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Fire Island Diary (II): Solitude and Community

“The easiest practice of reverence I know is simply to sit down somewhere outside, preferably near a body of water, and pay attention for at least twenty minutes. It is not necessary to take on the whole world at first, Just take the three square feet on which you are sitting, paying close attention to everything that lives within that small estate, You might even decide not to kill anything for twenty minutes, including the saltmarsh mosquito that lands on your arm. Just blow her away and ask her to please go find someone else to eat.”

These words come from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, in the chapter on Reverence. Being here so near water wherever I look, or indeed refuse to look, I set out at sunset last evening to take on Brown Taylor’s “easiest practice of reverence.”

Several things happened, none of them intended. Well, that’s not quite right. I gathered up Gracie the Tiny Hound and myself, and we walked a few yards to the end of Marine Walk accompanied by the best intentions. There’s a bench there near the Saltaire tennis club. We sat down, or rather, I sat down and the dog scrambled to disappear from view for safety’s sake. She believes that both the visible and invisible worlds are principally venues of constant and tremendous danger, and that therefore one can never be too careful. I have struggled all my life to reject the same view as it seemed to be native to me from childhood. As a result, when Gracie and I walk or sit or pass in some fashion through the world together, it is often a fundamental philosophical dispute being fought between the tugging, pulling, canine flesh and the hapless human at the other end of the line.

So it was last evening. She made for the under-bench area. I pulled her out. I invited her to sit next to me on the bench. She demurred. I sat her in front of me and instructed her to stay. She stayed.

In the meantime, there was a breeze gusting between 10 and 20 miles per hour right in our faces. The water was choppy and into it, at the western horizon, old Sol was spectacularly setting. A group of six men and women, with several children and four little dogs among them, approached us on Bay Walk, greeted and passed by.

The combination of all of this motion, distraction, and interaction was that my attention was drawn immediately and continually far beyond the three square feet of earthly territory right around me. I was unable to find the needed psychic space and attentiveness to bear reverence toward that tiny area, though this might be – discouragingly for the moment – the ‘easiest’ route to the practice of reverence.

Instead though, the passage of those fellow travelers and their dogged companions gave birth to inner musings about the relation of solitude and community. I love to be in communication with people, in every sense of the term ‘communicate.’ I love to engage them, to listen, to seek understanding and a common place from which to stand together, if only for a moment, and survey the world and the life we live within it.

On the other hand, solitude affords me the inner space to really think, to deeply contemplate, and to find the more profound meaning of those more social moments in ways that I, at least, cannot do in company. I find that I cannot do living without either of these, solitude and community. I need to be with you. And I need to be alone. Both are fully true.

Balance between these is probably the key. By that I mean, both balance between community and solitude during a given hour or day, and balance between them over the space of a lifetime. That balance is necessary. That balance is life-giving, and reveals the best of me and of those with whom I interact,

And yet. Yet the moments of perceived or felt balance, in any sustained sense, have been few thus far, throughout life. I am often drawn by demands of ministry and of tasks, ‘aided’ by the communication devices of this day, into a maelstrom of activity and supposed cooperation. I say ‘supposed,’ because the longer such a period endures and the more frenetic it becomes without the refreshment of quiet solitude, the less effective such cooperation actually becomes, at least for me.

On the other hand, if I am plunged into full solitude for long, unrelieved periods of time then the initial relief ultimately gives way to the desire to move back toward and into community where – inevitably it seems in this 21st century – the pace and noise quickly descend again into the abyss of over-stimulation.

This desired balance may be, to return to Barbara Brown Taylor’s invitation, a kind of reverence. Reverence for others. Reverence for self. Reverence for the deeper truths that do not lie on the very surface of the waters of life.


Fire Island Diary (I)

Fire Island. I have not yet investigated the history of the name of this stretch of land off the Long Island coast. There has to be a story there. And the name of this town – Saltaire – is wonderfully evocative of a freshening breeze, a place of peace, a time in which silence can open up and offer its gifts.

So here I am this week, at the summer chapel at Saltaire, Saint Andrew’s by the Sea. Last night about 3 am there was a driving wind coming off the bay and what sounded like torrential rain. This morning the earth, underneath the raised wooden walkways, is soaked, with water filling large area in pools. Waking up with the wind, it was powerful somehow to think of the waters of the bay only a hundred yards away, if that, and in the other direction the open waters of the Atlantic a walk of ten minutes or less. Here you cannot help but feel part of the earth, surrounded as we are by the waters.

This morning with a cup of coffee I sat quietly in one of the living room chairs. The daylight was just beginning to unfurl and there was not a sound. From where I sat, without even moving my head from side to side, I could see through more than a dozen windows at once in the living room and in the front porch beyond. I thought of the power of perspective. If you sit in life in the company of Jesus Christ, you can look from there in freedom, and with him see all the diverse ways others in the world and various cultures understand the meaning of life. You can look through their lenses without fear, knowing that your settled perspective is that of looking with the eyes of Jesus. You can look with appreciation, with understanding, with compassion, with openness, and with awareness of all the possibilities God has placed before people to lead them to peace, to fullness, to God’s own self. There is security in this, a security that allows engagement with the Other, whatever their point of view, with calm and in peace.

Not unlike a Saltaire breeze on the last day of summer and first of fall.