“I hate the very noise of troublous man
Who did and does me all the harm he can.
Free from the world I would a prisoner be
And my own shadow all my company”
– John Clare
Solitude is something we fear. We are social animals – we roam in packs, and there is something inside us that loathes the lone figure. If someone is solitary either they have been rejected by the herd, or they choose to stay away from it, and either way, we say, there is something wrong with them.
The Romantics were kind of obsessed with the solitary figure, which explains why they really loved Lucifer (especially Milton’s Lucifer, but that is because he was the ultimate Byronic hero – tall, dark and handsome…and trouble). I know there are good reasons for this fixation on solitude (the alienation of man, the failure of the French Revolution, the success of the industrial revolution, excessive laudanum use, etc.), and it did produce some admittedly very fine poetry, but some of it really seems like Dandy-ish posturing. It is pouty. Kind of like writing “I am going to take a break from facebook – unless someone can convince me not to” on your facebook status, just to see how many friends will comment and say “No!!!” or “Please don’t! Then how will we keep in touch!”
In Mark 6: 45-56 we have the story of Jesus walking on water. This is a story that is bookended by crowds, the multitudes, which seem to follow (harass?) Jesus everywhere he goes. But in the middle of the story is an intense, vast solitude, and that is where the miracle takes place.
It was in the dead of night, Jesus was alone and his disciples were alone as well, in the middle of the sea. He sent them on ahead of him. He was praying up on the mountain. But he saw that they were having some trouble, so he walks out towards them, on the water. Obviously, this is a miraculous occurrence and it really catches your attention. It is not every day that someone walks on water. But perhaps because of that, I think we often overlook one small detail in v. 48. It says that Jesus “was about to pass by them.” He only stopped because they cried out to him.
This makes no sense – didn’t we just say that he saw they were in trouble and that he was headed towards them? Wasn’t he on his way to help them? This seems like strange behavior. Also, the disciples were afraid of him, they thought he was a ghost. Under the circumstances, that seems like a mistake that would be easy to make. He was walking on water. They were scared (solitude is scary, being alone with your own thoughts is scary), but at least they were paying attention. He came to save them from the storm, but they had to participate in it, they had to reach out and grab him, otherwise he was on his way to the other side.
This image of Jesus is different from the one we normally have. Thanks to Revelations 3:20 (usually plucked out of context), we have this picture of Jesus standing outside our door, feebly knocking for all of eternity, waiting for us to open up and let him in. He is like some kind of super(naturally) persistent vacuum salesman, wanting to dump dirt on the carpet of your heart and demonstrate how he can wash it white as snow. What do you call someone who stands at your door and knocks forever? Annoying. Either come in or leave! That is, in fact, what Jesus said to the Church of Laodicea a few verses earlier, in Rev. 3:15-16 (NIV). “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” That sounds more like the Jesus in Mark, the kind of Jesus that says, “This ship is sailing, you are either in or out.” He said, “Follow me,” but also, “Keep up.”
Another instance that involved Jesus and the sea is a few chapters earlier, in Mark 4:35-41. In that story Jesus sleeps through the storm like it’s no big deal, and then calmly calms the waves since the disciples were freaking out. I wrote a poem on this short story, mostly with heroic couplets (seems to go well with the epic feel of the Bible), and a few alexandrines (just to mix it up). See if you can spot them! (*Hint* if you can, you might be a huge nerd. But that is ok). It is called The Other Side.
On the shore of the sea, with the waves and the tide,
He said, “Come, let’s cross over to the other side.”
The crowd grew large; their ranks began to swell,
He entered the ship and asleep he fell.
His followers followed into the boat,
And they cast off, on the water afloat.
Finally alone with him and they felt great pride,
As they slowly crossed over to the other side.
They reached the middle of the great blue sea,
And the winds blew; the weather turned nasty.
Waves beat the boat, courage began to shrink,
Water poured in and they began to sink.
Panic gripped their hearts, some screamed and some wept,
They looked to him for help, but still he slept.
They shook him, “Wake up Teacher! We are doomed!” they cried,
For they feared crossing over to the other side.
Slowly he awoke and lifted his head,
He saw on their faces terror and dread.
He looked at the storm and imposed his will,
On nature by crying out, “Peace! Be still!”
The great storm with its wind rain and violence,
Was stilled and all that remained was silence.
He turned back around and when he saw them he sighed.
They had not yet crossed over to the other side.
“Where is your faith? Why do you still have fear?”
He asked them as the other side drew near.
“Who is he?” they asked, “And who can he be?
He has power over the wind and sea.”
Their boat did sail on, over the waves and the tide,
Until they had crossed over to the other side.
 “Love and Solitude” by John Clare, in The Penguin Book of English Romantic Verse, (ed.) David Wright, (Penguin Books, New York: 1968) pg. 258. I am not trying to suggest here that John Clare was being pouty. His solitude and suffering was different, and he wrote this poem while institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital.