Leave me alone with God
As much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters
Close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart.
Alone with you, Oh God,
Holy to You.
Then, with the turning of the tide,
Prepare me to carry your presence
To the busy world beyond.
The world that rushes in on me.
Til the waters come again,
And take me back to You.
St. Aidan of Lindisfarne
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
As an English teacher, it’s in my nature to appreciate juxtaposition. I love putting two texts next to each other for my students, showing them how that placement can change our interpretation of what we’re reading. The Bible tends toward juxtaposition, too; by setting two things next to each other, we can understand each more clearly, and grow closer to Christ through that process.
One juxtaposition that the Church provides us with in the Gospel from a few weeks ago was the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Both men go to the temple to pray, and have vastly different experiences with prayer, side by side. One man walks away justified; the other does not. The Pharisee spends his time talking about how he’s not like other men, and he lists off all his great accomplishments. The publican, a tax collector, takes a different approach. He does not raise his eyes to heaven; instead, he beats his chest and says “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Any guesses on who walks away justified?
We’ve heard this story so many times, but as is true with all Scripture, something new stands out to me each time I hear it. This time, it was my dad who pointed out something new to me. He noticed that when the Pharisee is being described, Jesus says, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself” (Luke 18:12).
I talk to myself all day long, and quarantine has certainly exacerbated this habit. I walk myself mentally (and often, out loud) through my tasks of the day, through my thoughts, through my worries. And sometimes, I say God’s name during that time. However, I’ve been realizing just how important it is that we talk to God when we pray, not to ourselves. It’s easy to think we’re praying when really, we’re just talking to ourselves. Like the Pharisee, we’re building ourselves up, or trying to make sense of something all on our own. What does it look like to transform that self talk into a dialogue with God?
I find the prayer by St. Aidan of Lindisfarne particularly helpful in this area. St. Aidan asks that he might be alone with God, holy to Him, as an island. This time is set aside for God alone, for “as much as may be.” This alone time with God is not without purpose; it is specifically set aside to prepare St. Aidan for “the busy world beyond,” the world that rushes in on him. This time isn’t for cataloguing the day’s tasks or walking in circles around our own thoughts; it’s to simply be present with God, here and now.
In my first year of teaching, I woke up every morning to a tidal wave of anxiety about entering my classroom. Despite a solid education that prepared me to teach, I was never ready for the chaos that my classroom often turned into. I had never taught freshman in high school before, and learning how to best teach them is something I still grapple with. I had many wonderful experiences in my classroom that I’m grateful for: students who progressed in their reading skills, moments of genuine connection and mutual appreciation. I had the opposite as well: tense moments of misunderstanding or misaligned expectations with students, and even a physical fight that once broke out in my room. Every day I felt the fear that I would have a bad day instead of a good one. Some days, that fear was a self-fulfilling prophecy. But morning after morning, as I felt my chest tighten with that anticipatory anxiety, I stood before my icons, and I closed my eyes. I pictured myself standing on a small patch of sand, no bigger than a few feet in diameter, surrounded by clear and calm waters, and I prayed the prayer of St. Aidan. Alone with God, holy to Him. And I prayed that God would prepare me for whatever moods, attitudes, dispositions, needs, and wants I might encounter in my students that day. That as the world rushed in on me, I would stay grounded in God’s presence.
I didn’t always stay grounded. I lost my patience, I lost my temper. I mistakenly hurt my relationships with students in the very moments that I was trying to heal them. I lost my way, again and again. But the waters came again, every day, and took me back to God. Alone with Him, holy to Him, to a place where I was being prepared, always, to face that challenge again. Through this prayer, God was constantly preparing me to accept the call to love and serve, even when it didn’t feel nice or easy or natural. John Donne writes that, “no man is an island, entire of itself.” He writes that, “I am involved in mankind.” To first spend this time with God is a way to be more wholly involved. Juxtaposing these writings of St. Aidan and Donne reminds me of my purpose in prayer. My purpose is to never permanently retreat or isolate, but to consciously, and only for a time, step away from the world and into God’s presence, that I might be prepared to carry it with me beyond that moment.
As you consider the work of love that the Lord has called you to do, whatever it may be, I pray that you find time to be alone with God, talking not to yourself, but to Him. May this prayer from St. Aidan guide you toward balance, so that your solitude with God might prepare you for deeper involvement with mankind.