Sunday, January 10, 2016

Being Alone

One point I have made in prison ministry is that many saints have spent their lives in a cell that closely resembles what prisoners spend their time in. In fact, many cloisters have cells that are very close to solitary confinement which is used as punishment for prisoners. 

Pascal has an interesting take on this. He says most people can't stand to be alone with their thoughts and their God. That it very quickly makes them miserable. He sees this as hugely significant. We think being rich will make us happy because we won't have to work. Yet it does not. You look at rich people and they find all sorts of things to be concerned about. If they didn't then they would be miserable because they would think about themselves. He sees this as the reason for many sports and wars and gossip and numerous other things. People need to occupy their minds so they can hide from themselves.

At the root of this is the fact that we can't face the truth about ourselves. We know we should be good and we are not. We frequently think far to highly of our talent and accomplishments in many areas. We put our own pleasure above that of others. These are thoughts that don't really fit with what we believe and what we know the data to be. Still we don't want to change. We like to think that way. 

Then there is death. If you get a chance to think deeply about your life you can't really avoid contemplating the significance of your own death. We tend to view the universe from our own perspective so thinking about our death is thinking about the end of the universe as we typically envision it. We don't like to think about that. So we are determined to distract our thoughts somehow.

Many Christians are not much better. Many Christians still have a disconnect between what they believe and their own thoughts, words and actions. They say God is the centre but their thoughts focus on themselves and they don't want to change that. Privately they can believe the little bit of religious observance they actually do is probably enough. Yet their theology does not say that. So they need distraction as much as anyone or these kinds of discrepancies would become intolerable. 

Yet as a counter-cultural witness we have the cloistered monks and nuns. Even among laymen we have many forms of contemplative prayer. How can this work? Christians can accept their own wretchedness. We can accept that because the mercy and grace of God is even greater. Our sin goes very deep but God's love goes deeper. If you can grasp those 2 truths than you can be alone with God and it can be great. If fact, for the cloistered person it is all they want. They take vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience just so they can maximize their time of prayer and solitude. 

This is the key difference. Christianity offers God as the ultimate goal. This goal satisfies when you pursue it but also when you achieve it. So many goals can preoccupy us in the pursuit (money, romantic love, political power, etc.) yet when we get them they turn out to be empty. People are willing to make huge efforts to climb these mountains yet being at the summit quickly grows boring. Christianity is not like that. The summit does satisfy and bring long lasting deep joy.

This is one reason why we have trouble imagining heaven. We know there will be eternal peace and joy. Yet we have nothing on this earth that can give us that. Yet we will no longer have this disconnect between what we are and what we should be. Then we will no longer find ourselves intolerable!

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