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The Habit of Keeping Divine Company

A warning against the overcrowded life

A recent study on the habits of cell phone users reveals disturbing trends:

• 9 percent of U.S. adults are using their smartphones while they have sex.

• 35 percent are using their phones in a movie theatre.

• 33 percent are using them on a dinner date.

• 32 percent are using them at their child's school function.

• 55 percent are using them while driving.

• 12 percent are using them while in the shower.

• 19 percent are using them in their church/place of worship.

In our socially mediated world, we stream constant chatter and keep perpetual company. The modern world drones at a low, dull roar—and we need the regular retreat of solitude and silence, which Jesus himself practiced, and which Dietrich Bonhoeffer called in his book Life Together, “The Day Alone.” We need it to love the crowds.

The Example of Jesus

As the gospel writers record, Jesus had the habit of rising before dawn and escaping to desolate places in order to pray. Mark records one of these incidents in Chapter 1, noting how anxiously and urgently the disciples look for him. When they found Jesus, they seemed almost to scold him: “Everyone is looking for you” (1:37). The crowds need you, they insisted. But Jesus knew what he needed.

To see Jesus is to see the crowds, their pressing needs and constant interruptions. The crowds often gathered outside Jesus' personal home or the homes to which he paid visits, bringing their sick friends. On one occasion, recorded in Mark 2, the crowd was so thick and impenetrable that four desperate friends made a hole in the roof of Jesus' home, removing the straw mats and wooden timbers so they could let their paralyzed friend down at his feet.

As Jesus walked the streets, the crowds pressed in around him, nearly crushing him with their desire for a touch of the hem of his robe. One account, recorded in Mark 5, introduces a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and reached out to touch Jesus. She hoped the crowd would provide anonymity for her gutsy act.

As Jesus gained a reputation as a healer, the crowds clamored constantly for his presence. Mark describes one scene where Jesus, having just learned of the execution of his friend, ministry partner and cousin, John the Baptist, sought a desolate place of rest for himself and his disciples. The crowds had been coming and going, and Mark records that Jesus and the disciples “had no leisure even to eat,” (Mark 6:31). When they get into a boat and cast off for a desolate place of retreat, the crowd ran ahead to meet them on the other side.

To see Jesus is to see the unrelenting needs of the crowds (and his tireless compassion). It is also to glimpse their impossible expectations and unreliable love. Though the crowd reveled initially in Jesus' power, their praise proved murderously fickle. The crowds who once were so eager to touch the hem of his robe were the very same crowds who delivered him into the hands of Roman executioners. “Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” turned to jeers just days later: “Crucify him!

As Jesus' life bears out, the crowds cannot be trusted. They will give more than they take, and their love will prove unreliable. We need “the day alone.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's “The Day Alone”

Long before the era of the smartphone, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against the overcrowded life. “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community,” he wrote in his book Life Together. It will seem ironic that a book intended to teach Christians about living in community would include a chapter called “The Day Alone,” but Bonhoeffer understood that even in ministry we often selfishly seek from the crowds love and affirmation they were never meant to give.

To protect from using the crowds for selfish purposes, Bonhoeffer suggested that every Christian consecrate an hour of silence to daily meditation on Scripture, prayer, and intercession for other Christians. In the day alone, we heed the voice of the Father, who launches his children into ministry with the bold affirmation of his love: “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy” (Mark 1:11).

Bonhoeffer insisted on three crucial components to the practice of the day alone. First he attested to the need for serious engagement with the Scriptures—though not as preparation to preach a sermon or lead a Bible study. “We do not ask what this text has to say to other people,” Bonhoeffer writes. “We are rather waiting on God's word for us.” Meditation on Scripture must be an expectant, attentive, and patient act of listening, anchored in the grace that God is willing to speak.

Second, Bonhoeffer affirmed that meditation on God's Word would lead organically to prayer, which he described as “the readiness and willingness to receive and appropriate the Word.” To read the Scriptures is to seek to be formed as God's obedient people. We don't simply accumulate knowledge. Rather, we ask for God's kingdom to come to earth and surrender ourselves to become part of the answer to our own prayers. Through prayer, we become the conscripted and commissioned. “Here I am. Send me.”

And finally, having received the Word for ourselves, we pray for others—urgently, zealously, faithfully, understanding that “a Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses.” Don't worry about distraction as you pray, assured Bonhoeffer. Pray for the people who surface to the level of consciousness as if brought there by God.

The day alone is the indispensable habit for every Christian. Noise may, for a time, dull the pang of inner loneliness. An audience may, if momentarily, relieve the terror of escaping notice. But the crowds (and their cheers) can never satisfy the deepest human longings. We were made not for the love of the crowds but for the love of the Father, which sends us out “strengthened and purified,” according to Bonhoeffer. And though the day alone may not always produce good feelings, it should always produce good fruit. “Has it lodged the Word of God so securely and deeply in his heart that it holds and fortifies him, impelling him to active love, to obedience, to good works? Only the day can decide.”

Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith. She lives in Toronto with her family.

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