Imagine for a minute hearing the clanging of the door closing behind you as you are forced into a solitary confinement cell. This cell is roughly the size of a king size bed. It is now indefinitely your entire world. You have no access to outside light. You have no human interactions. The light in the room is kept on 24 hours a day. With this total sensory deprivation, often the only sound you hear is the sound of footsteps walking away. Solitary confinement of prisoners is known by many names such as isolation, control units, supermax, permanent lockdown and the hole. Some prisoners are confined like this for months, years and in worst cases more than 25 years.
Clearly solitary confinement violates basic human rights. Most people and most countries agree that this severe form of human isolation fits the definition of torture under several human rights treaties. Despite this fact, the United States alone has an estimated 80,000 people in some form of solitary confinement.
We humans are intrinsically social beings. It has been shown that prolonged isolation causes mental and neurological damage. People need the interactions of others to function normally in life. Some studies indicate that social isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. It has been reported that some prisoners who are kept in confinement for long periods actually get to the point where they become frightened of other human beings.
As tragic as this form of human abuse is in prisons, it is not the main focus of my writings today. The sad reality is that there are far more people OUTSIDE of prison that are in some form of a self-imposed solitary confinement. As small and confining as the walls of solitary are in prison, they are even smaller for those who confine themselves outside of prison. Rather than physical walls, individuals who have confined themselves have as their “permanent lock down unit” the hardened walls of their heart. The reality is that the effects of self-imposed solitary confinement can be almost as damaging as in the prisons.
Today I want to bring your attention to one of the two types of self-imposed confinement and isolation. At times we can isolate ourselves from God and each other. We can isolate ourselves from God through our recurring sins which use shame to build the steel bars of our confinement. I have written extensively in previous 4thdayletters about this. The second type of isolation stems for our mistaken desire for too much independence.
People today are working to privatize faith and religion. It is becoming for many a religion of ONE. Many individuals, especially today’s young people say that all that they need is God. They have no need for organized prayer or religious services. Believing this turns each person into a voice crying out in the wilderness alone. I believe this self-reliant attitude is directly opposed to the greatest commandment.
In Luke 10: 25-28 we read: “There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘What is written in the law? How do you read it?’ He said in reply, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ He replied to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” Observe how much emphasis Jesus puts on the relationship with our neighbor.
Have you ever heard someone express views similar to this, or worse yet, have you expressed thoughts like these: “I want to go to church to pray, all of those other people are just in my way. I don’t want to interact with them; I don’t want to talk to a greeter as I walk into church. I don’t want to shake hands with anybody, I just want to talk with God and go home.”
There is no doubt that solitary prayer has a place and should be a vital part of our overall communication with God. But something spiritual happens when we gather as a community in prayer. As Jesus said, “Whenever two or more gather in my name, there I am in their midst.” Church is a time for communal prayer. Some people complain that the congregation is too loud and all those other people disrupt their one on one time with God. My friends it is in the interconnectedness of one person to another that we truly encounter the living Gospel message.
Community is at the heart of Christianity; we can’t worship on our own. It is our duty as baptized Christians to participate and fulfill our unique role in the overall body of Christ. We each have our part to play.
It is almost laughable to see how some people conspire to avoid the interaction with the greeter at the back of church. Some will arrive late or leave early to steer clear of having to simply say hi to the greeters as they are walking into church, others scope out and use a side door. Read what is written in Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Catholics and some other denominations have the “sign of peace” as part of their service. At this part of the service a simple gesture like shaking hands and offering each other a phrase like “peace be with you” or “Christ’s peace” is said. Here too, people find creative ways to stay “in solitary” by folding their hands, bowing their heads, and avoiding eye contact all to keep from interacting with a fellow Christian.
The Bible offers a great deal of insight and guidance as to the importance of community and Christ based friendships. Look at some of these quotes.
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching.”
Proverbs 18:1“Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.”
“For the body does not consist of one member but of many.”
There is a great song from Simon and Garfunkel called “I am a Rock” that deals directly with self-imposed solitary confinement.
“I Am A Rock”
A winter’s dayIn a deep and dark December;I am alone,Gazing from my window to the streets belowOn a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.I am a rock,I am an island.I’ve built walls,A fortress deep and mighty,That none may penetrate.I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.I am a rock,I am an island.Don’t talk of love,But I’ve heard the words before;It’s sleeping in my memory.I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.If I never loved I never would have cried.I am a rock,I am an island.I have my booksAnd my poetry to protect me;I am shielded in my armor,Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.I touch no one and no one touches me.I am a rock,I am an island.And a rock feels no pain;And an island never cries.
Wow, there is so much wisdom in the lyrics to this song. By shielding ourselves from one another and avoiding active participation in Christian community we actually deny ourselves the ability to come face to face with Jesus who is present in the other members of the community. St. Catherine of Sienna records that God told her: “For I could well have supplied you with all your needs, both spiritual and material. But I wanted to make you dependent on one another.”
In God’s wisdom he designed mankind as if we were one big jigsaw puzzle. Have you ever spent hours or days working on a several thousand piece puzzle only to discover in the end there is one or a couple of pieces missing. If you have you know that it spoils the entire picture. We Christians are all pieces in God’s puzzle. We each have a place in His perfect picture. If anyone of us opts out of our role in the Christian community we too disrupt the plan God had for us. We all have ample opportunity for prayers in solitude. Let’s work to open our hearts to embrace a more active involvement inour Christian community.
In closing please remember in your prayers all those men and woman around the world who suffer in isolation and in solitary confinement. Pray that our world leaders seek to be just and humane in their forms of incarceration. Pray also that God will destroy the self-imposed walls of confinement that many Christians surround themselves with. Pray that they will come to enjoy the full meaning of Christian community.
Remember always the lyrics from the song with the same title by the music group Three Dog Night.
“One is the loneliest number.”
Lord God, please allow me to see and accept my role in the Body of Christ. Allow me to experience the joy of communal prayer and to experience your peace and love in a deeper way as I fulfil my role in the larger church family. Free me from my isolationism. Also Lord, please provide hope to those held in all prisons, especially those in solitary confinement, amen.
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A Response from a Reader
We never know how our Christian outreach will touch someone. Please see a response from last week’s 4th day letter “A Test of the Emergency Broadcast System”
Dear Brian, thank you so much for writing 4th day letters. I signed up for them about a month or so ago. I have often contemplated on them during my weekly hour of Eucharistic Adoration. Last Sunday I found out I have cancer. This week’s 4th letter was right on track for me. Thank you for giving me hope for God’s healing thru your letters. I look forward to the next one.
Peace & blessings
I omitted the name for privacy reasons. Please offer a prayer for this reader.