the undisclosed pastures of the after-life, depends on the combined action of the free will of the person and the eternally forgiving love of God once that person has come to himself as the Prodigal Son did in Jesus' famous parable. As we have already noted, love can be freely offered, but even God does not force anyone to accept it. It may take an apparently endless period of recalcitrance before a sinner will start to repent of his past attitudes, asking God to be forgiven and offering himself without demur as a living sacrifice for the whole world.

In this context the state of celibacy finds its proper meaning. It is not one of avoiding sexual contact with another person but of offering oneself in the height of one's sexuality to all people. Unfortunately most people confine sex entirely to the physical act of procreation; in other words, they limit sexuality to its genital function. Vital as this is both for the procreation of mankind and the mutual pleasure and companionship of the individual partners concerned in the act, it is in fact only one facet of a much vaster, God-given quality. It is accepted by many psychologists that each of us has both a masculine and a feminine aspect to the personality, but the dominant quality is determined by our anatomical constitution, whether male or female. To complement the weaker side it is customary to have close links with those of the opposite sex, and this should find its consummation in a happy marriage. The basic masculine qualities are drive, leadership, forcefulness, intellectual power and physical strength. By contrast, the feminine qualities that stand out quite clearly are receptivity, service, graciousness, intuition and psychic sensitivity. It can be said that the man builds the house while the woman makes the home. It is a matter of everyday observation that there are many men who have psychological qualities of a feminine, receptive type and many dominating, executive women, thus illustrating the fact that sexuality is not nearly so clear-cut as would appear at first sight. This, it should be noted, is independent of genital sex: the receptive man can be as potent as his dominating peer, and the executive type of woman can be as open to physical love as her more retiring sister. The amazing range of qualities that are found in individual human beings is a constant source of delight, for it emphasizes the uniqueness of each person.

The true celibate is one in whom the male and female qualities are so balanced that no other person is needed to complement them. Such a celibate was Jesus, who in his personality combined masculine strength and feminine sensitivity, the executive power of a man and the patient teaching quality that accords best with a woman. A good teacher must not only be a master of his subject but also have infinite solicitude for his students. He must be able to put himself in the place of a person who has difficulty in grasping concepts and theories; this in effect means that an effective teacher is loving and full of compassion for those he is trying to help. The feminine part of teaching is vitally important, and it includes such qualities as patience, the ability to relate in depth, concern and self-giving. Dame Julian of Norwich appreciates the motherhood of Christ beautifully when she writes of his providence to us, his unfailing love and his self-sacrifice. She says a mother's is the most intimate, willing and dependable of all services, and that Christ showed them to perfection (Revelations of Divine Love, ch. 60).

When a married person is parted from his or her beloved spouse in death, it may well be that the previous state of intimate union with one person is now to be broadened to embrace many people in the love of the ideal father-mother who is typified in Christ. I would not suggest that a bereaved person should reject the possibility of another marriage - and in this respect men are more able to make a second marriage than are women, who depend on the man's initiative. But if circumstances decree that the life alone is to be a permanent feature of one's remaining years, one should thank God for the opportunity offered one to grow into the state of dedicated service and love for all people - male and female, young and old, native and foreign - that is the way of the celibate. All this is, of course, simply an extension of the theme of Christ already mentioned, that one's real family includes all people, and especially those who offer themselves unreservedly to the service of God and the proclamation of his Kingdom on earth. Much of life's travail is here to teach us to broaden our concept of identity from the purely personal to the communal from the egoistic to the spiritual. The end is the mystical realization that I and the Father are one, a truth to be attained in the mist of eternity as it was shown on earth in the person of Christ. For God became man in order that man might become God, in St Athanasius' memorable words. And when I am one with the Father, I am also one with all my brethren.

The end of fulfilled living alone should be that one is fully available to anyone in need of help or companionship. One should also be available to the unseen hosts of eternity that convey spiritual life to us from the ineffable Godhead. When we cease trying to make ourselves sociable by becoming involved in groups and societies that really do not interest us but we feel it is to our benefit to support, we can begin to attain an inner balance in peace and confidence. And it will not be long before we find ourselves the centre of attraction for many people who need assistance or who are looking, albeit unconsciously, for someone who has a secret way to the divine knowledge of tranquillity. Living alone is one of the most effective ways of gathering a community around one, a community that does not live with one on a physical level so much as vibrate in deepest response to one's spiritual aspirations and insights. Intercessory prayer finds its greatest strength when it is undertaken with dedication by a loving community working together. Such a group of intercessors is not gathered by intent so much as brought together for service, and as they grow in self-giving, so they are opening themselves in greater faith both to God and to their fellow members in the group. As this happens, so the unpleasant dictatorial and exhibitionistic traits of one's personality are laid bare, and one has to face many adverse qualities in oneself and in the others also. One's religion may indeed be what one does with one's solitariness, as A. N. Whitehead stated, but it finds its fruition in one's attitude to one's fellow men. Some group members will claim special psychic gifts, such as being able to look into other people's thoughts or to see remarkable visions during prayer. They have to be guided with firmness and compassion beyond these psychic curiosities that are ludicrously sensationalized by an undisciplined imagination into something of great importance. The end of prayer is that perfect peace in which the communion with God and with one's fellow men is enjoyed, and the ego with its tendency to self-glorification is stilled in service and dedication to the Most High.

The perfect community is one that can re-echo St Paul's insight: "The life I live is no longer my life but the life which Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2.19). But this divine life follows crucifixion with Christ - prefigured in the sacrament of Holy Baptism and ultimately fulfilled in one's personal response to the trials and glory of individual existence.

It is indeed an amazing paradox that until one can live successfully on one's own, one will never be able to live as a full person with anyone else, let alone in a creative community. We have to realize that sharing means above all else giving. When we have given freely of ourselves, we can start to receive as well, for receiving is the other side of sharing. But if the motive for my attempt at shared living is to escape loneliness or some other unpleasant situation in my life, I will simply bring that unhealed element into the new relationship. The end is likely to be a shattered relationship from which I emerge bruised and battered, indignant and disillusioned. The tendency is to blame other people for their selfishness and insensitivity until insight gradually dawns within oneself, and one sees how predatory one's own attitude has been. When, on the other hand, we have come to terms with the fullness of our personality and learned to live with it all alone, we can be gradually civilized and then spiritualized by the slow attrition of our illusions on the hard grindstone of truth. When we know we are nothing and expect nothing for ourselves alone, then are we in a state to be filled with God's Spirit; at last we may become an important focus for a beloved community. In the words of the Magnificat, "The hungry he has satisfied with good things, the rich sent empty away" (Luke 1.53). The rich, in this present context, are those full of selfish complaints, demands and desires. When these have been worn down by the thrust of common life with all its hardships and pain, they will cease to want anything for themselves, and desire God alone, to whom they can at last give themselves in trust and service. The terrible words that Jeremiah wrote to his scribe Baruch are relevant here: "You seek great things for yourself. Leave off seeking them; for I will bring disaster upon all mankind, says the Lord, and I will let you live wherever you go, but you shall save your life and nothing more" (Jer. 45.5). When we have been brought to this extremity, as many of us are facing at this present time, we can start to live authentically as complete people. At last all our illusions have been stripped away, and we are able to see ourselves in the clear light of truth for the first time in our lives. And then we discover that the only thing of value we have to offer our fellow men is ourself; though of little outer attraction, it bears the mark of a unique creation of God. When we feel ourself to be least valuable, we are usually most lovable, for our frail being speaks of God's care and preservation in the face of human helplessness. Those of us whose privilege it is to tend the sick have often discovered the face of a helpless child in the previously haughty demeanour of an adult who has at last had to come to terms with physical impotence and the impersonal approach of death. It therefore comes about that the fulfilled purpose of living alone is to be able to live in an authentic and full relationship with whomsoever we meet in the day's work. This relationship is based on two truths: our human brotherhood and our divine sonship.

Chapter 12