Intimacy and Solitude


Sermon #41 (8th March 2020 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

This month at Essex Church we’re considering the theme of ‘Self and Other’. Sarah kicked us off last week by speaking about our ‘Relationship with Self’, and today I’m taking us into territory that’s a bit more outward-looking, thinking about our relationships with others, and the balance between ‘Intimacy and Solitude’.

Some of you probably know that it’s usually me who makes the orders of service each week, and so part of my job is to find a suitable image to fit the topic, which is often more challenging than you might think, given the abstract spiritual and ethical topics we often talk about. We subscribe to an online image library – so that the photographers get properly paid – and I search for topics like ‘grace’ and ‘redemption’ and ‘disappointment’ and ‘heresy’… which aren’t well-represented concepts in the world of stock images on the internet!

But when it came to illustrating this week’s topic… well, that gave me a slightly different problem. You see, if you go to an online image library, and search for pictures of ‘intimacy’… there’s only one sort of intimacy they think you’re looking for. There was a lot of cavorting depicted in those images, lots of youthful flesh, and altogether more bums than I had bargained for…

I suppose I should have been braced for it though. In our society, ‘intimacy’ is often used as a euphemism for sex, and more generally I’d say there’s a societal bias by which many of us tend to primarily associate ‘intimacy’ with conventional romantic and sexual relationships – exclusive ‘partner’ type relationships – and prize them more highly than anything else.

In today’s service I want us to think about ‘intimacy’ in a much broader sense than that, considering its key characteristics, and yet still honouring its potentially infinite variations. As we heard in the piece by Charlotte Kasl, which Antony read for us earlier, the heart of intimacy is to know and be known, as we are, authentically and without pretence. And that’s not limited to romantic and sexual relationships. It can be present between friends, within families – with other species perhaps – in both lifelong connections and brief encounters. Nor is it necessarily limited to just one central relationship – if we’re lucky, each of us will be part of a kind-of ‘distributed intimacy’ – finding ourselves in a whole web of meaningful connections. We don’t have to get all our intimacy needs met by one person (and, in truth, we probably won’t).

There is risk involved in intimacy. To know and be known, we must first trust that when we are so honest, when we make ourselves so mutually vulnerable with another, that we will be safe, and accepted. That the precious gift of our true self will be received with love, or at least with care, and attentiveness. That this sharing will lead to connection. We need to risk dropping our masks, and telling our truth, rather than putting on a front and putting a respectable gloss on our personality in order to try and ‘win the other person over’. Perhaps admitting our neediness, our hunger for affection & approval, and – in so doing – risking disappointment. Or revealing some of our struggles, our less-acceptable-bits, and risking rejection.
Intimacy is a kind of bilateral disarmament; both must take down their defences to some degree, but – usually – one of you has to have the courage to go first. To unilaterally disarm your heart.

There’s another aspect to intimacy which Charlotte Kasl mentioned, with reference to the story of the Fox and ‘The Little Prince’, and that’s the idea of ‘taming and being tamed’. This is a slow process – a process by which someone (who you may have met by chance) shifts from being just one of 7.8 billion on this planet into this unique and irreplaceable one you cherish – a process of establishing ties – perhaps even acknowledging some degree of mutual dependence.

And there’s a third dimension to intimacy that we explored in our ‘Litany for Becoming’ earlier. There’s something in this closeness, this loving attention, which is potentially transformative. Once we’ve let down our guard with someone, they will help to shape us – help draw out the true self we are in the process of becoming – by supporting and challenging and affirming us. We may see something in the other person which inspires us to be the best that we can be. Or they may see some potential in us, which we could not see for ourselves, and encourage it. It may simply be that by being seen and accepted for who we truly are, we just flourish, naturally.

‘The things that matter most in our lives are not fantastic or grand. They are the moments when we touch one another, when we are there in the most attentive or caring way. This simple and profound intimacy is the love that we all long for.’ So says the popular Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield.
And that sounds about right to me – this longing for intimacy of some sort is a close-to-universal experience among humans, I’d say – and it’s a major source of life’s meaning for most of us.

But there’s something else I want to mention… The title of today’s service is ‘Intimacy and Solitude’, after all.

This week in the Guardian there was an long and rather juicy interview with the actor (and, as far as I’m concerned, National Treasure) Miriam Margolyes. I wonder if any of you read it? It was tremendously entertaining – just as naughty as you might hope – you can still read it online. But one of the things she mentioned in passing was that she and her partner Heather – they’ve been together in a romantic relationship for over 50 years – choose to live in different countries. Her career in TV and film is busier than ever and her partner is an active-in-retirement academic. They’ve both got work to do, which they care about, which partially fulfils their purpose in life. So they live in different countries, see each other 8 times a year, and speak on the phone every day.

I’ve got to tell you: I envy this relationship! This sounds like a perfect set up to me in many ways. There’s that balance between intimacy and solitude – being known and utterly cherished – and yet remaining people-in-your-own-right and honouring your own life’s sense of calling. We each have a part to play in the unfolding of the universe, I’d say, some holy work to do. For an intimate relationship to support that – our process of becoming – it needs to have breathing room. We should perhaps be wary of merging into the other person, and being lost entirely, sacrificing our own life goals (’d suggest historically this sort of ‘disappearance’ has happened more to women).

All this makes me think of some famous words by Khalil Gibran, from ‘The Prophet’, on marriage (I’ll just share a few lines here):

‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls…
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music…
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.’

Words from Kahlil Gibran. It seems to me that this apparent paradox – these elements which seem to be in tension in intimate relationships – can be characterised in lots of different ways. Within ourselves, or between us and a significant other, there can be tensions between: intimacy and solitude; closeness and distance; attachment and freedom; dependence and independence; surrender and autonomy; too-much and not-enough. And I suspect we all have different and fluctuating needs along all of these axes! Each intimate relationship is thus likely to exist in a state of slightly unstable equilibrium
(and negotiating around these mis-matched needs and preferences might feel awkward). But in a way, even this process of negotiation and re-balancing, is part of our process of becoming.

There’s a quote on the front of your order of service from Esther Perel, a psychotherapist, which speaks to this (and I’m going to read a slightly extended version of it to you). She writes:

‘Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy.
Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness.
One does not exist without the other. With too much distance, there can be no connection.
But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals.
Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on,
no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter.
When people become fused — when two become one —
connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with.
Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy.’

Wise words from Esther Perel which speak to the – necessary – tension between Intimacy and Solitude.

Another dimension of this tension can perhaps be expressed in more explicitly spiritual terms. As Charlotte Kasl said in the reading earlier, through intimacy ‘we begin to feel a greater sense of oneness with All That Is, and perceive that the river that flows in us, flows through all things.’ At the same time, ‘we remain conscious of our separate journeys’, as in intimate connection we may truly see each other as unique-and-unrepeatable points-of-light-in-the-unfolding-Universe.

And Martin Buber spells out the theological dimension even more directly in the second quote on your order of service: ‘When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.’

In this picture we might think of deepest intimacy as ‘experiencing that of God in the other’… but don’t forget, in such a view, that the other is simultaneously experiencing that of God in us. God is on both sides, God encountering God, and in the authentic connection between us too.

As we are intimately caught up in each other’s process of becoming, we are also an indispensable part of the becoming of the universe, and even, as strange as it might sound, a part of the becoming of God.

So to close I will return to the words of ‘enfleshed’, and echo that last verse of the Litany for Becoming:

‘There is no me without you.
We shape one another.
The Sacred that birthed us
weaves our lives together
so that we can only find ourselves through shared becoming.
For my journey and all its winding ways.
For yours.
For all the saints who laboured for what is,
all the kin whose lives made ours possible.
For all those yet to come for whom
living our truths today will mean
breaking possibilities open for them tomorrow:
We pause. We give thanks. We acknowledge.

This is loving and being loved.’


Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: