Living Alone

Chapter 6

The Spirit of Renunciation

The life in abundance is balanced by the spirit of renunciation. The doors of perception are not finally cleared so that we are open to the potentialities of the universe until the dross that is wont to occlude them has been removed. The essence of this dross is the desire we all have for such commodities as worldly possessions, power over other people, psychic assurance about future success, and clinging relationships. This last snare to full openness is especially seductive, because on the surface we all know that personal relationships are the very stuff of life. We were never meant to be alone even when we are obliged to live alone. Nevertheless, as long as our attachment to our fellows is one merely of necessity - so as to escape the experience of solitude - we shall never know personal freedom, neither shall we allow our companions to be free of our desire to keep them in bondage to ourselves. There can be no authentic relationship between people who are bound in ties of mutual dependence, inasmuch as each will alternatively try to please the other until the thraldom becomes unbearable, when a complete break may be inevitable. This is the love-hate relationship that prevents many people from attaining inner maturity; instead of pursuing their own path and seeking their own salvation in diligence, they are bound in emotional servitude to those whom they both admire and fear, whose influence is at once invigorating and stultifying. Only when one has learnt how to let another person go can one begin to love that person, even beyond the limits of this mortal life. Love and freedom are indivisible. One can give of oneself freely to the beloved even to the sacrifice of one's own life only when one is a free agent. Even if one is incarcerated in a foul prison, one can still be free in the secret place of the soul, and from this oasis of liberty one can give of one's essence to those around one in love and to those far away in prayer. In each instance the Holy Spirit is at work in one.

For love is strong as death,
passion cruel as the grave;
  it blazes up like blazing fire,
  fiercer than any flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
  no flood can sweep it away;
if a man were to offer for love
  the whole wealth of his house,
  it would be utterly scorned.
                    (Song of Songs 8.6-7)

The love that is celebrated in this passage is the tempestuous passion between two lovers at the height of their relationship. And when the ardour cools, a more enduring, tender love warms their souls so that they can be together in silent contemplation without the need for any tangible reassurance of mutual support. To know this love is the consummation of our life in the world. Its origin and end are the love that God bestows upon us. Its purpose is to bring all created things into the furnace of love where their dross is refined and their essence brought into the divine presence, whose end is transfiguration.

Those who live alone have a special burden of love to carry: since they are often free from the demands of a close relationship with one particular person, they are therefore especially available to enter into a deep relationship with a number of very different types of people. When what a person prized most has been taken from him, he may, perhaps for the first time in his life, be free to take to himself many things that he had, in his blind arrogance, dismissed out of hand. In this way the inner purpose of a life apparently alone is understood; it is to be a life in the midst of many people whom one previously would hardly have noticed, let alone approached, in the spirit of friendship.

Renunciation is seldom undertaken in an attitude of free will; much more often it is thrust upon one. The things in life that are valued most are suddenlly taken away, and one is left alone. Misfortune strikes suddenly and with it go all one's previous illusions about one's security founded on ownership. In the end our most precious possession is our health - bodily, mental and spiritual - without which all the money in the world is tantalizingly useless to attain true satisfaction. Once our personal integrity has been assured our second priority for happiness is our relationship with other people, notably our family and intimate friends. The bottomless pit that a bereavement may expose is a stark reminder of the vital part that even one person can play in our lives; when he departs, our life lacks meaning, and the springs of our actions dry up. The third requirement for fulfilled living relates to our worldly concerns, notably the work we perform and the material security we enjoy. To live without having work to do is an experience that an increasing number of people are knowing, as the tragedy of unemployment afflicts ever more of the world's population. Even if their material wants are satisfied, their integrity as human beings is undermined when they are denied any useful place in society. The dignity of man is closely related to his function in contributing to the world through service and creativity; once he is prevented from fulfilling any useful role he undergoes an inner disintegration that spells ruin to the personality if it is not rapidly reversed. And yet, as one gets older, even in an affluent society, so the inroads of physical enfeeblement as well as the claims of those younger than oneself make retirement from work a social as well as a personal necessity.

When one is faced with the fact of loss and the inevitability of renunciation, it is important to accept the situation without constantly looking back in regret to the past. A new way of life has dawned, and one must move with decisiveness into the future. The secret is, as has already been made clear, to live in the moment and to let the menacing loneliness of the future take care of itself. As one progresses in the testing school of life, so one begins to realize that one is not entirely responsible for one's own existence; admittedly the responsibility for one's actions lies heavily on oneself, but there seems to be a vaster plan at work than we, with our limited vision, can understand. Provided we play our part by doing our best minute by minute in the ever-changing flux of life, our more distant needs seem to be provided for in ways that are beyond our comprehension. It is this mysterious fact of life that we acknowledge intuitively when we believe that all will be well in the end provided we do our best and trust in God.

This trust in God is something more than a passive belief that God will intervene on our behalf to make all things safe and prosperous for us. Such an attitude has a childish irresponsibility about it that could lead to disaster. To trust God means praying without ceasing, remembering him not only during the times set-aside for prayer but also when one is in the heat of life's struggle for survival. To remember God in our work means to do everything to his power and glory, and to see him as the nameless Christ who shows his face in the stranger whom we meet in the street and at the place of work. In what to me is the most evidential, as well as the most sublime, of all the resurrection appearances described in the gospel, the risen Lord appears to a group of disciples walking on the road to Emmaus as a stranger who gradually imparts to them the teachings of eternal life as they offer themselves to him in rapt attention. When they proceed to share a meal with him and he breaks the bread and says the blessing, their inner eyes are opened and they at last see him with whom they have been in conversation as their Lord (Luke 24.13-32). When we give ourselves fully to the moment in hand, God is with us also and our trust in his providence is the height of wisdom: In him alone can we attain peace and do the work for which we were called.

Living fully in the moment in the spirit of God allows us both to do our present task well and to forget the clamant ego with its fears and demands. As soon as we can move into a consciousness above that of self-concern, new possibilities open up for us. As Jesus says: "No one who sets his hand to the plough and then keeps looking back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9.62). This is the heart of the matter. Once we set our face to the new situation and confront it boldly and with dedication, the difficulties that seemed insuperable now begin to smooth themselves out so that we can see a way to surmounting them. It is thus that hope enters our heart and gives us the impetus to a fresh initiative in life's present trial so that we may rise to future glory. The spiritual law is that, as we give of ourselves to the present situation, so we are filled with the Holy Spirit and given new insights into the future pattern of our life and new strength to realize it.

There seems an almost clinical detachment in this; I would prefer the concept of non-attachment, a vital part of the spiritual life stressed by all the mystics and emphasized especially in the Buddhist tradition. Detachment has the less acceptable side of non-involvement, of viewing everything from the distance but taking care not to be personally implicated. There is no growth in such an attitude, which is really that of the bystander. Non-attachment means a state of not allowing oneself to be captivated by any object or person, so that one's first allegiance is to the Supreme Being. He is eternally with one though seldom acknowledged, because one is so enslaved to the things around one that one's field of spiritual vision is occluded almost to the point of blindness. When our first allegiance is to God, his love fills us, and we give that love to all around us, whether the people with whom we work or the objects that we cherish. Non-attachment is balanced by commitment, not an hysterical, possessive clinging in which we will not let the other person be himself, but a silent, strong undertaking to be loyal to many people for their good and for the love of God. This is the great lesson that comes from renunciation. Until we let go of the lesser we cannot assume our place of responsibility for the greater.

Perhaps the most poignant renunciation that most of us may have to make follows the departure of a loved one, taken from us by death. Bereavement strips us of a sustaining relationship with a beloved person, so that from henceforth we have to live on our own. There is a considerable difference between the life of a person who has always lived alone, whether through choice or necessity, and the life of one who has long been enclosed in a loving relationship only to be suddenly stripped of it and left on his own. The wrenching apart of an old attachment and the void of loneliness that gapes in front of one can be unbearable if confronted starkly without prior preparation. It is well known that the bereaved person may require at least two years" adjustment before he comes fully to himself again. The removal of a loved companion renders life meaningless, at least for a considerable period, until one has regained one's bearings and begun to see the path ahead. Life that is tolerable must be imbued with purpose to give it meaning. The human mind cannot tolerate meaninglessness, for a meaningless life can assume a quality of non-existence that seems worse than death itself. For death is the great unknown experience which may conceivably open up a new vista of fulfilment, whereas the interminable misery of a mortal life that is purposeless and devoid of growth is something that can scarcely be contemplated in normal consciousness. How can one proceed with living in such circumstances? This is the valley of the shadow of death, cold and featureless, that is mentioned in Psalm 23. Until one knows its contours and extent as well as one does one's native domain, one has not tasted life fully. The end is a changed person, one who lives the transpersonal life, whose perspectives are no longer limited to human objectives but are infused with divine forebodings. One becomes a servant of God and shows this in unremitting self-giving to one's fellows.

It is vital to recognize that the past is behind one, and that life continues until the whole creation is lifted up and transfigured to spiritual radiance. Thus, in relation to bereavement, it is necessary to leave the dead to bury the dead and to continue ever more intensely with living the good life here and now. This leaving the dead alone does not mean forgetting them or never alluding to them directly. Indeed, I am sure our prayers are of great importance in the well-being of those many souls not far progressed on the other side of life. But they should be allowed to seek their own salvation in fear and trembling, and not be constantly pestered by our attempts to communicate directly with them. Clinging to the past is a most effective way of thwarting one's own growth and that of the other person also. It is all too easy to bind our loved ones who have died in an emotional prison where they cannot proceed in the life beyond death; until they are set free from the emotional dependence of their loved ones they cannot grow. Memory of a possessive intensity can prevent the growth of those on to whom it attaches itself. This principle is seen in this world also, when for instance, a parent continues to regard his grown-up children as they were many years previously, helpless infants who had to be cuddled, fed and cleaned. Indeed, the relationship between parents and children will continue to be abrasive until the parents have grown up to the fact that their children are individuals in their own right and not extensions of the parent's personality. They have their own destiny to fulfil, and one of their functions is to guide their parents into a proper understanding of renunciation. This alone will lead to a fulfilling and loving relationship with them. When we see our role in this life as one of stewardship of all the world's resources, we are coming to a mature understanding of the meaning and purpose of our transient mortal existence. The custody we bestow on the earth's bounty and on those closest to us in relationship is the way to their regeneration and transfiguration.

Of course, the memory of the pleasant times of warm companionship in the past will recur as old associations come to mind: the empty chair by the fire, the place where once a bed was used, the single ticket to the lecture or concert, the photographs that captured a moment of intimate bliss. When these show themselves, the heart seems to recede into the void beneath, and a pang of unassuageable grief bears us down to the hell of silent despair. The ache of a soul that is bereft of its companion is like an unending dirge to which the dark foreboding of the barren future adds its gloom. Sometimes one may really believe one has recovered from one's bereavement, only to be shown in a dream the power of the emotional charge that still persists. One then learns how deeply the wound has penetrated and how far it is from being healed. And indeed it can never be obliterated inasmuch as its trace will always remain even in the radiance of future joy. It is a part of one's experience and is deeply engraved on the soul, as the wounds of Jesus are a perpetual testimony to his presence and a guarantee of his identity, even in his risen form. But now they are objects of worship; in the same way our soul's pain is the only way of entering the pain of all our fellow men through the pain endured by Jesus.

"In truth I tell you, in very truth, the man who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in some other way, is nothing but a thief or a robber. The man who enters by the door is the shepherd in charge of the sheep" (John 10.1). The true shepherd, typified by Christ, knows his sheep because he has entered their souls and recognizes their troubles. So it is with the man who has experienced the hell of loss and persevered through the arid valley of bereavement. When he comes to the other side - which is another way of understanding the coming to oneself after the illusions of the past have been stripped away - he is one of many brothers to succour those who remain in agony. And by his selfless renunciation he can draw all who are weary and ill at ease to him in the light of God - "and I shall draw all men to myself, when I am lifted up from the earth" (John 12.32).

In the enforced renunciation of a loved one taken away by death, or of a bodily function permanently ruined through the inroads of disease or by the precipitate blow of an accident, once we have come to terms with something that is irreparable, we are free to enter into the depths of all suffering. No one who is human is any longer foreign to us. "Enter by the narrow gate. The gate is wide that leads to perdition, and there is plenty of room on the road, and many go that way; but the gate that leads to life is small and the road narrow, and those who find it are few" (Matt. 7.13 -14). Only those who have been shriven of all conceit, of all illusions of personal ownership, of all vanity based on psychical or intellectual gifts, indeed of all clinging to possessions, can find a place through the small gate on to the narrow road whose destination is the life abundant. This is the crucial lesson of loss; it is the bitter fruit of bereavement, which, once tasted, becomes sweet with the promise of universal healing.

When we have lost that which appeared to be essential for our well-being, we can at last rest in him who is. We, as if by a sudden blow of divine understanding, come to recognize the unassailable reality within that endures all outer storms. He is the rock deeply implanted within the soul that is also the rock on whom we lay our weary heads and rest as Jacob did when he had his cosmic dream of angels moving to and from God to his creatures (Gen. 28.10-19). When we know this rest, we do not have to project our thoughts into the unknown, troubled future - troubled through the perversity of man's actions and the dark psychic forces that both determine them and feed off their baneful results. Instead we can live constantly in the present. Only in this way can we contribute constructively to the future, both personal and corporate, so that the peace of God may begin to calm the troubled psychic currents around us and bring relief to the distraught minds of men. When Jesus was about to give up his mortal life on the cross, though filled with doubts about the result - even the validity - of his mission on earth, he rested finally in his Father, who remained hidden from him during his final trial, and said "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23.46). The mortal mind has ultimately to accept its childlike ignorance about the things of eternity, and to rest in faith on that hiddenness of God (Isa. 45.15) which defies all understanding, before it may pass from death to life, from corruption to transfiguration. We cannot recapture that which has passed beyond the sphere of mortal limitation, but if we are still and give fully of ourselves to the moment in hand, all that was lost will be restored to us, transfigured and entire. This is the authentic way in which our loved ones commune with us in the life beyond death; the initiative is theirs, and what they reveal of themselves is of an order entirely more beautiful than we ever knew of them when they were with us in the flesh.

This is, paradoxically, true also of those who have had to renounce some bodily function, whether sight, hearing or mobility. As long as they fight desperately to retain the power that is waning, so long will they be imprisoned in their impotence while raging with futility against "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". But once they accept a new life of physical limitation with graciousness and childlike trust, so will new spiritual faculties be revealed in them. In fact, of course, these potentialities were already there but remained dormant, because they were disregarded in the bustle of everyday life, where the things of the spirit amount to little until the powers of this world are revealed in their vanity. This demonstration is brought about by suffering, so that what is real may be exalted and what is illusory undermined, destroyed and resurrected into something of permanent value. An example of this may be the glory an athlete has to yield when he is permanently crippled by a serious accident. His old life is over: all that remains are painful, though precious memories of past contests and triumphs. But if he proceeds with courage into the future, apparently barren of any further use for himself now that his talents are destroyed, he may develop a compassion for others that was previously eclipsed by his own prowess and reputation. This inner spiritual development may be the way in which he devotes the remainder of his life to caring for the crippled and the disowned, so that they may attain a bodily health and proficiency that he was obliged to surrender. The ways of God are indeed strange; his purpose is, however, always the same: to reclaim the lost, to bind up the broken, to heal the sick, and to bring all creatures to the altar of deification whose great high priest is the resurrected Christ.

In the same way it is uplifting to sense the calm, placid mien of a blind person. His old independence is no longer available, and he trusts entirely on the guidance of those with seeing eyes, including the wonderful companionship of trained dogs who have attained a human fidelity and proficiency through devoted training by those who love animals. And yet as the outer eye fails, so the inner eye of knowledge and love may be opened. When Jesus healed the man born blind, he opened both the outer and the inner eye of this witness to God's glory. Those who contested the blind man's healing, though preserving good outer vision, remained spiritually blind (John 9.1-41). Living alone, by the process of inner revelation, removes the scales from the eyes of the soul, so that one begins to see things that are invisible to those who skim perpetually over the surface of life.

Of all the enforced renunciations that bring people to an experience of aloneness, none is, to my mind, more isolating than that of deafness. Whereas the blind evoke a ready sympathy for their helplessness, so that any aware person will bestir himself to be of assistance as a guide and protector, the deaf tend to bring out the baser qualities in those with whom they try to communicate. Irritation at his apparent inattention, annoyance, ridicule and eventual avoidance is all too often the sequence of events in the life of one who cannot hear his compatriots speak. In addition, he is deprived of the balm of beautiful music that lightens the soul's weary burden. Once again the way forward is to accept the loss, mitigated, of course, as far as possible by the amelioration that modern hearing-aids can provide. When one can rest in one's present situation, new powers of perception are granted one. Thus the blind person's senses of touch and hearing become unusually acute as does the deaf person's sight. Both may be aware of unusual psychic sensitivity also, so that they can discern the atmosphere of a place or the disposition of a group without knowledge about its antecedents. All this occurs especially to those who do not hanker after past ways of life, but proceed instead with faith into a new situation. It is important to face one's defect, whatever its nature, and confide it to those whom one believes are sympathetic and trustworthy. On the other hand, one should be careful not to overwhelm even one's friends and closest associates with constant demands for help, since all people have their breaking-point. It is often those who amount to little in the world's eyes that afford the most loyal support, whereas imposing names only disappoint us by their apathy and coldness. The best way to proceed when deprived of a vital means of communication is to be oneself with courage even in one's deepest destitution. In this way help is more likely to be offered spontaneously, and it can then be accepted in gratitude and with dignity. It is important to bear in mind the principle that he who receives help bestows a priceless gift on the one who has given of himself in help; the transaction is mutual to the end that all who are involved should transcend the tyranny of the egocentric world dominated by rewards and obligations. They should proceed to an experience of the true self which is in communion with all that lives and also with God. The binding force of self-revelation is love.

It is worthy of deep meditation that nothing that lives ever stands still. There are, to my mind, few sadder people than those who try continually to get in touch with their dead through the agency of mediums. Even if the source with which they have made contact has its own identity, even if it is part of the personality of the one who has died - and this is a very questionable assumption - it is still involved in the restricted ego-life of the old unchanged person. It would be sad indeed if after death we continue in essence to live in the same state of self-centred limitation that we knew when we were still alive in the flesh. It is not surprising that those of the departed with whom contact is alleged to have been made on numerous occasions seem to be at the lower end of the spiritual ladder. The advanced soul has far too fine a spiritual radiance to be able to tolerate the coarse vibrations of a human intermediary; on the other hand, it can make its presence felt directly in the mind of the one it loves with such penetration and power that the beloved knows with a certainty transcending rational proof that life continues beyond death. This communication has mystical overtones inasmuch as it lifts the bereaved person far beyond the prison of past memories and present anguish to a realm of pure bliss, where the Godhead pours out love eternally in a world of fathomless unity.

We gradually learn that the physical senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste have their inner subtle counterparts that emanate from the true self. Though our outer humanity may be in decay, yet day by day we are renewed inwardly (2 Cor. 4.16). It seems that in the loss of physical attributes that follows illness and the process of ageing, those of us who are spiritually attuned are given proof of deeper, more enduring spiritual gifts. When we die these spiritual qualities should be so well developed that, deprived as we then are of all physical means of communication, we can commune with each other and with God directly through the portals of the soul.

Thus the tribulations of this life that culminate in the agony of renunciation bear their fruit in the form of a personality so cleansed and purified that it can be an effective instrument of God's purpose. It is transformed from an outer edifice of self-centred will to an organ of service for our thoughts, words and actions, to pervade the whole world and for us to be God's instruments in transforming the society in which we live. This cleansed personality forms the basis of the spiritual body that survives death, and traverses the many valleys of suffering, learning and repentance that are encountered in the mansions of God's house, until it emerges in glory where it knows Christ directly. For this process to be complete the person is changed into the likeness of the Lord, for we know that we shall be like him when we see him as he is (1 John 3.2). Indeed, the spiritual body emerges from its lowly physical mould as an organ of extreme sensitivity, chastened and refined by life's vicissitudes and transfigured in the dark wasteland of suffering. Only when it has wrestled manfully with the angel that threatens disintegration, and has prevailed in faith, can it claim its blessing: freedom not only for itself but for all that exists. It works towards this end by loving all things and giving perpetually of itself to them.

Chapter 7