No More Social Distancing
When I first heard the term, “social distancing,” I was struck by how uncomfortable it made me feel. It challenges just about everything I am convinced of theologically and practically about the nature and well-being of the human person; that we are created for spiritual community.
So, earlier this spring, I began to compose a Facebook post entitled, “No more social distancing!” As I reflected on the topic aloud, my media-savvy son pointed out that some readers might misunderstand what I mean. They could assume I was so weary of the isolation that I would plan social gatherings in spite of the risks. He had a point. What I really meant to say is, “No more social distancing.”
I wanted to simply express the concern that in practicing “social distancing,” we must not neglect the essential human need for community, specifically spiritual community. The challenge we face today is finding ways to both fruitfully use this time alone and creatively engage in the practice of community.
An Epidemic of Isolation
Concerns about too much isolation are not new. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, many pockets in the western world were facing epidemics of social isolation.1 In America, the number of adults who live alone has nearly doubled in the last 50 years, many of them older adults who are particularly encouraged to isolate these days. Residents in assisted living facilities, single parents with young children, emerging adults on their own, and many others feel the isolation especially keenly. My energetic grandmother, for example, has only connected with family members, pastors, and church friends by phone or through her window for two months now. The ache in her voice is telling.
Public health officials are well aware of the ill effects of increased isolation. In mid-March, the World Health Organization shifted from the language of “social distancing” to talk instead about “physical distancing” measures. This change in language from “social” to “physical” is intended to encourage practices for ongoing social connection to support mental health and well-being while we remain physically apart.2 This reflects the precise concern I have with the language of “social distancing.”
Spiritual Community by Design
The lack of social connection we feel today is rooted in God’s intention that humans share life in community. From the first chapters of Scripture, we witness the problem of being alone and the blessed gift of a human helper or ally (ezer). A kind of divine-human community is created; then relationships swiftly break down (Gen 2:18; 3:8). Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us, begins the reconciliation process of communal fellowship with God (Matt 1:23; 2 Cor 5:19). Ultimately, the followers of Jesus are invited to participate in this fellowship in many ways, including “one-anothering” (e.g. Rom 12:10; Gal 6:2; Col 3:13; Jas 5:16).
Theologically speaking, God has designed us to grow and mature in spiritual community. That we are created in and for communion with God and one another means that community is an essential aspect of spiritual formation.
Fostering Community in Isolation
As we talk about the importance of community in a season of isolation, it is important to pause for a moment and recognize that community and solitude must go hand in hand
Intentional solitude teaches direct dependence on God who speaks gently of love and purpose; this purpose is then lived out in healthy spiritual community that generates encouragement and commitment. The cycle of solitude and community produces the healthiest spiritual fruit for all.
The rhythms of solitude and community are reflected in Scripture and church history. Elijah, for example, becomes desperate when he perceives that there is no one left to take his side. He escapes to solitude and faces God on the mountain, expressing despair over his isolation. God responds with sustenance, comfort, and a companionable whisper. He then follows up with the promise of many more who share Elijah’s faith commitments. One particular companion, Elisha, energetically joins him on the journey as he comes back down the mountain and re-enters community (1 Kgs 19:1–21).
Jesus himself models the rhythm of solitude and community time and again. Before he formally begins his ministry, he pulls away for a significant time alone and enters a season of wrestling with faith and faithfulness in a deserted place. He returns to offer an invitation to those who will walk alongside him in daily life (Luke 4:1–5:11). Later, when he faces the most devastating of choices, Jesus begs three friends to join him in prayer. He steps away to pray alone but returns again to his companions (Matt 26:36–46). The cycles of solitude and community in the most crucial moments revolve throughout the gospels.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is another who emphasized the rhythms of community and solitude, famously stating, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community . . . But the reverse is also true: let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”3 He wrote extensively on the maturity required to balance personal and social well-being. These ideas would be put to the test in a final season of isolation in prison where he wrote letters on the nature of spiritual friendship to his own dear friend.
What we find in each of these examples is the call to intentionally pursue a life of both solitude and community, which is particularly tricky during a pandemic. Our response must be both contemplative and practical. As we contemplate our past and present rhythms of solitude and community, we find creative communal practices to balance out those moments of isolation in which we find ourselves now and into the future.
How to Practice Community
- Prayerfully consider the cycles of solitude and community that have shaped your life before and during the pandemic. Are you healthy alone and with others? Is there an invitation from God here? Is one or the other something to give greater attention to now and as physical distancing eases?
- In private prayer, reflect on your engagement with those in your household. Imagine each one encircled by the Spirit’s presence, and pray for the fruit of the Spirit in your interactions as you spend time together. Do the Ignatian Examen together and include a word about how you are grateful for each person.
- Pursue spiritual companionship. These relationships of prayerful reflection and conversation are intended to help friends “notice God’s presence and calling in their personal lives, local communities, and the world.”4 Is there someone that comes to mind in prayer who you might approach about being a spiritual friend?
Attend to those who are socially and/or physically vulnerable. Refugees and others in difficult life situations continue to need our care. It may be possible for a household to “adopt” a person living alone when precautions are taken. We have done so. Churches might create a fund for quietly supporting those facing financial hardships.