If You Can’t Be Alone, You Can’t Be In Community: Bonhoeffer and Guatemala

Jason Micheli —  July 18, 2012 — Leave a comment

You might think, when you have a group of 30 friends, acquaintances or just fellow church members all crammed together, sleeping/snoring/farting, eating and working on top of each other, that there would be little opportunity for solitude on a mission trip.

There might even be some part of you that suspects the terms ‘mission’ and ‘solitude’ don’t belong in the same theological conversation. Those kinds of Christians do mission. These kinds of Christians do solitude, the little theologian in your ear might whisper. 

In fact, mission settings do provide surprising chances for solitude, to be alone:

The quiet, unhurried rhythm that you and a work partner settle into when you know both the task and your partner so well that you no longer have to fill the moments with chatter.

The silence around the morning table, everyone chilled from the mountain air, the only sound the steaming coffee being poured or a whispered ‘dias’ from our hostess.

The solitude of a group hike, the thin air leaving no spare air for conversation.

I guess it could be hard to understand unless you’ve been here but it’s somehow the experience of living together- even living on top of each other- that allows me to notice and appreciate such opportunities for solitude. There’s something about living together in community that makes me better at being alone, paying attention to my thoughts, my body, the world and people around me. It sounds counter-intuitive perhaps but a week spent in community is somehow the best training there is in how to be solitary. I haven’t tried it but I’d bet that if I just went out into the woods by myself for a week a la Into the Wild I’d soon be crazy bored and my mind would never stop racing. I’d be alone, but I’d bet solitude would be about the last thing I was experiencing.

It works the other way too.

Somehow these solitary moments stolen during the day make me better for the community.

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer says it’s only in being alone that we learn how to be a true, contributing member of community and it’s only in community that we learn how to be authentically alone.

So here’s the question I’m struggling with: why is Bonhoeffer’s insight so easy to (almost tangibly) experience here in Guatemala and not back home in church?

The easy answer: It’s because we don’t have time for solitude here. Our lives are too busy, too hectic, too over-scheduled so that both our solitude and our community suffer.

The more challenging (and likely true) answer: It doesn’t have anything to do with the pace of our lives. It’s because our churches seldom reflect genuine Christian community. Maybe even the un-solitary pace of our lives reflects just how badly churches do community.

I mean, the kind of deep, honest relationships that are unavoidable when you’re crammed together and living on top of each other for a week aren’t possible when you treat church simply as a place where you passively receive religious services and maybe make a few superficial relationships along the way.

According to Bonhoeffer- and Guatemala, it’s only by forging a deeper bond with the community that the quiet and solitude we all claim we want more of in our lives becomes possible.

Jason Micheli

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