Page 12, 14th December 2001

14th December 2001
Page 12
Page 12, 14th December 2001 — Lonely hearts united by service to others

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Lonely hearts united by service to others

In his Booker Prize-winning novel, The Famished Road, Nigerian writer, Ben Okri describes a mother chiding her overly-restless 10-year-old son for haunting her dreams: "Stay out of my dreams! That's not your place! I'm married to your father!"

What a curious thing scolding someone for stalking your dreams! Yet there's a part of us that understands exactly what is being said here. The mystic inside us knows what this means, that there are ways we touch each other beyond the contact of everyday encounter, knows that we can connect beyond distance, time, and even death. There's a unity, touch, and intimacy beyond what we can physically explain. It's called mysticism.

We need, of course, to be careful whom we talk to about this, given, as someone quipped, that the only difference between a mystic and a psychotic is that the mystic is more careful about whom she talks to. Our scepticism notwithstanding, mysticism is real. Things touch and affect us in ways that we can't explain and we touch and affect each other in ways that cannot be explained within the categories of everyday life. Even science admits this. Physics, for example, with an hypothesis such as "Bell's Theorem", assures us that there arc connections inside of reality, real physical connections, that cannot be explained by the normal categories of touch, contact, and contiguity. Things affect each other in ways that go beyond the usual categories of physical causality.

As Christians we have a concept for this. We call it "the body of Christ". What is "the body of Christ"? Union with each other in ways that we cannot really explain. St Paul tells us that in the great mystery of things we are in a union with each other and with the world that is beyond what we form through the normal interaction of our everyday lives, where community and intimacy depend upon mutual physical presence, talk, touch, and embrace. Paul tells us that there is a deeper order of things within which we are m union and intimacy with each other in a way that is just as real as the unity we experience through physical discourse and embrace. We are in a community of life with each other and with nature beyond the normal categories of unity and community.

Mystics have always believed in this and have told us that our loneliness is a privileged means of entering that communion. One such mystic was Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher. As a young man, he fell deeply in love with a woman and planned marriage. However, at one stage, at great emotional cost to himself (and, as history would suggest, at even greater emotional cost to the woman) he broke off the engagement and set himself to live as a celibate. Why?

His reasoning was simple. He felt that what he had to give to the world came mainly from his own loneliness and the pain he incurred in dealing with that loneliness. He could share deeply, he felt, because, first of all, he felt deeply. Loneliness was his entry into depth. Rightly or wrongly, he judged that marriage would rearrange this tortured chemistry and leave him with less to give to others.

Many of us, I suspect, will react to this reasoning with either a condescending smile or with strong condemnation. Marriage is hardly a panacea for loneliness. Celibacy is not superior, morally or emotionally, to marriage. But the mystic within us draws another conclusion. It understands what, wisely or stupidly, Kierkegaard did here. He befriended loneliness and, there, was able to enter the heart of the world. In his loneliness, Kierkegaard was able to enter our dreams.

And in recent times, few have touched our hearts as deeply as Kierkegaard. Therese of Lisieux did much the same thing. She entered the heart of the world mystically, secretly, without splash, from the inside. She lived the hidden life, tucked away in a small monastery in a remote town. She died young, at 24, and at her death she was probably known to less than 200 people. Yet as she lived in that isolated spot, slept alone at night on her celibate cot, and prayed by day with her community and by herself, the world lay inside her heart and, as events since her death have made clear, she lay inside the world's heart. Like Kierkegaard, from the silence and solitude of her own loneliness, she began to haunt our dreams. Today, like Kierkegaard, she continues to touch and help to heal our hearts.

"What is a poet?" Kierkegaard once asked. His answer: "A poet is an unhappy person who conceals deep torments in his or her heart, but whose lips are so formed that when a groan or shriek streams over them it sounds like beautiful music."

Poets of faith and loneliness, Kierkegaards and Thereses of Lisieux, will always stalk our dreams.

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