The wrong way to resolve the tension between solitude and service

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The wrong way to resolve the tension between solitude and service

January 17, 2023 - Jim Denison, PhD

A man prays alone on a mountaintop against a purple-sky sunrise backdrop. © By ctvvelve/stock.adobe.com

A man prays alone on a mountaintop against a purple-sky sunrise backdrop. © By ctvvelve/stock.adobe.com

A man prays alone on a mountaintop against a purple-sky sunrise backdrop. © By ctvvelve/stock.adobe.com

This is an interesting week on the American calendar. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and National Religious Freedom Day were both yesterday; the National March for Life in Washington, DC, is Friday; the National Sanctity of Human Life Day is Sunday.

In between, today is Benjamin Franklin Day (celebrated on the anniversary of his birth); Wednesday is National Winnie the Pooh Day (author A. A. Milne was born on this day); and Thursday is National Popcorn Day (I think we should hold this celebration every day).

In the midst of these “holidays,” today on the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar makes a point I wanted us not to miss: January 17 is focused on Saint Anthony the Abbot.

A life of solitude that changed the world

Anthony was born in 251 at Heracleus, Egypt, and died in 356. After his parents died when he was about twenty years of age, Anthony ensured that his sister completed her education, then he sold his house, furniture, and land, and gave the proceeds to the poor. He then joined a nearby group of anchorites (Christians who renounced the world to live alone in penance and prayer) and moved into an empty sepulcher. At the age of thirty-five, he moved to the desert to live alone and lived twenty years in an abandoned fort.

Despite his attempts at seclusion, Anthony became well-known for his spirituality. He was used by God to heal people miraculously and agreed to be the spiritual counselor of many, recommending that they base their lives on the gospel. So many disciples arrived that he founded two monasteries on the Nile.

He briefly left his seclusion in 311, traveling to Alexandria, Egypt, to fight Arianism (a movement that opposed the full divinity of Jesus) and to comfort the victims of the persecutions of Maximinus. He then retired to the desert, living in a cave on Mount Colzim.

St. Anthony was known for being uniformly modest and courteous. His example led many others into the monastic life. His biography was written by his friend, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, one of the most significant theologians of the patristic era.

For more on St. Anthony, also known as Antony, see “On this day in Christian history, Saint Antony, the father of monasticism, died at 105.”

A conflicted polarity

St. Anthony’s life and ministry illustrate the conflicted polarity in which many of us find ourselves these days.

On one hand, we deeply want to know our Lord with the kind of intimacy that requires solitude and retreat from the culture. My soul resonates with the apostles’ commitment to “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” in that order (Acts 6:4). I am impressed by Jesus’ desire to withdraw to “a desolate place by himself” (Matthew 14:13), a commitment that was interrupted by the hungry crowds (vv. 14–22) but renewed after he fed them (v. 22): “After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (v. 23).

On the other hand, most of us are called into lives of public service that cannot be accomplished in solitude. The Apostles, after devoting themselves to personal prayer, gave themselves publicly to “the ministry of the word.” Jesus stepped from hours in prayer into the stormy Sea of Galilee, where he saved Peter (Matthew 14:24–33) and then healed “all who were sick” (v. 35).

It is tempting to reconcile this tension by viewing private solitude as a means to public service. In a sense this is true, of course: we must refill the well before we can draw from it. We must breathe in to breathe out. We cannot give what we do not have or lead where we will not be led. One of the prime sources of ministerial discouragement in my life over the years has been neglecting personal time with my Lord and then serving in my strength more than in his provision.

At the same time, I think there is more to the story.

The two kinds of relationships in life

As I have grown older and (hopefully) gained perspective I did not have in earlier years, I have come to see that time spent in solitude with my Father is not just a means to the end of public usefulness in his service. In fact, I now believe that the public outcome of private intimacy with Jesus is a consequence, not a goal.

When we are alone with our Lord for the sake of finding material for sermons and Bible studies, we are making him a means to our ends. When we meet with him in prayer primarily so he can meet our needs and empower our ministry, he becomes an object to our subject.

I’m not suggesting that many of us meet privately with God with such a transactional purpose intentionally in mind. But this can be an unstated agenda behind our communion with our Lord and one of the ways we justify spending such time when we are otherwise so busy.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber described two kinds of relationships in life: I-Thou and I-It. The first relates people to people; the second relates people to things. One of the major problems in life, Buber suggested, was that so many of us treat people as if they were things (I-It) and value things as if they were people (I-Thou).

We can make the same mistake with God.

“God has been trying to find me”

So, at this early part of the new year, let’s examine the motives behind our personal times of communion with our Lord. You might ask yourself these diagnostic questions:

  • When was the last time I read the Bible only to hear from my Father and be with him?
  • When was the last time I prayed only to commune with my Lord?
  • When was the last time I spent significant time listening to God?
  • When was the last time I told my Lord I loved him with all my heart?

I recently read this meditation by Henri Nouwen and was touched deeply by it:

“For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair.

“Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not ‘How am I to find God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be found by him?’ The question is not ‘How am I to know God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be known by God?’ And, finally, the question is not ‘How am I to love God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be loved by God?’ God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.”

Will you let yourself be loved by God today?

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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