Christians make much ado about “community” and “living life together”. These were the watchwords of my college’s campus ministry and are contemporary theology’s unfurling banners. Pardon my incredulity, but I have doubts about whether “community” can be fully achieved outside of monasteries and convents where personal property doesn’t exist and everyone is obedient to a rule. “Community” sounds like Newspeak for maintaining the status quo. “Living life together” sounds like junior high group science projects: namely, one of us ends up doing all the work, but all take credit.
Regardless of their effectiveness, “community” and “living life together” do not change the fact that each of us is dramatically and essentially alone. My eventual death shows that I am not necessary to nature’s operation: the world will turn anew and lived lives will go on living. In every way, I am superfluous. The watchword phrase, “I am because we are” is really a lovely idea, but even these “communities” will continue operating after we are gone. One is always a lone individual amid the community.
I am alone. If I look, I cannot find a place where loneliness does not dull me with its suffocating embrace. I have been acutely aware for most of my life that I am radically separated from those around me. I could be in front of dozens, expressing my deepest feelings, yet even there a pervasive and perverse loneliness colors everything I do, everything I say. Nothing breeches it. I am not always solitary, yet I am always alone. I am always alone, even in community. I am alone because I am alive.
Tomorrow, the western Church celebrates the fall of Holy Ghost on those gathered in the upper room. This fulfilled the promise of Christ that he would not leave us as orphans, even after he was taken away. He would not leave us comfortless, for he would send the Holy Ghost to fill our hearts. Surely this means that I am not alone! Yet, here at the center of my being, the Spirit hovers over my aloneness. One is always a lone individual amid the Spirit, who does not penetrate our aloneness.
What does the Spirit do? Like the individual who is surrounded by community, yet remains an individual; so too is the soul surrounded by the Spirit of God, yet remains itself. After all, the Church teaches us theosis, not henosis: we retrain our individuality as we are transformed into the likeness of Christ. Even when immersed in the Spirit, I am still alone. I can only become a deified version of myself.
What is to be done? If being alone is a fact of life’s unchangeable nature, then perhaps we do as Lauren F. Winner suggested in Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, “Maybe I can make my loneliness into an invitation — to Jesus — that he might withdraw into me and pray.” Even though it can never be alleviated, perhaps our aloneness is the place to which we can invite others. Perhaps it is in this aloneness that we make an upper room for the Spirit to blow through.
For example, writing is a way that I invite you into my loneliness. I invite you to it as if it were a home. Indeed, this is my home to the point that I seldom go out. I seldom meet anyone anywhere else, as it were. I have been to other houses and I have found them to be brutally unkind, where lying is acceptable and broken trust is law. So, we meet here on my turf; we meet in the place where I am most sure of myself, here in my aloneness. I welcome you to it. Make yourself at home.
I have two options: I can either pretend that my aloneness doesn’t exist, or I can invite others into it. I can invite others into myself. Perhaps this is true community. Perhaps this is what it means to live life together. But even shared aloneness does not erase the fact that I am alone. Perhaps, it as Billy Joel once sang, “They shared a drink called loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.”