Here’s an odd question: are we closer to God when we are with others? Or are we closer when we are alone?
I recently made the case that God has made his home in the Church, and exists in the unity between its congregation–the church itself being the body of believers:
Jesus is the redeeming quality of self-sacrifice and love latent within humanity, which counterbalances the disobedience revealed in man by Adam. This archetype literally is the bond of connection between people, whether in friendship, in marriage, or merely over a meal.
This is theologically grounded in much of the New Testament, which instructs us first and foremost to love and to serve one another. Because the entirety of the law can be summarized in the two commandments, and because Jesus adds that serving others is a form of serving God, it may be tempting to think that almost the entirety of Christian spirituality is to be found in relationships with other people. Indeed, the fact that one of God’s first comments on mankind is that “it is not good for him to be alone” seems to imply that at the very least, being alone runs contrary to God’s plan for humankind (human nature).
What then are we to make of Jesus going out into the wilderness? The wilderness, of course, is not the only time Jesus goes off on his own; it is only the longest and the most memorable. He also takes some time to himself before walking out to his disciple’s boat, and he spends some brief but valuable moments praying alone in the hours before he is betrayed.
Nor is Jesus the only biblical holy-man who takes time off from the crowds, to spend closer to God. Jonah, though perhaps not very intentionally, wound up in the proverbial wilderness for three full days, and it was this experience that transformed him into a courageous man of the Lord. Moses too experienced his formative–and perhaps most important–experience with God when he was alone in the desert.
This juxtaposition speaks to a mutually-reinforcing duality, rather than an either-or choice or a simple contradiction. To draw from a classical source, G.K. Chesterton once wrote about how Christian theology is full of such dualistic relationships. In his case, he had been persuaded in his younger days–as many Nietzschean types are–that Christianity seemed purpose-made to turn men into sheep. A subsequent reading of history, however, indicated to him that Christianity was so violent and bloodthirsty that it ought to be condemned for making wolves of mankind.
Which was it?
The answer is… yes.
It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family…it has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates the evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty grey […] All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure.
The New Testament, even in its most pacifistic beatitudes, does not contradict the Old Testament’s dictum of the seasonality of human purpose. There is a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to love, and a time to hate.
Clearly, we are to spend some time with others, and some time alone with God. Which of these is greater is arguably less important than the importance of practicing both. To answer the original question in a somewhat speculative manner, we may be manifesting distinct but symbiotic aspects of the ideal human in relationship with the divine.
The new questions become the following: first, what is the relationship between time alone and time spent with others? Secondly, which should we spend more time doing?
I suspect the second answer will vary drastically, depending on the individual. A father of twelve and a trappist monk will have different demands made of them, from society and from God, respectively, despite both having an obligation to some balance. Even a father of twelve ought to find regular time alone to pray and to “sharpen the saw,” so that he can fulfill his obligation to love God. Even a trappist monk ought to spend regular time with other people in the world, so that he can fulfill his obligation to love others as he loves himself.
After all, is there anything more spiritually self-indulgent and selfish than keeping God all to yourself?
As for the question of the relationship between the spirit in solitude and in society, I believe the most important one is the latent utility to others within the character that can only be properly developed in solitude. Nietzsche once argued that the development of will and spirit was fundamentally born out of the experience of boredom, and indeed, there is probably no more important virtue for social interaction than patience. Learning to come to terms with the sound and rhythm of your own mind is perhaps only really possible by confronting it directly, without distractions, and without external circumstances that allow us to pin our annoyance with the experience of being on anything outside of our mind… or, conversely, to identify with certainty that our sources of annoyance are coming from outside of our mind. This too we can only learn by discerning what our mind feels like.
With prayer and meditation in solitude, we can understand ourselves, which paves the way for formation, reformation, and transformation. Our own reflective experience turns us gradually, on the pottery wheel of our own consciousness into the sort of person that others appreciate and enjoy as well.
Thomas Aquinas once defined contemplative prayer as “finding the place in yourself where you are here and now being created in the image of God.” In this regard, we are closest to the Father (the Father of creation) when we are alone. By the same token, we are closest to the Son (the Mediator and the Bridegroom) when we are loving and serving others.
Perhaps for this reason, it is all the more important for the father of twelve to come to better know the primordial Father, and for the monk who devotes himself to Jesus to emulate and more closely resemble Jesus the self-sacrificial servant of man.