The Day Alone. My introvert heart delighted in the thought of reading this chapter of Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together. I love being alone. I love silence and solitude. I love sitting with God in the mornings before the world wakes up. And I live alone, so I have a lot of time to be alone with God.
But once again, Bonhoeffer’s words cut straight to my heart with conviction. In Bonhoeffer’s vision (which, I have to admit, is a Biblical vision), the day alone is not a time for introspection, journaling, getting away from people that weary us, listening to music, sitting in nature and reading good books. All those things are not bad things, but they shouldn’t be the main thing when we get alone with God.
The Interdependence of Solitude and Fellowship
First of all, solitude is not an escape from the demands of community and fellowship. Rather, “only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in fellowship” (77–78). Bonhoeffer puts it more strongly still: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone” (78).
Solitude that is not anchored in Godly fellowship leads quickly to vanity and even delusion. As someone who lives alone and loves solitude, a day of close fellowship (i.e. spending time with my family or helping a young mother — not just hanging out with friends) may be a mightier impetus to my spiritual growth than a day alone. At the very least, the two must coexist in the life of a Christian, and be anchored in each other, just as prayer and work are anchored in each other (70).
“Silence for the Sake of the Word”
Second, the day alone is time dedicated to three things, and only three things: meditation, prayer, and intercession (81). Above all, every aspect of silence is ordered by the Word of God. Bonhoeffer writes of “silence under the Word,” and “silence that comes out of the Word;” “silence to the Word,” and “silence before the Word” (79–80, emphasis added).
So our meditation is devoted to Scripture (not to our own hearts or our own spiritual state). We are “alone with the Word” (81). We are not seeking some extraordinary experience or even new insights that would lead to vanity (83). Rather, we are simply coming to the Word of God. And there, we “center our attention on the Word alone and leave consequences to its action” (84).
Our prayer is praying the Scripture. This goes back to his writings about the Psalms being the great school of prayer in which Christ prays through his church (which I wrote about last week). According to Bonhoeffer, “the most promising method of prayer is to allow oneself to be guided by the word of the Scriptures, to pray on the basis of a word of Scripture” (84).
Finally, our intercession is based in the Word. Recognizing in the Word my own sinfulness and need of grace, I can then “bring [my] brother into the presence of God, to see him under the Cross of Jesus as a poor human being and sinner in need of grace” (86). In this way, my time alone, my intercession, is actually a service to the community of believers (86, 88).
“The strength of aloneness and the strength of fellowship is solely the strength of the Word of God” (89).
The Litmus Test of the Day Alone
Finally, Bonhoeffer writes that the test of whether or not a person’s time alone has been genuine is how it affects his return to the “workaday world” (88).
“Has [his meditation] transported him for a moment into a spiritual ecstasy that vanishes when everyday life returns, or 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.” (88)
Lord, teach me the discipline of humility; give me the gift of humility. May I learn to be silent under your Word and let it transform me, not only in personal experience, but in “active love, obedience, and good works.”
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. 1954. Fortress Press. 2015.