Receiving isolation as a gift for spiritual formation

October 21, 2020

Bruce Murray

An opportunity for all

I have a friend who says that cancer saved his life. What he means is that it confronted him with the reality of his life going nowhere, and set him seeking new meaning and values. He’s not a follower of Jesus, and he’s not in denial about his health or mortality; but he’s able to see his suffering as the gift of an opportunity to change and to grow as a person, and to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

It’s encouraging to see so many people likewise responding to the unwelcome requirement to accept isolation as an opportunity to seek positive change. There’s no denying the inconvenience, disruption, loss, stress, harm and suffering that isolation brings, especially to those who are most vulnerable – including those separated from loved ones or with no support network; those experiencing depression, anxiety or domestic violence; those losing their livelihoods or already in poverty.

But it’s heartening to hear stories of generous goodwill, increased neighbourliness, sharing of information and advice, and creative adaptation. For some people, pandemic and isolation have put other issues into perspective, and raised awareness of the opportunity –even the vital need – to not go back to how things were before. A recent Guardian article bore the headline, Covid-19 is nature’s wake-up call to complacent civilisation. It urged that ‘from now on, we should expose our minds to the painful realities we have denied for too long… This coronavirus reminds us that we belong to the material world.’

Perhaps we are hearing multiple wake-up calls, relating to the cultural, social and economic worlds as well as the material one. For example, a recent article in The Atlantic argued that it is the ‘just-in-time’ supply chain, created in the name of efficiency, that lies behind the panic-buying problems, and that has also led to tired medics, overstretched police officers, and families forced to live in cramped homes. It suggests that one of the lessons of Coronavirus is that ‘we should make our peace with a little inefficiency in good times, because it makes the bad times easier to bear.’

Naturally, we hope the pandemic and isolation will be ended as soon as possible, with as little mortality and harm as possible, whether or not this will happen faster as a result of government regulations or breakthroughs in testing and vaccination. But there is a danger that, unless we heed the wake-up calls now, it may be all too easy afterwards to ignore them, and revert back to how things were, to our peril or loss. The opportunity offered us now will then become a gift ignored or refused.

An opportunity for Christians

Common as these issues are to us all, it might also be helpful to consider in what particular ways the current mandatory isolation could become a gift to followers of Jesus. Isolation, whether imposed or freely chosen, is a familiar feature of biblical and church history. In the Old Testament period, social distancing was more likely to be about being kept away from home than being kept in it, and exclusion from the community could create fear (Genesis 4:13-14), testing (Psalm 105:17-19), depression (1 Kings 19:4,10) and misery (Job 19). Yet the desert, to which those socially distanced often went, is an ambiguous place in Scripture – both a place of danger, difficulty, scarcity, and judgment; yet also a place of opportunity for spiritual formation and renewal (Hosea 2).

It would be interesting to know what kind of challenges and formation took place in the lives of Noah’s family and Ezekiel’s in their respective periods of self-isolation for many months (Genesis 7-8; Ezekiel 4). Noah’s stockpiling could (poignantly) not be said to have disadvantaged others, but presumably he had to find creative ways to occupy the time with his family when they were not only offline but offland and it was far too wet to go out. (We also might note from his story (Genesis 9) that it could be unwise to drink too much after isolation ends, despite the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent encouragement to have ‘the mother and father of all parties’.) Ezekiel had to make do with a limited diet, restricted exercise and unusual cooking fuel. Both were in hindsight heroes of faith (Hebrew 11:7,32).

In the Roman world of the New Testament period, a further reason for isolation was the kind of imprisonment the apostles of Jesus experienced. Paul knew what it was like to feel deserted by people who might care for him in his isolation, and to rely on delivery services for his needs (2 Timothy 4:9-13). John knew what it was like to be confined away from those he would want to care for (Revelation 1:9). Both also grasped the opportunities that unwanted isolation gave them. For John, it was further training in the patient endurance that is involved in Christian discipleship, and extended prayer in which he was granted prophetic revelation from Jesus (Revelation 1:9-10). For Paul, it was the advance of the gospel in alternative ways and by other people, including those given confidence through his example (Philippians 1:12-18).

Jesus himself self-isolated in the desert for over a month at the start of his public ministry, and for shorter periods more regularly thereafter (Luke 4:1-4; 5:16). Paul may have done something similar for a lengthy period shortly after becoming a follower of Jesus (Galatians 1:17-18). In the third and fourth centuries AD some Christians moved into the deserts of Egypt and Syria seeking isolation in order to deepen their relationship and devotion to God, and these ‘desert fathers and mothers’ were the inspiration for the monastic movement which developed over subsequent centuries.

Periods of enforced or chosen isolation have been significant in the lives of influential Christians: for example, Ignatius of Loyola whose conversion from a life of vanity and violence came about (in 1521) through reading religious texts while bedridden following surgery; St John of the Cross whose most famous writing was composed during solitary confinement (in 1578); and Julian of Norwich, author of the earliest surviving English-language book written by a woman, Revelations of Divine Love (c.1400), who experienced the pandemic of the Black Death and lived for many years in seclusion in a cell attached to a church.

More recently, Terry Waite, Archbishop of Canterbury’s assistant and hostage negotiator in Lebanon, was captured and kept in solitary confinement for four years from 1987. In his book, Taken on Trust, he explained how Jesus’ words about living for the day took on new meaning, and how he learned that suffering could be creative rather than destructive.

Examples of both imposed and chosen isolation of various kinds could be multiplied, but the point is that, for all its hardship, deprivation, restriction and suffering, isolation can become an opportunity for positive change and a means of God-graced spiritual growth for followers of Jesus. It can help us embrace new attitudes and develop new practices that deepen godly character, and enrich relationships with God and other people.

Embracing the opportunity

How might we not just endure the current period of isolation, but embrace the gift it may also offer to grow in Christian spiritual formation; and what directions might that growth take? What follows are some suggestions; no doubt there are many more.

From painful loneliness to peaceful solitude. Henri Nouwen writes (in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, 1975) of a ‘basic human loneliness’ that leads us to compulsive self-distraction, and to unhealthily dependent or controlling relationships with others. Behind the addiction to busyness and the avoidance of boredom lies the fear of facing our own inner emptiness. Behind our neediness and selfishness towards others lies the ultimately idolatrous requirement that other people fulfil our needs and love us into significance in a way that only God can.

Paradoxically, the answer to our loneliness lies in the practice of solitude: facing our true self in the loving presence of God, and receiving in the healing grace of that relationship the inner wholeness that enables us to be alone without fear and present to others without manipulating them. If we are isolating on our own, solitude can train us to rest in God’s loving presence. If we are in close confinement with others, it can train us to be present with them more healthily.

From scarcity to contentment. While scarcity is normal for countless people in our world, for many in the West the sight of empty supermarket shelves and unavailable delivery slots is a new experience. Used to having what we want now, and conditioned by media and marketing to want more, the biblical idea that godly contentment is a great gain (1 Timothy 6:6) is for many a great mystery. In fact, the secret of contentment, whether facing plenty or hunger, abundance or need, is an open one: it is a trusting confidence in God to strengthen us and supply our needs (Philippians 4:11-13). And so we pray, as Jesus said, for daily bread (or, as one rendering has it, bread ‘sufficient for the coming day’).

Paradoxically again, the spiritual practice that trains us in contentment is regular fasting – perhaps not so much the occasional, seasonal or heroic fasting we might imagine, but the ‘stationary’ fasting practised by many early Christians on Wednesdays and Fridays when they might typically have eaten nothing between breakfast and evening meal. Such moderate, regular fasting trains us in a simple way to go without what we’d like for a little while, to be less governed by our appetites, to be more free to say yes or no to legitimate needs, to cheerfully and contentedly make do with less. Just as Sabbath trains us to trust God with our time, so fasting trains us to trust God for our food.

From restriction to freedom. When freedom of movement and association is temporarily restricted in unprecedented ways, we might feel a renewed appreciation for a long tradition of civil liberties and human rights. But exterior freedom is often not matched by interior freedom. In a consumer economy which depends on turning wants into needs, a competitive education system and workplace environment whose increasing demands create anxious minds and depleted emotions, and a fast-moving digitalised culture that is always ‘on’, the result is often compulsive busyness and increased dependencies. The felt need to ‘must have’ the latest gadget or twitter message, the obsession over fine-tuned diet and exercise, the general requirement to fill every moment with productivity or entertainment, or to have life a certain way in order to be okay – these are just some of the symptoms of interior addiction which leave us anything but free.

A spiritual practice that can help us gain freedom from our dependencies is silence and stillness, deliberately detaching ourselves for a while from whatever controls us, increasing our ability to tolerate the discomfort of withdrawal (for example from productivity or entertainment). We may discover initially just how inwardly wired and constricted we have become, but we may learn in the process that we can not only survive without our dependencies but become freer from fear and anxiety, and more able to choose rather than just give in to compulsion. We are free when we find ourselves using the language of ‘can’ rather than ‘must’, when we can take or leave things without distress. Above all, we can find our true dependence, identity, security and wellbeing in God, living out of a still centre where we know we are held by God’s love.

From frustration to hope. Western culture seems to have developed a relationship to time where waiting has become associated primarily with frustration rather than hope. Despite a traditional British patience with orderly queuing, technological changes have created an expectation of instant access and acquisition, an equation of fast with good, a hurry sickness that habituates us to a ‘buy now, pay later’ and ‘click-and-collect’ mindset. The prospect of isolation to one degree or another lasting for weeks or months seems daunting not just because of the unknown potential consequences and the indeterminate end-point, but also because so much of what we had planned, anticipated and assumed is now locked down, blocked off, taken out of our hands, and there is little we can do but wait.

But it is possible to embrace waiting as a spiritual practice that forms in us other attitudes: for example, a sense of gratitude for what we have at all, rather than a sense of entitlement to have it all and have it now; a deeper trust in God, as we realise how illusory is our usual sense that we are control; an awakened appreciation for the normally overlooked benefits of living more slowly for our health (including the health of the planet) and relationships; and a relationship to time marked less by counting it chronologically and more by weighing it meaningfully.

This is the distinction sometimes made between the biblical (Greek) words for time, chronos (clock time, the amount of time we have) and kairos (what the time is for, the opportunity it provides). As Stephen Cherry has pointed out, there is a difference between time management and time wisdom. A period of waiting, such as when in isolation, can become a kairos opportunity, not just a passage of chronos. If nothing else, it would be good to use the waiting time for reflection. There is a risk that, if we see the waiting time as no more than an inconvenient interruption and frustrating pause, after it is over we might either swiftly revert to how things were before or equally swiftly launch into new ways of living and working (for example, even more online and remote), but without the wisdom gained by careful reflection that can – if we so choose – flourish during the waiting. Prayerful, humble, careful reflection, especially in the awareness of the limits of human control and the re-evaluation of what matters, can move us from a sense of frustrated delay to a sense of God-focused hope.

From indifference to care. We all know there is a strong element of selfishness and indifference to the needs and sufferings of others not just in Western culture but in human nature, but it is no less true that there is alongside this a reservoir of genuine goodwill, altruistic concern and neighbourly kindness. For some of us, perhaps, the fear for our own wellbeing created by pandemic and isolation may lead us to withdraw from others and look out for number one. For others, though, the concern for the wellbeing of others, including those for whom isolation is far more difficult or dangerous, may lead us to make more contact than we usually do with neighbours, relatives, friends and strangers; to smile from a two-metre distance at people we would normally not look at and wish them well; to share one of the two items we were able to buy from the supermarket with someone who cannot leave their home at all. We may even, if we have the resources, go as far as the anonymous man in Denchworth, Oxfordshire, who is funding a weekly fish and chips takeaway for everyone in his village.

The spiritual practice that trains us to treat our isolation at home not as a parapet to hide and hoard behind, but a vantage-point from which to support those worse off, is the practice of giving. Not, of course, the kind of giving that comes with emotional indebtedness or reciprocal obligation, but the generous giving that freely shares because we know that all we have ourselves is already a gift and that God is endlessly able to provide what we need. Under ‘normal’ circumstances, we are often held back from expressing concern and giving generously not only by our own self-absorption but also by notions of independence, reserve, awkwardness, fear of being intrusive or giving offence, and so on. The current period of isolation has created a different atmosphere in which we have an opportunity to practice generous giving and to make deeper connections of care, despite the increased distancing involved.

From predictability to creativity. One of the features of the current involuntary isolation is prevalent unpredictability: we don’t know how long it will last, whether further measures will be imposed, to what degree we will return to how things were previously, what the new normal will be in future, what the implications will be for the global economy, environment, working and educational practices, the structure and management of healthcare and other institutions. Some of us don’t know whether we will have a job, an income, a holiday, a house purchase, or whatever. And, while the virus continues, we don’t know who will become ill and who will recover. For many people, it is not just the threats inherent in all this but the degree to which things are unknown and unpredictable that is so difficult. The effect can be to paralyse action rather than to motivate it, to let the moment pass rather than to seize it.

But there is another side to this. According to a recent National Geographic article, scientists have long suggested that solitude generates creativity, and they point to generations of artists, poets, and philosophers who produced their greatest works in seclusion from society. Moreover, the loss of previous certainties and predictable patterns can stimulate greater openness to, and exploration of, alternatives. Followers of Jesus especially, conscious of being made in the image of a creative God who is both unchanging in character yet often doing a new thing, can embrace times of unpredictable isolation as creative retreat in which to prayerfully imagine ways of living that are both faithful to an unchanging gospel and freshly configured in a changing context.

For example, what does loving our neighbour look like when it used to involve close contact; currently requires some balance between physical distancing, increased communication and alternative forms of support; and when the future may urge on us more reliance on remote online relating? What are we to make of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comment that ‘We are probably getting ten times as many people online as we had physically coming to the churches’? No doubt we need to pray discerningly, reflect carefully and listen widely and deeply before jumping to conclusions, but in view of the well-documented disconnection from conventional forms of church of both people who have never been part of it and those who once were but are no longer, surely this is a kairos moment for moving from predictability to creativity in a deeply spiritual, and not just pragmatic, way.

Lament and laughter

Finally, perhaps the experience of pandemic and isolation could help us rediscover some spiritually enriching resources that may be given less attention in less troubled times. For example, we might be enriched in our praying and worshipping by drawing on psalms of lament as well as of thanksgiving (and there are more psalms of lament than of thanksgiving in the Old Testament Book of Psalms.) We might also find inspiration from previous generations of Christians who lived and prayed through difficult times, such as this encouragement from Teresa of Avila: ‘Let nothing disturb thee, Let nothing afright thee, All things are passing, God never changes … God alone suffices.’

On a different note, we might draw on the gift of humour – a risky gift since it is so shaped by subjective taste and can too easily become inappropriate or offensive, but which has also the ability to defuse anxiety, raise spirits, bring people together, reframe perspectives and cope with adversity. Those who have suffered a lot sometimes have a well-developed humour – something that has been said to characterise Jewish culture, for example. There is perhaps more humour than we sometimes recognise in the recorded words of Jesus, and in times of sadness and struggle we may helpfully keep in mind that ‘crying cleanses, and laughter heals’.

And perhaps the Holy Spirit may bring fresh insights from particular parts of the Bible to bear on current circumstances as we prayerfully bring together God’s word and our world. For example, the Old Testament Books of Samuel are full of intriguing stories of God’s people living through troubled times, stories full of ambiguity that (rather like Jesus’ parables) get us thinking creatively rather than simply telling us what to think. And the New Testament book of 2 Corinthians invites us to discover how we can experience God’s strength in human weakness, and inner renewal amid exterior transition.

The gift of isolation may be a ‘veiled mercy’, but we can embrace and receive it as such. The 18th century hymn-writer William Cowper was no stranger to days of darkness and despair, but he affirmed nonetheless that

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

These seven essays were written, in this order, between March and September 2020. Inevitably, a few of the facts and figures will be out of date by the end of the year.