"The mystery of love is that it protects and respects the aloneness of the other and creates the free space where he can convert his loneliness into a solitude that can be shared. In this solitude we can strengthen each other by mutual respect, by careful consideration of each other's individuality, by an obedient distance from each other's privacy and by a reverent understanding of the sacredness of the human heart."
-Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out
You might remember Rebecca Card-Hyatt's recent piece about the pain of loneliness and the patience needed to find and build new community. Acknowledging her own acute pain, she faces the "risk and sweat" it takes to construct new communities. She reminds us that we need prayer, and that "the triune God by whom and to whom I pray is the one who creates and sustains community."
When I, too, reflect on my experience of community-building, I find that I faced similar struggles. It take a lot to forge new friendships. They take more than just time; they also take wisdom, patience, and grace. Because communities are complex, they're hard to build from scratch. In her work, I think that Rebecca hits the nail on the head in every way. That's important, because what I'm going to say might sound like a contradiction. I'm going to suggest an additional discipline for the community-making toolbox, and it's one that is, I think, implicit even in Rebecca's descriptions.
You see, whenever we encounter this problem of building or deepening community, it's common to hear the call for "transparency" or "vulnerability" or "openness" or some other synonym. The way to build community, we often hear, is to have a posture that's essentially wide-open, ready and available. Feeling frustrated by your shallow community? Be more open with them! And lots of times, that's exactly what is needed. You can't build community without shared experiences of vulnerability and trust.
But with these exhortations to be open and available, there's something that's frequently left out. One basic posture that compliments but doesn't contradict these: distance.
At first glance, it seems like a funny community value, one that doesn't fit. Aren't communities places where we're supposed to be known, warts and all? Aren't they the places where we experience the love and grace of knowing and being known?
Yes. Absolutely. Communities are places for sharing. But in order to forge that kind of life-giving, grace-filled community, we've got to know what it is we're sharing. We've got to understand, value, and even protect the inner sanctuary that we eventually give to others with whom we share community.
This is one of the projects of Henri Nouwen's book "Reaching Out," He begins with the assertion that we're all on the hunt for authentic, meaningful, life-giving relationships. And rightly so; it's how we're made. But the problem, Nouwen suggests, is that sometimes we want these relationships to alleviate the suffering of our loneliness. Sometimes, to medicate the sheer pain of being unknown and unseen, we use others as an emotional crutch. We build friendships to distract us from the very real, very frightening prospect that we are totally unknown, that no one understands, and that darkness is our only companion. We think we're building community, but we're really just hiding from our pain.
The spiritual task, Nouwen continues, is to allow Christ to transfigure our basic "aloneness" from loneliness into solitude. This radical shift changes the way in which we see others, transforming our reasons for building community in the first place. From the inner peace of our own solitude, we're able to reach out to others in their solitude, and together, build a community of freedom.
Without this change, loneliness tempts us to demand too much from people we hardly know, luring us into a "false sense of honesty." In an attempt to cultivate closeness with others, we forfeit our "inner sanctuary," the place in our hearts where Christ's acceptance of us is total. If we let others in too soon, they and we are overwhelmed. But if we don't let them in, and don't respond to their invitation to do likewise, then life cannot be shared.
This is the hard work of finding and making community, and it's where wisdom is needed. At just the right time, we're to make the choice to share ourselves with another, and do so out of freedom. Together, we can enter into joyful community: free, uninhibited, and reverent of the unknowable mysteries of those we see.