Does God have a word for us about these very topical realities?
It might be that seclusion does not present itself as something negative. For some of us, it’s not a big deal whatsoever. Some have even chosen to live seclusion as an option for life. With its prefix se-, “apart”, seclusion has the basic meaning of a place or condition that’s “closed away”. Jesus chose to seclude himself not primarily to stay alone, but to be with the Father: “Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God” (Lk 6:12). He even asked his apostles to do the same, and to accompany him in his horrendous hour: “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me” (Mt 26:38).
Man shall never be alone!
Man shall never be alone! Let’s go back to the very beginning, to Genesis, to God creating humanity. The second creation account – yes, there are two – is the older of the two, from the 10th century BCE, coinciding with the adoption of writing within Israel by King David. It’s traced to a Yahwist Source, because in it God is called YHWH. In that account: “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the Man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). God formed, ‘fashioned’ (Hebrew yāzàr) humankind, like a potter fashions a clay utensil with his bare hands, not in a mould, but one item by one item, so that every item will be unique. But then in his unique creation, God noted something amiss that made him exclaim: “It is not good that the Man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:18). A very particular characteristic in humanity: Man shall never be alone! God created Man not as a unique but isolated and isolatable being: God created Man to be ‘with’.
Even the first creation account, by the Priestly hand, from the 6th century BCE, presents humankind as fruit of divine dialogue, and a dialogue asks for more than one being: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26). Creating Man in his image and likeness translates into: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Humanity has community in its DNA! Man was never meant to live in solitude, in isolation, in seclusion. And yet, this is what we are pushing for at the moment, so that we don’t die! No wonder people are finding it so difficult! We were created to live and live in community; now we are being strongly advised to seclude and isolate ourselves so that we don’t die! The irony of history!
Exclusion, isolation, seclusion are situations in which someone or something is prevented from entering a place or taking part in an activity. This may imply a condition of being apart from all human beings or of being cut off by wish or circumstances from one’s usual associates.
…in time of disease
Israel experienced isolation and exclusion in so many ways. In sickness – isn’t that our experience this very moment? – someone diagnosed with leprosy or any other kind of skin disease, was ordered into seclusion and isolation by the priests. In some cases, even the isolation periods are those we are following this very minute: two weeks! (see Lev 13:5). “The person who has the leprous disease … shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev 13:45-46).
At the time of Esther, under the rule of King Ahasuerus or Xerses I of Persia and Media, Grand Vizier Haman paints the Jews as a segregated and isolated people: socially, legally, religiously … and isolation was considered a terrible disease, one that is to be eradicated mercilessly, or else it will destroy you. But for Israel, isolation and segregation meant that one doesn’t form part of the People anymore. And since the People was the People of God, it meant one did not form part of the exclusive property of God himself. Social or communitarian exclusion meant exclusion from God. “Haman said to King Ahasuerus, ‘There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction” (Est 3:8-9).
Psalm 137 – remember Boney M and By the Rivers of Babylon? – presents a situation of ethnical exclusion that results even in liturgical segregation. Exile in Babylon – that’s roughly today’s Iraq – reduced Israel into a mute community, because it could not sing the praises of the Lord in the normal setup of Jerusalem’s Temple and its liturgy. The alien context of exile in a pagan land brings about a condition that the psalmist describes as if it were an ischaemic stroke: “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy” (vv.4-6). The blood supply that does not reach the brain is the participation in the communitarian liturgy of praise. When that happens, the blood clot of paralysis does not let the arms and tongue and indeed the whole person lift up its heart in praise to God.
Exclusion, isolation, seclusion for religious reasons is an experience that the Gerasene Demoniac lived: “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain … Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones” (Mk 5:1-5). Isolated and segregated, Man becomes what: an animal? A corpse?
Isolation and exclusion can be consequences of sin. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Mt 18:15-17), to be excluded from the community! Distancing itself from God’s breath of life in sin, humanity shrivels and dies.
Isolation and exclusion can serve as remedy in healing. The Apostle Paul was being a frontliner in his First Pastoral Letter to Timothy: “I am giving you these instructions, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies made earlier about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, having faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have suffered shipwreck in the faith; among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:18-20).
What are the remedies that God proposes?
To Man who is alone, He creates a helper who can stand in front of Man. What in English is translated as “a helper as his partner” is kenegdò in the Hebrew original of Genesis 2:18. But néged means also “in front of”. In creating Eve, God creates a helper for Adam who can stand in front of him, be his mirror image, so that he can see himself well, and be himself, Man. I community, Man finds himself. In seclusion, Man is lost!
To Esther and her people, God gives the good sense and heroism of a woman, Esther. Through her, Israel could stick together and rise to the occasion when facing terrible persecution to stick to their foundational principles, including their faith and their religious beliefs, and of course asking God for help.
To Israel in exile, hindered from participating in communitarian liturgy, Jesus offers the remedy: “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (John 4:23). The two disciples of Emmaus, the moment they recognise Jesus at the Breaking of the Bread and he disappeared, come up with another remedy: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32). They were saying: ‘We could have recognised him at the Breaking of the Word, just the same as in the Breaking of the Bread.’
To the isolated Gerasene Demoniac, Jesus offered – and in fact did – to uproot the cause of his seclusion. This he did by looking evil in its face, calling a spade a spade, calling it by name, never compromising with it and deciding not to have anything to do with it.
But then Jesus offered another remedy on very many occasions of isolation, segregation and exclusion. I think that the best summary would be the parable of the lost sheep. A parable is a short story, abstracted form everyday life, whose formulation is such that it catches the listener into its net or trap so that they have to take a position. Let’s read it again according to the evangelist Matthew:
“What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray [read, cuts itself off from the others], does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Mt 18:12-14).
Man was not made to be alone! But what if various situations and reasons force him to do so?
By Fr Paul Sciberras