I spent many years of my life seeking community that would support me to find answers. I studied with various churches learning other people's ways of connecting. I read a great deal of books about God and prayer. I found a tribe for myself in seminary with One Spirit. More recently, I created various communities here in Las Vegas. I absolutely love getting to meet and know other people. I find listening to their stories and difficulties as an opportunity to witness the tenacity of their spirit, to embrace their humanity, and grow in their divinity. Even though community is absolutely vital, the spiritual life is done utterly alone. Parker Palmer writes in A Hidden Wholeness that we are ultimately "a community of solitudes where we can be alone together."
What does it mean to be alone together? I have been pondering the idea of community now for a few months since taking a class on leadership and community empowerment through my masters program with Gonzaga. As part of that class, I spent a week at a Benedictine monastery in California learning the rhythm of life and prayer there. In the evening, they have what they call The Grand Silence which is silence from their prayers at compline in the evening to after breakfast prayers, called lauds, in the morning. For twelve hours, they spend their day in community with each other and the guests that come to stay. For the night, it seems that they acknowledge the deep solitude of the spiritual life by being alone in the quiet.
There was a moment after compline one night where I felt compelled to stay in the chapel for some additional prayer. As soon as my class left, there was only me and one monk left in the room. I started to pray to God as my heart swelled with the weight of my recent struggles. I began to cry soul-jerking tears that ran down my cheeks until they dripped from my chin. God and I were having a moment where I could unburden my heart from the pain of watching my kids get hurt by life and from the anxiety of trying to make up for not having their dad present in their lives. I let God have the heaviness of working so hard as a single mom. As I sobbed, the monk that had stayed behind began turning off all the lights in the chapel. One-by-one they click off until I sat completely alone in the dark with very faint light coming from outside through the stained glass windows. I began to laugh at that moment and told God that I thought that being utterly alone in the dark was quite the message. I stayed praying in the dark for a half an hour soaking in what seemed like a lesson. Now I think I understand the message better.
I have not quite struck the balance between community and solitude. Sometimes, I have reached out too much to community for answers that a deeper prayer life would provide. Other times, I have spent years in too much solitude unable to connect to those around me because of my own shadows. When I rely too heavily on community, I usually pull myself off the path from inner knowing because of their well intended advice. When I rely too much on the solitude, I seem to miss the web of interconnection that helps me know that I am not alone in the struggles to live the inner life. Yet, even though we might be a community, we must each walk our path alone with Spirit.
I frequently have friends and clients call me wanting my guidance on a matter. Early in my ministry, I would often answer them as to what my guides say. Now, I have a deeper understanding that they must learn to trust their own inner teacher and that they must look within for the answers. If they are not getting clear on their next steps, my only advice really is to keep getting quiet until the answer comes. They must walk their path alone because that is where the reservoir of faith is built, the waters of clarity lay, and the well of compassion arises- in the dark alone with God. The best way that I can serve them is simply to listen and witness their soul speaking to itself into it's own knowing.
My questions for you this week:
1. What kinds of communities do you belong to and do they honor your own answers within?
2. What ways can you balance being in community and being alone? Which one needs more time?
3. When have you been utterly alone with God and how did that change you?
4. What ways can you nurture the truth that others have their own answers? How does that change the way you relate to them?
5. What does being a community of solitudes mean for you?