Posted in Sermons, Writing

“How to be Alone”: a sermon on Mark 1:35-39

Mark 1:35-39 Common English Bible (CEB)

Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.  Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!” He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.


Today, dear friends, I invite you to consider solitude. Yes, even at VDS, we can gather together and consider solitude, even we can slow down from our rushing days and sit in the silence, even we can turn off our dinging phones and buzzing social media notifications and adopt a contemplative spirit, even we can pause from wondering “what in the world is the construction crew doing now?!” and rest in what Kelsey Davis says, “is the sound of the new world being built.” And, I’d add, even we can ask an extrovert to offer a word about solitude. A friend texted me the other day and said, “often it is introverts advocating for solitude when in reality it can be helpful for all people…it’s good to hear about solitude from an extrovert.”

And y’all. I am an extrovert. I may be speak in a quiet voice sometimes, or think for a long time before speaking, but I love people and I love being around people and I get my energy from spending time with people. Solitude for me has sometimes been very unnerving, because I equate it with isolation. I recall a favorite five-year-old friend of mine who cried when her grandparents told her she had to sit in the corner (of the same room) so she could calm down to eat at the dinner table. Her grandpa said, “I think you just need a bit of alone time so you can calm down.” My friend Sofia, with great big alligator tears said, “But I don’t want lonely time!” Alone time…Lonely time. How often do we get alone and lonely confused and wrapped up in each other? The connotations that we conjure when encountering these words are sometimes, but not always different.

For me, “isolation” brings to mind images of friends living “off the grid” and “Into the Wild” and hermits choosing to live away from a community. Isolation seems to always come with a relationship in tow–being isolated from something or to something, always gaining a definition in view of another thing. People’s experiences of isolation can be very different, affected by mental health, social ostracism, racial segregation, and incarceration. Though in this message today, we will together consider benefits of finding solitude in alone-ness, we must consider the ways in which our society strips and withholds contemplative, chosen solitude from some folks and forces isolation.

Considering solitude, however, for me, brings up images of kayaking alone at dawn, sauntering along a quiet path at Radnor Lake, finding stillness in the midst of a warm summer day at Centennial Park, and even, drinking wine alone in my room watching reruns of the West Wing. I name these experiences as solitude because I choose it, because I have agency over how I am alone. I used to never choose to be alone if I could help it, even now preferring to be “alone” in one room…within reach of my best friend on the other side of the wall. Being alone is hard, hard enough that a book entitled “How to be alone” by Sara Maitland, was published in 2014, examining how people in Western, American culture vilify alone-ness. The American dream is individual achievement, agency and freedom…and yet people who are alone creep us out, garner strange looks in the street, cause us to worry about them, and even fear them. Maitland considers that “normal people” do not live alone, unless they are individual intellectual, the solitary writer, the singular scientist working alone in a lab; we scrupulously hold our introverts to a standard of extreme giftedness…otherwise we ostracize them.

However, Jesus, though ostracized in his own time and we ought to consider how we continue ostracizing Jesus in our time, Jesus knew how to find solitude. And let’s be honest, it was hard for him. The gospels are chock full of him trying to get a moment’s rest, a moment without crowds following him, a moment to take a nap, a moment without his cell phone vibrating in his pocket telling him to read CNN to find out the latest media blitz or letting him know his mom wanted to talk to him or reminding him it was time to do his homework. Maybe it’s anachronistic, but let’s face it: Jesus was a busy dude. He had a lot on his mind, and that’s why it’s so important to see him in Mark 1:35-39 finding some time to himself, even if it was before dawn, so he could pray. Alone. In solitude.

When I was a first year at Oberlin College, three friends and I spent two weeks in France with the Taize community. In case you’re not familiar with the monks of Taize, they are an ecumenical Christian community that ministers to people all over the world, seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly. At that time in my life, I had no intention to be a serious Christian, to seek theological education, to answer a call to ministry. I was on this trip with my friends and I was interested in contemplation, and so, hey, I found myself at a monastery in southern France, in January. I spent a good bit of time singing, drinking tea with folks from France, Indonesia and Colombia, writing in my journal, and walking around the nature paths the monks had fashioned over the years. One evening, my friend suggested that we go into a silent retreat for the last six days of our trip. Everyone agreed and looked forward to it…and I wasn’t so sure. Me? Be quiet for SIX DAYS? That didn’t only sound BORING, that sounded SCARY. I was afraid to be silent. Afraid for those around me to be silent. Afraid to be faced with myself.

Those six days turned out to be some of the most important days of my life. While I was in silence, I truly felt “IN” the silence–it surrounded me, not with an overwhelming pressure like that of isolation, but with a warm, soft solitude. Though I still went to communal worship and ate communally, I did not speak to anyone, and no one spoke to me. Initially frightened of this experience, I discovered in that time that I was not alone, that in the silence I was faced with myself but I was also faced with God. God was with me in the silence, and we were alone together. When it was time to leave the silence and return to the world of conversing aloud together, I was ready to speak, yet I also did not want to leave. How could I maintain this spirit of solitude within myself, even as I returned to the hustle and bustle of collegiate life?

When the disciples finally find Jesus alone, praying in a deserted place, they were relieved. “Lord, we’ve been looking everywhere for you!” “Why would you go off by yourself?” “There’s people who need to talk to you!” “We need you!” I imagine that Jesus shook his head calmly as he told them that they would travel together to a new place, as he dusted himself off and prepared to preach, for that is what he came here to do.

Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “Solitude is the garden for our hearts, which yearn for love. It is the place where our aloneness can bear fruit. It is the home for our restless bodies and anxious minds. Solitude, whether it is connected with a physical space or not, is essential for our spiritual lives. It is not an easy place to be, since we are so insecure and fearful that we are easily distracted by whatever promises immediate satisfaction. Solitude is not immediately satisfying, because in solitude we meet our demons, our addictions, our feelings of lust and anger, and our immense need for recognition and approval. But if we do not run away, we will meet there also the One who says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you, and I will guide you through the valley of darkness. Let’s keep returning to our solitude.”

Friends, let’s consider solitude, along with Jesus, as a time or space or mindset in which we process our experiences in preparation to return to the world to do what we were meant to do. Solitude, meaningful as it is in so many ways to so many different people, must often be cherished as a time of preparation. My partner put it this way: “Solitude is quiet time away from everybody to just revert to your sole self. Away from the world and it’s quiet. It’s important to value that because the rest our time we are blasted with information 24/7: we have phones that constantly buzz and ding, social media apps to update, news to read. It’s important to trust who you are without all of that before engaging with those outlets because they can affect so much in powerful ways. It’s important to value who you are without all of that; as just a person existing; it is the most important thing in the world that you are centered and love yourself fully before bringing anyone or anything into your life. That starts with being ok with, truly comfortable with solitude and appreciating it for the rare times one can find it.” We must consider how our time of solitude, in which we renew ourselves, prepares us to do the work which we are meant to do: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Naturalist writer Wendell Berry writes, “True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.”  How do we find the balance of alone and together? Picture a dandelion, all white and puffed up in the summertime. As the wind blows, the seeds scatter. Each of them has the memory of belonging together, but each of them has their own work to do. They carry their communal identity with them, their identity of “dandelion” literally written in their DNA, but they scatter to the four winds and begin a new process of creating together-ness from alone-ness.

At Vanderbilt Divinity School, we have the opportunity to create community together by learning together. In some ways, this means we must learn how to be alone together. In All About Love, bell hooks writes, “ many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” There is a community aspect of solitude, in which we respect each other’s individuality while seeking flourishing together.  Once we inhabit solitude and let it inhabit us, once we enter into being alone not as something to be feared, but as a path to renew ourselves, we can consider the ways that solitude prepares us for living communally. Henri Nouwen writes,  “Solitude greeting solitude, that’s what community is all about. Community is not the place where we are no longer alone but the place where we respect, protect, and reverently greet one another’s aloneness. When we allow our aloneness to lead us into solitude, our solitude will enable us to rejoice in the solitude of others. Our solitude roots us in our own hearts. Instead of making us yearn for company that will offer us immediate satisfaction, solitude makes us claim our center and empowers us to call others to claim theirs. Our various solitudes are like strong, straight pillars that hold up the roof of our communal house. Thus, solitude always strengthens community.”

Often, perhaps because I feel at home in nature and love gardening, there are no better illustrations for theological concepts than ones from creation. Though I have not always known, and still do not expect to master the concept of “being alone” for some time, if ever, I look to butterflies. Butterflies know how to be alone. They actually spend most of their life as a caterpillar, prompting many social media memes about self-love, self-image and transformation. These monarch caterpillars, a lovely delicate lime green color, spend their time munch-munch-munching along on milkweed leaves, drinking the sweet leaf milk and growing nice and round because this time is a time of preparation. Caterpillar prepare physically to enter a space of great solitude: they enshroud themselves in chrysalises. Here they stay for a couple of weeks, their bodies changing and gaining different colors and their tummies full of milkweed fueling them as they become what they were meant to be. After a time alone in their chrysalises, these miraculous creatures emerge as butterflies. But, they are still not ready to join their siblings in flight: first they must dry their wings, often still wet with the orange dye from their transformation. After that time of solitude, the butterfly is still preparing to take to the sky. They strengthen their wings, flapping slowly, and then–they alight, fluttering with such abandon, traveling towards their destiny, whether it be the beautiful lupines in the garden next door or the mountains of Mexico. To transform within their time of solitude, preparing to take to the sky, requires that they lean into their choice of alone-time, that they lean in to the possibility that being alone will give them what they need to flourish. They must give themselves over to becoming. This is the risk of solitude. Actually being prepared to do what you were meant to do.

In a canoeing memoir entitled “Listening Point,” which my father read to me at bedtime while I was growing up, naturalist writer and Minnesotan Sigurd Olson describes the meaning of the book’s name: He says about the location that inspired him, “I named this place Listening Point because only when one comes to listen, only when one is aware and still, can things be seen and heard. Everyone has a listening point somewhere. It does not have to be in the north or close to the wilderness, but someplace of quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe.”

Friends, today I invite you to explore solitude. Whether that means taking a break from noise, from social media distraction; relocating yourself physically to an environment where you feel comfortable; or drawing into yourself, into your own inner chrysalis, I invite you to find your own “listening point.” Where you may be present, alone with yourself and that which is Holy to you, enshrouded in a love that prepares you to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. May it ever be so.


This sermon originally preached at Vanderbilt Divinity School, March 21, 2018.