The first chapter of Genesis is the story of the creation, when God makes everything, including a man and a woman. In the second chapter man is without the woman; it’s a different creation story from the one used in the first chapter. Genesis 2 says:
“Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”
The theme of loneliness is woven throughout the Bible, as well as a lot of poetry – much of it put to music – and both fictional and non-fictional literature.
The epigraph with which E.M Forster opens his novel, Howards End says:
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
The characters in his novel struggle to make connections – in a sense, the epigraph clearly states what they wish for, while at the same time it implies what is so often lacking.
The story holds up the tension between wanting or needing to make meaningful, long-term connections and feeling the existential emptiness of a hostile world when those connections fail to satisfy the basic human need for authentic relationship.
Let’s take a brief look at ‘the facts of life,’ the spiritual or religious facts of life – the meaning of it all. We’ll round it all out with the wonderful story of The Creation by James Weldon Johnson.
We begin with the fact of birth; each of us experienced it. When we were born, by definition, we were separated from mother, the source of nourishment, shelter and protection…our first Home.
At birth, the connecting cord, our lifeline, is cut, and we are suddenly alone. It’s a bit of a trauma – we become a single, separate person.
For the remainder of our life on the planet, our new home, our survival depends on obtaining food, shelter and protection, which, up to the point of birth, was provided.
Let’s not dwell on the biological facts of life. Let’s get to the part we’re here to explore – the part of life that is not limited to food, clothes, shelter and universal health care, what we might call the spiritual, religious or philosophical aspect of life!
Not long after the trauma of birth we realize, on a deep level, that we are alone, that we are a separate – a person apart from all other persons.
In those first months and years, we require a lot of care and support so that we can grow and develop, and if we’re very fortunate, we can reach our human potential – that which we’re capable of becoming.
If we’re very, very fortunate, we reach a level of satisfaction and appreciation for the life we’ve been given…the support, including that aspect of life which connects us on a spiritual level (if you will) with other persons…a connection we call love.
Here I remind you of a Biblical passage: God is Love. That’s from I John; 4.
As a result of the love that was loved into us, we feel known, understood and accepted for who we are – this single, separate person, with unique characteristics and qualities. We feel respected – a word which shares the root with the word spectacles – we feel seen, noticed; and consequently we feel less alone.
Love, by definition, is connection. “Only connect.”
None of this is very remarkable, but it leads to some reflections on the meaning of it all.
At some point, early in our development, we find ourselves wondering why we’re here – since everything else in our lives seems to have a purpose, we have a notion that we, too, must have a purpose, so we ask our parents and teachers and possibly the clergy persons in our life: “Why are we here?” or some variation on that theme.
Early on we are given temporary answers; age-appropriate answers. It isn’t until a little later that we come to realize that no one actually knows the answer, which is why we’ve invented a variety of religions, each of which offers answers – variations on the theme, in response to the basic question: why?
It’s a trick question, really. We’re not toasters, who have a purpose related to English muffins and sliced bread! The toaster ‘has a purpose,’ and we somehow believe that we, too, are supposed to ‘have a purpose,’ beyond the mere existence we’ve been given. Gifted.
This much seems clear to me: we are born, we come to realize that we are separate and in need of support, we form relationships that provide a wide variety of things we need: basics of food, clothes and shelter…then a basic education that allows us to read our own emails and send text messages…
The emails and text messages are very much like that umbilical cord – that early life line; they connect us to others – family and a few hundred friends on facebook.
Some of the time we spend alone is a respite – a relief from reading and writing all those emails and text messages.
The respite allows us to click into games on the same devices that send and receive the messages…so we can play hearts, chess, solitaire, cribbage, scrabble and angry birds (which I haven’t discovered, yet, but I know it’s there waiting to entertain me, so I won’t feel lonely when I’m alone, but can enjoy the respite.)
Before these technologies, we actually spent time alone, and it was not only welcomed, but it was the source of spiritual development, as symbolized by the myths of Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree, doing nothing, or what appeared to be nothing…but the nothing he was doing was essential to his spiritual nourishment. Some call it solitude.
Some of the time spent alone is not so welcomed, however; it’s called loneliness…isolation. It can even feel like punishment, which it sometimes is, as in a ‘time out,’ or ‘solitary confinement,’ depending on your living situation.
We carry our nurturing relationships into our solitude – the love that has been loved into us is like the food we’ve eaten, which serves its purpose between meals.
In those times – what some call meditation, prayer or simply solitude – the human spirit is nourished; the soul is magnified and we feel the presence of God.
Or, to put it differently, in those special moments we realize that we are NOT separate, after all…that we are part and parcel of Creation, or God, if you will.
We live in interesting times.
The new technologies are replacing the old religions; the new technologies – radio, television, telephones, cell phones, computers and iPads keep us connected to loved ones, and to a wide variety of acquaintances, some of whom call at suppertime to introduce themselves in hopes that we’ll become their new friend and send them some money, which we have less and less of because we’re spending so much on internet services!
This leads to the distinction between being alone and being lonely. We need time alone. We need sleep. (Which is sometimes brought on by sermons!)
We call some of the alone time ‘privacy.’ I won’t go into details here, but suffice it to say that in the early years of ministry I had recurring dreams of sitting naked in a storefront window with all of my ‘dear friends’ from church walking by and waving; and there was no fig leaf available!
Oh, did I fail to mention that we invented the religions of the world for two very basic and essential reasons: first, to help us to reconnect, inventing things like first communion – get it? Communion…union…connected…and coming of age and marriage and memorial services…candle lighting and coffee hour.
It’s all about connecting, until, at last, we return to where we were before this individual life all started…and I’m not going to tell you where that is, but I’ll give you a hint: it’s a place where there are no complaints and no one calling at suppertime to ask you for money…and no one asking you for money at church…another word for Paradise!
To summarize: Religion – in the generic sense – is the lifelong process of reconnecting – with other people, and with a growing, changing, aging, fallible self…and with Nature, in whose bosom we rest in the here and now.
The religions were invented to help in that lifelong process, and they, too, are fallible…they, too, are aging and become anachronistic…
The religions of the world provide answers…
One of the finest answers I know of came from James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938). Johnson was an author, politician, diplomat, critic, journalist, poet, anthologist, educator, lawyer, songwriter, (he composed the African American national anthem: Life Every Voice and Sing) and he was an early civil rights activist. He was a leader in the creation and growth of the NAACP. He was also one of the first African American professors at NYU. He wrote a wonderful version of the story of Creation.
And God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
“I’m lonely —
I’ll make me a world.”
And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said, “That’s good!”
Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,
And God rolled the light around in His hands
Until He made the sun;
And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said, “That’s good!”
Then God himself stepped down —
And the sun was on His right hand,
And the moon was on His left;
The stars were clustered about His head,
And the earth was under His feet.
And God walked, and where He trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.
Then He stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And He spat out the seven seas;
He batted His eyes, and the lightnings flashed;
He clapped His hands, and the thunders rolled;
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.
Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around His shoulder.
Then God raised His arm and He waved His hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And He said, “Bring forth! Bring forth!”
And quicker than God could drop His hand.
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said, “That’s good!”
Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that He had made.
He looked at His sun,
And He looked at His moon,
And He looked at His little stars;
He looked on His world
With all its living things,
And God said, “I’m lonely still.”
Then God sat down
On the side of a hill where He could think;
By a deep, wide river He sat down;
With His head in His hands,
God thought and thought,
Till He thought, “I’ll make me a man!”
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.