Living Alone

Chapter 12

Becoming a Person

When we view with the dispassion that comes with the experience of ageing the course of human life, the way seems to be from a state of anonymity to one of bearing a special name, from being an intelligent animal to becoming a full person. A person is a realized human being, one who can act responsibly from a centre of will that is in communication with and guided by a focus of spirit. This spirit within the centre of the soul is in continuity with the Holy Spirit that gives us life, sustains us with his healing power and leads us to an encounter with God, when we are changed progressively into his likeness.

Man is both an intelligent animal and a vibrant spirit; the one must not be exalted above the other since both are basic to our common destiny and both come from God. Nevertheless, the end of man is to partake of the divine nature, to share in the very being of God (2 Pet. 1.4), for in it he was originally conceived. The incarnation of Christ is the crucial event that shows us the nature of man's deification, and is our way of proceeding towards it. The gifted human animal moves towards authentic personhood when he becomes aware of himself as a being who has to make decisions of an ethical nature. Indeed, awareness is the road to full selfhood and ultimately to knowing God in glorious illumination, such as is given in deep prayer or infused mystical experience. The first awareness of human personhood comes when we have to choose between what is most expedient for us and what appears to be our bounden duty to others. Let it be said at once that the second choice is not always the right one, because there may come a time in one's life when a calculated break has to be made from the erstwhile supporting community, so that one sets oneself apart from others and often in antagonism to the currently prevailing ethos of one's time and place. The reassuring comfort that depends on the approval of one's peers may have to be forfeited before one knows the inner satisfaction of doing the work that one has been called on to perform. This is the meaning of vocation, the obedience of the soul to the call of God, a call that leads to suffering, isolation and death of the old way of life, and a mysterious resurrection into becoming a full person. It is the path that has to be trodden by all creative artists and it is the way of the religious genius. But we lesser mortals encounter it in the narrow confines of our own lives also. It leads us out of the common path into a place of seclusion where we can meditate, albeit in material isolation, in spiritual freedom. This is the significance of living alone on its highest level. For the first time we see ourselves in naked truth. The experience may be shattering, as it was for David when the prophet Nathan exposed his lustful cruelty to him by means of a simple parable in connection with the affair of Bathsheba and her noble husband Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 12.1-7). Nathan said, "You are the man". In an even more terrible context, Peter too had to face his own worthlessness after having denied Christ on three successive occasions; it is recorded that when the cock crowed, he wept bitterly. This awareness of personal responsibility, whether in relation to a past misdemeanour or a future decision that is to have an irrevocable effect on one's future relationships with one's family and closest friends, is the call to unique personhood; it is consummated alone. But God is present, even when unnoticed.

The awareness of responsibility is followed by a determined action to follow the path set before one; it may be the path to repentance, as in the instances of David, Peter and the Prodigal Son when he came to himself, or it may be the path to self-realization through a chosen work ahead of one. In fact the two paths tend to merge, since after repentance and confession to God, there comes the treading of a new path to service and sacrifice of the self in the love of all mankind. The will in its free direction is the action of the soul, for now the impetus for change comes from within the illuminated secret place of the Most High, and it is no longer dominated by inner impediments or external conditioning from the environment where one lives one's daily life.

In the end, the path set before one in the depths of the soul is to follow God and do the work that he has decreed for us. The work has two components: the service of all life so that the whole world may be raised to divine knowledge, and the transfiguration of one's own personality from animal selfishness to the fully human way of sacrifice shown perfectly in the life of Christ. In the Bible there are numerous examples of this call from God that the person might assume the full nature of a prophet; this mouthpiece of God shows his people the way to spiritual perfection through obedience to the outer law of discipline and service and the inner law of love to all created things. The call may follow a dramatic mystical experience of God, as when Moses encountered him in the burning bush or Isaiah saw the transcendent holiness of the Deity in his great vision in the Temple. But the theophany may be more interior, as in Jeremiah's call to the prophetic function. He was told: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you for my own; before you were born I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jer. 1.4-5). The prophet usually demurs and tries to evade the responsibility thrust upon him. Isaiah, in this respect, is the exception; he says, "Here am I, send me" (Isa. 6.1-8). But this confidence follows the symbolic action of inner cleansing effected by a seraph carrying a glowing coal with which he touches Isaiah's mouth.

When one follows God after the definitive call to service, one goes down into the depths of one's own personality and into the darkness of the world. The way to God's service is through hell, all of which has to be redeemed by the love that comes from God. The lives of the prophets are a moving saga of pain and tragedy, seen most poignantly in the instance of Jeremiah, but present also in the travail of Moses with his recalcitrant compatriots through the wilderness that leads to the promised land. When Jesus, who is without sin, accepts the baptism of repentance of John, he identifies himself with the sins of the world. When the Holy Spirit descends fully on him after he has made this final act of obedience to the Father, he is led by that same Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, who embraces all the destructive tendencies inherent in sinful humanity and the psychic powers beyond rational definition. But at the end of all this darkness and suffering is boundless freedom, and with it comes love, joy and an infinitely greater knowledge of God than was previously attainable. The end of all strivings for personal satisfaction is death, but with this death a new life springs up like a phoenix from the old; it is the beginning of the real life in God. Death is indeed the gateway to a greater life, and the concept of death need not be limited to a mere dissolution of the physical body. We die each day when we have come to terms with ourselves, passing beyond the thraldom of worldly desires that serve merely to inflate ourselves at the expense of other people, and give ourselves in penitence and faith to God. We commit our spirit into his hands, even as Jesus did on the cross. As we die to the past, so the past is redeemed in love. Even its most terrible episodes are now healed, being integrated into the fullness of our life by bonds of compassion and wisdom. And thus we arise transfigured by the love of God, and are able to enter upon new fields of endeavour. The end is sanctification, not only personal but also communal. And the destiny of the individual is finally realized on an earthly, even a cosmic, scale.

This is what it means to become a person. This great transformation takes place in the silence of deep, often bitter, self-confrontation when we have to face our dereliction apart from the company of fellow human beings, who might divert us from the course by agreeable conversation and flippant pleasantries. No longer can we escape into manifold activities that purport to serve others but are in fact a subtle way of shielding our inner gaze from our own blatant inadequacies. The period of gestation that precedes the birth of a whole person who is to be a source of blessing to the world takes place in the silence of a naked heart. It is the humble counterpart of the annunciation of the incarnation, of the birth of Christ, made by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary. As she gave herself unsparingly to the great work within herself in the silence of obscure ignorance fertilized by humble faith, so the whole person is nurtured in the womb of inner silence far from the support or understanding of his fellow beings. The deeper significance of a life alone is that it is also a life with God. When the gestation is complete and the period of probation has passed, we can take our place once more in the world, but no longer attached to our skills and gifts or trusting in our own excellence. Instead we offer ourselves as we now stand, devoid of all personal attitudes either of humiliation or conceit but full of the presence of God. When we are empty of self-seeking and full of the divine presence, we are authentically alone even when about our business in the company of all the world around us. And being alone as a real person we are fully available to anyone who needs our help and counsel. Like the Blessed Virgin in the company of the archangel, we can attend, listen, hear and obey the voice of the Spirit. We can see not only with our eyes but also with that inner discernment that knows the meaning of what is seen. In this way we can give of ourself with full intent to whomsoever is in need of our help. We can, like the young Jesus, be eternally about our Father's business, by being in our Father's house (Luke 2.49). This house is in the temple that is not made by human hands, but is the secret place of the Most High deep within us. It is here that we live alone, and yet paradoxically it has within its confines God and anyone who cares to enter for stillness, refreshment and peace.

If, to quote A. N. Whitehead a third time, religion is what a man does with his solitariness, the person is one who not only loves his solitary nature but also bequeaths it without reserve to all who desire it. For from this solitariness issue forth the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5.22). Another fruit that radiates from a person who mirrors the providence of God is an awareness of the absurdity of all human solutions in the face of the divine reality. This is the sense of humour that is so necessary to bind together the individual fruits of the Holy Spirit into a living organism. I am often reminded of the patient of Carl Jung who wrote in a letter of appreciation to him the following:

Out of evil, much good has come to me. By keeping quiet, repressing nothing, remaining attentive, and hand in hand with that, by accepting reality - by doing all this, rare knowledge has come to me, and rare powers as well, such as I could never have imagined before. I always thought that, when we accept things, they overpower us in one way or another. Now this is not true at all, and it is only by accepting them that one can define an attitude toward them. So now I intend playing the game of life, being receptive to whatever comes to me, good and bad, sun and shadow that are forever shifting, and, in this way, also accepting my own nature with its positive and negative sides. Thus everything becomes more alive to me. What a fool I was! How I tried to force everything to go according to my idea! (from The Secret of the Golden Flower translated and explained by Richard Wilhelm with a European commentary by C G Jung).

This woman had become a complete person in the silence of inner reflectiveness while she viewed with increasing dispassion the passing show of her own responses and the fleeting procession of the world's goods. Out of all this, the inner centre, the secret place that we have considered in great depth, was encountered, established and brought to the conscious knowledge of God. As God became real to her, so she revealed godlike qualities in herself, especially a freed will that was able to receive and discern each new impression that impinged itself on her consciousness, whether from her own unconscious mind or from the world outside. This, in a nutshell, summarizes the inner work that can be achieved only by living alone. It is indeed much to be regretted that the young are not encouraged to spend a few weeks each year in the midst of a contemplative community, where speech is a precious commodity to be expended only with due reverence. To be able to enjoy silence is a priceless gift, for it ensures that one will never again feel lonely, even when one is of necessity on one's own. It may be in a foreign country or among a spiritually alien society that does not share one's values or way of life. It may be when someone close in relationship has died, so that the stark prospect of living alone in the future confronts one as the only certainty of existence. It may finally be that the physical body fails one or that the senses of sight or hearing, on which one depends for communication with others, grow dim. All these events separate us temporarily or permanently, as the case may be, from those around us, and show us how fragile is our relationship with our fellow beings. But when we know the eternal communion with God that shows itself in silence, we are about our Father's business as intensely as we could be when all is going well with us. In God alone is our rest, and when we are rested in him, we are entirely composed no matter how unpleasant may be the circumstances of our life.

To those who are well schooled in the inner life, who are in fact persons in their own right, living alone is both a necessity and a privilege. But then these fortunate people have passed from the painful isolation of being on their own to the irrepressible joy of being members of a universal community where souls respond in unison to the celestial music of God. The end of a life spent alone is a life freely available to all who are in need. This availability to others is a direct result of our availability to God, whom we know in the silence of self-giving attention in whatever situation we may find ourselves. To know God is to be aware of his unfailing love towards us no matter how far from spiritual health we may be at that particular moment. This love causes us to accept ourselves as we now find ourselves. Having accepted ourselves, we can be still before the mystery of another living soul, accept that soul also, and finally give praise to God that all is as it is. This is the way to an enduring relationship, and as we grow into the measure of a full person, so we take all other people with us on our journey towards perfection in God. Healing flows from the enlightened person to his brother who is in darkness and, as the healing power circulates, so it raises up all in its vicinity to a direct knowledge of God. This knowledge is inward and intuitive, and it finds its fulfilment in bringing all people to a manifestation of their shared sonship in God. Those who have a vibrant inner life with God know that this is the greatest thing available to mankind, for from this state of being flows universal love. Indeed, it becomes our vocation to share our spiritual riches with all, so that they too may realize themselves as persons. As we give, so we, in the company of all those who are working for a world of peace and love, come closer to God. At this point the life alone is the same as living in the divine community whose centre and periphery is God.

To summarize the situation: living alone is a certain way towards integrity, for in the silence no secret can remain hidden from our gaze. When we are cleansed of all that separates us from God and man by the winnowing fire of self-revelation, we can be filled with the Holy Spirit who binds us into a new community. The source and end of this community is God, and as we work within it, so we are raised to the stature of sons of God following the path of the Son of God who is Christ. He is the supreme person.

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