Between Solitude and Community

Prof. Stephanie PaulsellSermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, September 6, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



In three more days, the last students to move into their rooms on campus will come to the end of their quarantine. They spent their first 24 hours alone in their rooms, armed with three prepared meals that they could heat up in a microwave. Once their first covid test came back negative, they were able to spend half an hour or so each day in outdoor spaces adjacent to their buildings. Then they were able to gather in groups of 4, told a few days later to please only meet in groups of 2, and then, on Friday, they were told they could meet in groups of 5. It’s a complicated dance between community and solitude into which we’ve invited them—a kind of square dance in which everyone shifts as new rules are called out--two steps in, one step back. We’re all turning and turning together, trying to keep those six feet of space between us and to draw close enough to get to know each other.

Most of our community is elsewhere, maintaining distance via technologies like zoom. In class, students peer at each other out of their high school bedrooms, or their aunt’s kitchen, or the house they’ve rented in the woods with their friends. We’re lucky we can gather over video like this, but still, it’s oddly artificial. With everyone’s microphone politely muted, teachers speak into an unsettling silence, without the usual sounds of papers shuffling, chairs scraping, throats clearing. “You’re muted,” we say to each other when we can see each other’s lips moving but no sound coming out. We point at our ears to communicate that we can’t hear, coaxing each other out of silence, beckoning each other across the distance between us.

Sometimes the invitation to move from solitude into community, from silence into speech comes suddenly, with undeniable urgency. Some of the first public places many people went after we shut down in March — besides the grocery store — were the demonstrations in response to the murder of George Floyd. The sheer horror of seeing someone’s humanity denied to the point of death called us out of isolation and into the company of each other. That was another delicate choreography. Protestors who had been home for weeks suddenly out in the world with others cautiously held their distance but also moved as one, kneeling together for the 8 minutes and 46 seconds the police officer knelt casually on Mr. Floyd’s neck, standing together in solidarity with all the others who have suffered, mostly anonymously, in very similar ways.

In the coming week, we are being called out again. Scholars in the study of religion have called for a scholars strike next week, in which we emerge from the solitude of our own fields of study to join together with colleagues from every field to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake seven times in the back, another instance of excessive police violence against a Black person in this country. We’re being called out of our solitude and our usual places and conversations and into new forms of community because this keeps happening. We keep talking about police violence against people of color in the United States, keep deploring it, keep protesting it, but it keeps happening. There is something so deeply wrong here. We can’t just wait for things to get better. The wrongness of it calls us out into each other’s company, even in these days when maintaining distance is so important.

With such urgent matters before us, matters of life and death, justice and injustice, is there a place for solitude in our lives? Is it just something to be gotten through, like quarantine? Or, even worse, is solitude a way to evade our responsibilities to each other?

In the passage from the gospel of Luke that Annalisa read for us this morning, solitude is described as part of human life. There are lots of passages like this in the gospels, passages that describe Jesus drawing apart from the people around him — socially distancing himself, if you will — to pray and think, to rest. In the passage we’ve heard this morning, Luke says that Jesus went out on the mountain and spent the night alone, praying. The next morning, though, Jesus reenters the community that has taken shape around him, choosing from among them twelve disciples with whom he would work closely. Then they all go down the mountain together, and the crowd around them grows. Jesus has gone from solitude to what Luke calls “a great multitude of people” who “had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.” They crowded in to touch him, Luke says, “and those who were troubled…were cured.”

The way Jesus moves between solitude and community is something that has attracted the attention of many readers of the Bible. Gregory the Great, a sixth-century pope, said that Jesus’s movement between the mountain and the plain, between time alone and time with others, is a model for ministry. Gregory wrote to the pastors in his care and said: if you love the company of others, if you love activism and the work of care, then you need to make sure you set aside time to be alone in prayer. And if you love being alone, studying and praying, Gregory said, you need to get out into the streets. Gregory’s point, I think, was that everybody needs time alone and time with others — the trick is not to get stuck in the place where your preference lies. The trick is to keep moving. “Wisdom is more mobile than any motion,” the book of the Wisdom of Solomon says. And we draw wisdom, and life, from our own movement between solitude and community, between what’s inside us and what’s going on all around us.

Thomas Merton, a twentieth-century Trappist monk, goes even further than Gregory in his claims for solitude. He links the cultivation of interior solitude to freedom, human dignity, and nonviolence. A society made up of people who do not cultivate interior solitude can no longer be held together by love, he once wrote; “and consequently it [ends up being] held together by a violent and abusive authority.” As Teresa of Avila told the nuns in her care in the 16th century, you can make a pilgrimage to your interior castle whenever you want, and you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. Without some free interior space of our own, we are more easily manipulated, by power, into compliance.

Timothy Snyder, the historian of fascism at Yale, makes a very similar point in his little book On Tyranny, a book about practices for resisting the kind of “violent and abusive authority” Thomas Merton talked about, a book we’re going to read and discuss this semester in our Practicing Hope Book Group. One of the practices of resistance he commends is: establish a private life. And a private life, even while lived with others, has some opportunities within it for forms of solitude. Snyder reminds us that the political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s definition of totalitarianism was the elimination of the distinction between private life and public life. Snyder encourages the practices of private life: read books, he says, spend less time on the internet, speak in fresh ways, unique to ourselves, even about slogans we agree with. These kinds of practices —practices that both nurture and emerge from a kind of interior solitude — help us be ready to do the more difficult practices Snyder commends, choices we have to make in a moment: choices like, “don’t obey in advance,” and “if you have to be armed”— as a police officer or a solider—be ready to say no. In the course of every authoritarian regime, Snyder notes, there comes a time when police officers, soldiers, and sometimes ordinary people are asked to do irregular things, often violent things. We have to be ready, he says, to say no. We have to have practiced, to have imagined saying no — and that is work that requires the freedom of inner solitude.

But even the desert monks of the 3rd and 4th centuries, who pushed deep into the desert and further from the reach of the Roman Empire, knew that solitude was never purely solitude, nor should it be. “The monk is one who is separate from all and in harmony with all,” one of these monks wrote in the fourth century. As Diana Eck has pointed out to me, this is a strange sentence, because harmony requires at least two — two notes, two voices, two instruments. But Evagrius seems confident that we can harmonize at a distance. He doesn’t say that the monk is one who is separate from all “but” in harmony with all. He simply says “and,” as if being separate and together at once is a human capacity, well within our reach. Ten centuries later, another theologian named Marguerite Porete, would use that kind of language to describe her experience of God. God, she wrote, is like a faraway love — so far outside and so close within. Her name for God was FarNear.

Howard Thurman, the twentieth century theologian of the civil rights movement who has been a touchstone for us in the Memorial Church since covid began, has taught us a lot about how to live in the farnearness that is being asked of us. We need time alone, he believed, to reset our nervous systems. Without our own experience of solitude, he thought, it was difficult to give what he called “unhurried attention” to each other. But when he first became a minister, he struggled to find a connection between the inner life he experienced in solitude and the communal life he experienced with his congregation. As he moved back and forth between the two, though, “the door between their questing spirits and my own,” he wrote, “became a swinging door.” Moving through that door the far and the near met in the presence of what Marguerite Porete would call FarNearness itself.

I hear the sound of Thurman’s swinging door in the Psalm that Lilly read for us earlier in the service. The psalmist cries out to God from their solitude, from their depths. I’m out here alone, the psalmist says, waiting for you, God, like the watchers on the walls, the ones who watch for the morning.

But even those watchers are not really alone. Because they’re out there on behalf of their community; they’re watching for signs of danger while everyone else is asleep. They’re making their solitude an offering, a gift. And hopefully, they are receiving a gift in return — the resetting of their nervous systems, perhaps –– in the long hours under the night sky as well.

We are all farnear this semester. Together in our classes, our worship and our socializing, yet distanced by our masks, our technologies, and the six feet that we struggle to maintain. I hope we’ll find that, as Howard Thurman discovered, there are doors within us, ready to swing open. In the time of both sorrow and hope, may we find ways of moving between solitude and community, for ourselves, for each other, and for the world.