From “The Solitude of Christ,”
a sermon by Henry Orton Wiley, 1877–1961
“I have trodden the winepress alone and of the people, there were none with me.”
Christ travelled in the greatness of his might because he had trodden the winepress alone. It was in solitude that his strength was received and tested. There is something here akin to us all. Place and position may give one great power, but the final test is not what people possess but what they are. In this picture, our Lord is stripped of all that he possesses and is portrayed in his true inwardness, and here it is that his strength is revealed. Yet there was no solitude like his, although all people in their measure must learn the strength of solitude.
Observe almost any group of people and ordinarily, you will see nothing but cheerful appearances and joyful salutations. But could we follow the several individuals of these groups to their homes and look back over their line of history, we would find places of sorrowful recollections and discover in every home some dark spot or the outlines of a fearful shadow. There are few households that do not cherish some peculiar trial about which nothing is said except among themselves. There is some hope that is blasted, some member of the home wronged or trembling anxieties lest some other member may fail; some physical disability that cripples us, some spot which death has touched or the painful listening for his stealthy footsteps. These and a thousand other things make it certain that there is not a home where the shadow has not fallen or is about to fall. Further still, even in the home, there is no individual but has some secret trial which he dares not breathe even to his closest friends and loved ones. While it is true that we must bear one another’s burdens, yet when these have been shared, there is something left which has not been shared, and it is this that touches us most nearly and tenderly. It is in this sense that everyone must bear their own burden, must tread the winepress alone.
With this condition of solitude before us as a historical fact, the solitude of Jesus has profound significance for us as a philosophy of spiritual life.
(1) This appears as a process of individualisation, in which every person is separated to his or her own burden and work.
(2) It is at the point of isolation that freedom and strength are attained.
(3) People must meet God in the “aloneness” of their being.
The longer we live and the more our beings become individualised, the more we shall find ourselves alone. Children flow together easily and naturally. Their beings have not yet become strongly individualised. You will recall the little poem that we have so often discussed together, and the significance it has for this aloneness or solitude. The lines are from Tennyson.
The baby new to earth and sky,
what time his tender palm is pressed
against the circle of the breast
has never thought that “this is I.”
But as he grows he gathers much
and learns the use of “I” and “Me”
and finds “I am not the things I see
and other than the things I touch.”
So rounds he to a separate mind
from which clear memory may begin,
and through the frame that binds him in
his isolation grows defined.
This individualisation is God’s plan for bringing us to a knowledge of ourselves. It was this that enabled the prodigal son to “come to himself.” We must be separated from all outward supports, that we may stand alone; we must be separated from all accidents of time or place, that we may come to a realisation of what we are and what we need. And so in the plan of God, there must come a separating, a cutting away of all supports, a breaking of tender ties, a parting from all that is dear to us, that God may reveal to us our true selves.
Let us not forget that there was one man who trod the dusty roads of this earth supremely alone. Whether in the crowds or in the desert, in the city or on the mountain, there was a fathomless depth between him and the people about him. Sometimes through the doors of his solitude, companies of angels came to minister to him in his weakness and agony and patriarchs and prophets came to talk to him on the Mount of Transfiguration when the inward glory shone through the thin veil of his flesh. His loneliness transcends ours as the infinite transcends the finite, and therefore he not only understands but meets us at this point of isolation with his presence through the Spirit. Say what we will, we live here as on an island; as our days increase and age creeps upon us, we are shut in more and more to ourselves. The sphere of kindred ties and personal relations keeps narrowing till we seem to stand on one of the solitary peaks, a lone rock in the ocean with the hungry waves all about us. But if he who was supremely alone is with us, our lonely island will be turned into a Patmos, heaven will open, the coastline of mystery will move off, until the sea of separation, the sea of turmoil and unrest, the sea of mystery will disappear in the apocalypse of God, and there shall be no more sea.
It is in our times of spiritual aloneness and dependence that God’s grace is made sufficient for us. Saint Paul was given a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet him. What this thorn in the flesh was, has been the matter of much speculation. But no one knows and therefore it has become a symbol for anything that frustrates and hinders us. For this thing, the apostle besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from him.
But God answered his prayer by saying, “My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Here Saint Paul was quickly made aware of the true philosophy of Christian service. It was not by mere human strength that he was to succeed, but in his weakness to lay hold, by faith, of the strength of God.
When Saint Paul saw this he exclaimed, “Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
(2 Cor. 12:7-10)
How often have we, like the great apostle, prayed for deliverance from some infirmity, rather than for grace to bear it! We have frequently called this the “small boy’s philosophy.” He goes out to fly his kite, and as he pays out the string, the wind carries it higher and higher. He probably does not understand that the kite is borne upward by a parallelogram of forces, the perpendicular force of the string and the horizontal force of the wind. He might argue that if the string were cut the kite would sail off into sightless space, but he knows better. He knows that it would fall to the ground. So it is with us. There is something deep down in our lives that we grieve over. It may be a physical infirmity or a mental incapacity; it may be some deep, dark secret of the family life, or something in our environment that we are sure hinders us in our work. We think that if this could be removed, then greater success would follow our labours. No, these things not only bring us into greater sympathy with those whom we serve, but they are God’s tethering string that enables his grace to play across our souls, lifting us higher and higher until in our aloneness we are brought near to God.
The very loneliness which we feel, the trials and sorrows which we cannot share with others, are the things that bind us most closely to him who trod the earth, supremely alone. If we could share everything with our fellow men, our minds would go out laterally and not rise continually to God.
Let us seek to learn the riches of divine grace until we can say with the great apostle, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”
And if God should lead us through any of these things, let us, like the great apostle, always remember that his grace is sufficient and that he holds the tethering string as well.