Since I’ve written about — and lauded — Christian community before, I should be clear about something: Community is NOT a matter of doing as much as possible together.
Quite the opposite. It’s about being independent together.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his marvelous little book Life Together: “Along with the day of the Christian family fellowship together there goes the lonely day of the individual. This is as it should be. The day together will be unfruitful without the day alone, both for the fellowship and for the individual.”
Call me a raging introvert if you want (because that’s what I am), but I think Bonhoeffer is saying we all need time alone. It’s not for the outcasts, the tired, the socially sick; it’s for the healthy. So that we can prevent tiredness and promote community.
Bonhoeffer goes on to describe some potential activities of “The Day Alone”: solitude and silence, meditation, prayer, and intercession.
Solitude, silence, and meditation give us time and space to be attuned to God’s work in our own souls and, yes, in our communities. Prayer and intercession give us the chance to pray for God to work more and more in our communities. Such practices foster the forgiveness and compassion necessary for healthy community. (As I’ve heard it said, it’s hard to hate someone when you’re praying for them.)
Stranger still, such practices foster the self-knowledge necessary for selflessness. If I don’t know myself, I won’t be comfortable with myself and, when I’m around other people, will likely be self-conscious. The more I know myself, though, the more comfortable I’ll be with who I am and the more comfortable I’ll be with other people.
Finally, solitary practices fuel us with the energy necessary for healthy community. At the simplest level, we need sleep. Further on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we have self-actualization needs which can include reading, writing, creating art, running, swimming, pursuing goals that make us uniquely ourselves.
Recently, I was entering a two-week period when my Google calendar had notably less blank space than usual due to preparing for a very large event at work followed immediately by attending an out-of-town conference. After a mild panic attack and meeting with a priest, I made plans — and marked them on that increasingly full Google calendar — to have “a day alone” (or at least a half-day or so) during the busy period and shortly after the busy period. The day alone during the busyness gave me energy and the day alone after the busyness gave me hope.
Perhaps the best part: The days alone made me thankful for the days with my community. I had the energy and ease then to laugh at their jokes, listen to their stories, and lay aside my worries.
Because we were independent. Together.