On the sacred mountain of Haleakala, a lone silversword, 1982.
My friend, Henri Nouwen biographer Michael Ford, asked me to write something about Henri, his affinity for Vincent van Gogh, and loneliness, as he prepares to write a book about Henri and loneliness.
Loneliness is the wilderness for the writer, the artist, and the contemplative. Writing, creativity, and prayer are not ways out of the wilderness, but a way to make the wilderness blossom, to turn the ache of feeling lonely to a fulfilling solitude, transforming “lone” to “alone,” derived from joining the words “all-one.”
French existentialist and novelist Albert Camus wrote a book of short stories, The Exile and the Kingdom, stories contrasting being alone and being with others. I’ll never forget the Algerian woman who leaves her husband’s bedside in the middle of the night to ascend to the roof and commune alone with the stars.
The story pertinent here is about an artist whose work makes him famous, acquiring admirers and students alike until he can’t work anymore—that is, until he finds a hidden attic in which to rediscover his art in solitude.
In his prolific and often profound letters to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh writes sometimes of his loneliness, while tending the fire in his hearth should a passerby stop to be warmed by its glow. His paintings became a way of offering himself to others, his “sermons,” as he once called them, that he hoped would have the same consoling effect that the Christian religion once offered. “While I sit here lonely,” Vincent wrote, “My work perhaps speaks to a friend.”
A theme or strand of loneliness wove its way into every one of Henri’s “letters to Theo,” his dozens of books on the spiritual life. A desperate extrovert, Henri nonetheless needed times of exile to hone his craft as writer and contemplative. His most severe exile, a time away from his community nursing a heart broken at the ending of a promising relationship, arguably produced his most profound, most simple, and most heartfelt spiritual treatise, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom.
Henri’s loneliness spoke to my own. Upon hearing a tape of a lecture on loneliness for his class, I enrolled in the course, the notes of which became Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. The movements were from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, and from illusion to prayer. Of all his books, Henri later observed, this was closest to his lived Christian experience.
When I write, create, and pray, my loneliness is transformed, my exile becomes community, my wilderness blossoms and communion is possible.
My writing is talking to a friend, making conversation, or a stranger, breaking the ice. My creativity is imagination let loose, hopefully to entertain as well as to encourage. My prayer is recognizing and enjoying God’s presence and remembering people I care about as well as those I should care about.
Jesus taught love, compassion, mercy, and gratitude as ways of transforming our wilderness. Reaching out to one another is the way to the kingdom, the commonwealth of God.
“Pray with me,” he urged his disciples in Gethsemane.
“Stay with us,” the Emmaus disciples urged their fellow traveler.
“Stay with me,” the haunting cry of a popular song goes, explaining “Guess it’s true, I’m not good at a one-night stand.”
That’s true of all of us, even God.
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