I have been spending more time alone recently. I wish I could say it was intentional – that I am setting aside time to go on solitary retreats to practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditation. But that is not the case. My wife has simply been away more than usual.
First it was her mother’s illness and subsequent death in Florida last summer. Then she spent some time with her dad after her mom’s passing. More recently she has been on “baby watch” with our daughter in western Pennsylvania in anticipation of the arrival of our new grandson.
So I have been “batching it” in New Hampshire. I keep busy during the day and many evenings doing church work. But when the work is over, I am home alone. These times of solitude have helped me to understand the lifestyles of many of my church members.
Time Magazine recently published an issue on “Ten Ideas That are Changing Your Life.” First on the list was: “Living Alone Is the New Norm.” In 1950, only 9 percent of Americans lived alone. Now people who live alone make up 28 percent of American households. That is a 300% increase during my lifetime!
Many of those living alone are older folks. Another article said that one of the top three concerns of the elderly is loneliness. (The other two are depression and a feeling of uselessness.) These are ministry needs that need to be addressed by congregations.
Spirituality is different for people who live alone. Community becomes more important. That is one of the reasons we moved back to this small town of Sandwich, New Hampshire. We experience community here more than in any other place we have ever lived. I have a theory: the smaller the town, the more people you know.
One’s relationship to God is different when alone. When you are sitting by yourself in the evening, you can’t escape God. God is not a distant Father you visit on Sunday morning or in a half hour of daily devotions. Whenever I am alone, God is here.
I could distract myself with television, internet, books or even writing. But even then, God hovers at the edges of my awareness. I simply have to turn my attention, and God fills my vision. God’s presence can be overwhelming. The silence shouts God.
Sometimes it feels like God is too present. I know that might sound ungodly for a minister to admit, but I am being honest here. I understand why Adam and Eve hid from God in forest of Eden. They just wanted some time alone.
God’s presence can be overpowering. When I am alone with God, my sense of being a separate self feels contrived. When God is present, I am so tiny in comparison that I barely exist. My little self disappears in the omnipresence of God’s Self. The prophet Isaiah experienced this and cried out, “Woe is me! I am undone!”
Sometimes I imagine that is what death must be like – the permanent undoing of “I” and the eternal awareness of God’s “I AM.” When I contemplate this, it seems like I exist only to mirror God; I am like a reflection in still waters.
Perhaps that is what the Genesis creation story means when it says that humans are made in the image of God. Maybe we are no more than the image of the Creator reflected in the waters of His Creation. Then the Spirit moves over the face of the waters, and the image disappears.