04 September 2017

God Alone is Enough (Reprise)

Because of recent posts and the phrase "God alone is enough" which I have used therein, I have been asked if this isn't misanthropic, anti-Christian, or downright isolationist --- all things I often and consistently write against. In Lent 2012 I posted the following piece which describes the meaning of this difficult affirmation. An added section (italicized) is included on the place of friendship and other significant relationships which, I hope, clarifies some of the brief comments in the original piece.

[[Hi Sister! What does it mean to say that God alone is enough? I need my family and friends and I wouldn't be the person I am without them. Does saying God Alone is Enough mean that we don't need others? Does it mean something different for you as a hermit than for me as a single teacher?]]

Wonderful questions! The phrase God Alone is Enough is an ambiguous one, meaning it has different and overlapping meanings which can also be misunderstood. So, for instance, the word "enough" can either basically mean we don't need anyone or anything else in our lives, or it can mean that God is the one reality which answers every fundamental or foundational need and completes us as persons. For most persons, the truth is that in adulthood we do not come to human wholeness apart from our relationships with other people and so it is ordinarily the case that the affirmation God alone is enough refers to the second sense: only God is sufficient to truly complete us, to empower us to the transcendence of genuine humanity, to serve as the source and ground of being and meaning in our lives.

This is especially true when one asks what the word "alone" means. Does it mean the person needs no one and nothing else besides God? Does it mean one can go one's own way motivated merely by individualism (what monastic life critically refers to as
singularitas) and even a form of narcissism? Does it mean that one can dismiss the world around them as unworthy of their spirituality and live a kind of falsely "spiritualized" isolation? Or, again, does it mean that only God can answer every human need and complete us as persons? In every case, that is, for every person [whether hermit or not] it means the latter. For most people their reliance on God as the foundation of their lives will actually lead to more -- and more healthy -- personal relationships, not to fewer much less to less healthy ones. Only in the case of hermits or anchorites does it mean that the hermit relies on God alone to the significant and lifelong limitation or relative exclusion of human relationships. We do this not only because we are called to do it for ourselves and for God who desires and wills our love, but again because it witnesses in a rather vivid way to that foundational relationship which stands at the core of every person.

So yes, my sense of the meaning of this phrase may be different than yours in some ways. The two senses I have spoken of also overlap to a significant degree though. By the way, as we approach Holy Week it is important to note that the church will be looking at a related way in which "God alone is enough." What we will hear proclaimed is the fact that only God can overcome sin and death: only God is that love which is stronger than death, only God is generous enough to empty himself completely and become subject to the powers and principalities of our world so that they might also be defeated. I will write about that a bit more though in the next weeks.
[Please note, when I spoke above of the relative exclusion of human relationships I really mean the accent to be on relative. Hermits are not misanthropes but at the same time they limit contact with others for the sake of the witness they are called to regarding the foundational place of God in every human life. Hermits, at least in my experience,  because again they are not usually recluses or ordinarily called to reclusion, must cultivate some few but quality relationships --- friends, directors, and those who accompany them in more "professional" or formal ways --- not only because there are real limits on the number of relationships in which the hermit can actually participate if their solitude is to be real, but because at the same time one's physical solitude requires such significant, even "sacramental," relationships if it is to be the rich and nourishing environment of the heart hermits require and commit to in the name of the Church.

It is hard to describe this paradox but it is linked to the distinction between being merely alone and living the silence of solitude. Consider that the ecclesial nature of this vocation provides a communal context for all authentic eremitical solitude; within this ecclesial context there will be the sustaining warmth, love, challenge, discipline, and consolation of the kinds of relationships I mentioned above --- limited though these will necessarily be. Each will mediate the presence and will of God in ways which supplement the way God comes to us in physical solitude and solitary prayer. Each will help shape the human heart in ways which allow it to embrace God fully -- and be more fully embraced by him -- in the rigors of solitude. They will thus also help the hermit maintain her commitment to all dimensions of the truth that "God alone is enough" for us --- but (and this is the sharpest form of the paradox) especially the solitary dimension she has freely embraced and is publicly responsible for.]