Being alone. It’s that all-too-familiar human experience. It lies at the root of our fears, ultimately making the vast wilderness frightening and the dark so haunting. The unnerving experience of being alone often descends upon men and women and has the power to paralyze them or otherwise entrap them in illusions of helpless desperation or worse, despair.
For many ancient philosophers, embracing solitude and approaching “the alone” purifies man. Plotinus—a follower of Plato—writes, “This is the life of gods and of the godlike and blessed among men, liberation from the alien that besets us here, a life taking no pleasure in the things of the earth, passing from the alone to the alone.” This mystical account of the acquisition of knowledge describes how Plotinus views the human condition and ultimately man’s final end. For Plotinus, the human person pursues knowledge, since he is, after all, a rational creature and capable of knowing things as they truly are. Ultimately, though, man will find peace only by drawing in upon himself and thereby mystically returning to the One, the source of all things.
For Saint Augustine, on the other hand, something markedly different happens in the Christian life. As one who admires and reflects much of the thought of Plotinus, Augustine offers a radical re-interpretation of Plotinus’s teaching, in light of the Gospel. For Saint Augustine, the human person finds rest not in being alone, but by being alone with.
Perhaps the most beautiful example of this line of thinking in Augustine comes from his Confessions. Just before the death of his mother, Saint Monica, Augustine describes a mystical experience they shared together at the port of Ostia. He writes,
We proceeded step by step through all bodily things up to that heaven whence shine the sun and the moon and the stars down upon the earth. We ascended higher yet by means of inward thought and discourse and admiration of [God’s] works, and we came up to our own minds. We transcended them, so that we attained to the region of abundance that never fails, in which [God] feed[s] Israel forever upon the food of truth, and where is that Wisdom by which all these things are made, both which have been and which are to be.
The beautiful language of Augustine conveys not only the overwhelming nature of the experience, but also a truth at the very core of Christianity. Christians never live out their call of discipleship alone in a solitary vacuum. Even hermits are bound by their prayers and by a particular relationship with Christ to the community of believers.
For Augustine, to be Christian means that we are never truly alone. As he recounts his vision, he tells his readers, “We were alone, conversing together most tenderly.” Augustine shared perhaps the most absorbing mystical experience of his life with his mother. They were by themselves, together, but not isolated.
The Christian tradition vividly teaches this truth expressed by Augustine. The clarion call to live lives imbued with charity demands the companionship of family and community. Discipleship means joining with the other members of the body, working alongside the other laborers in the vineyard. In a truly mysterious way, intimately coming to know the revelation of God calls us Christians out of ourselves. United in Christ, fellow believers standing side by side, together we climb ever onward toward the eternal place where we shall see God as he is.