Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying. -- Martin Luther
According to the US Census Bureau there are an estimated 7,071,341,675 people on this planet at this minute. Oops. Another minute is gone and the total has changed to 7,071,341,912. That's an awful lot of people. There are some places where there are population densities of hundreds of thousands of people per square mile and others where human beings only travel through because the land is unsuited to human habitation without massive restructuring, but how do you restructure a sand dune a hundred feet high to provide a living space? It's beyond my pay grade to try to figure out how it could be done, and I'm definitely sure I wouldn't want to live there.
The world is much smaller than the world in which my parents and grandparents lived. Undoubtedly the thing that has most contributed to this shrinking world is the development of instantaneous communications, via radio, television, cell phones and the internet. For my grandparents, letters and newspapers and the occasional person passing through town brought news that was already history before they even heard of it. There were probably times when they felt lonely and cut off from the rest of the world, but that was just the way it was.
These days people seem to have lost the concept that being alone doesn't always mean being lonely. Social networks on the internet and text messaging on cell phones mean that, barring being in a place with no bars on the phone or no wi-fi for the laptop, someone in a strange city can still be connected to friends and family. They may be a bit lonely, but they don't always feel totally alone.
Despite the rise of instant connection and, in a sense, the end of virtual (if not actual) aloneness, people are still lonely. Oh, there are some who are perfectly comfortable being alone and don't feel more than the occasional hint of loneliness but they are few and, unfortunately, far between. Most others have succumbed to the norm that one must (almost) never be alone because alone is bad, social and constant connection are good. There are, however, times when one is, despite all intentions to the contrary, alone, even in the middle of a crowd. Whether it is because they feel they are invisible to others, bear visible scars or disfigurements, are dirty or unkempt because they are homeless for whatever reason, or whether there is pain that focuses all one's attention on it, there can be people all around and yet one can feel totally alone. Then there are those who are seemingly in perfect health, well cared-for and prosperous who feel like an empty shell, realizing there is a void there where something like faith should be. As Brother Martin said, a person must do their own believing, and in the aloneness of their existence at some point they must come to it on their own.
I confess that when I read Brother Martin's statement my mind went to times when I've felt alone. One is when lying in an emergency room bed some years ago, suffering intense pain and waiting for someone to tell me what was wrong and that it could be fixed. Minutes seemed very long but I was aware of the bustle outside the curtains of my cubicle as well as the retching of the person in the next cubicle. I remember a television program about a day in the life of a hospital emergency room where a woman was brought in following a terrible accident of some sort. She was bruised and bloody, and she was surrounded by people talking, poking, prodding, inserting tubes and IV needles. All the people were talking and giving orders but to the woman, her seeming isolation led her to cry out, "Will someone please talk to me?" I've felt that way, even though I haven't been in that same situation.
I have a feeling that's what Jesus endured on the cross. He had people all around, looking at him, some gawking and some mourning the horrifying sight, and he also had the isolation of overwhelming physical pain. His cry of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" was a reaction very similar to the woman's "Will someone please talk to me?" only directed to the One with whom Jesus had always been in contact, even when he was physically apart from others. This time, though, Jesus was dying in a public place with people all around, yet he was dying totally alone. Alone in the midst of a crowd.
Even to those called to a state of that apartness we call "alone" or "solitary," there is usually some connection with other human beings as well as with God. They say no Christian can be truly a Christian unless they are in community but I wonder, would the desert fathers and mothers have said the same? They may have lacked human community, but they sought, and frequently found, a greater one.
The world has changed a lot since Brother Martin spoke those words, yet they are as true now as they were then, maybe even moreso. There are some things a person just has to do alone.
Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 13, 2013.