William Stringfellow, Instead of Death – Part II

In Chapter Two of Instead of Death, William Stringfellow turns to a reality that affects us all; namely, loneliness. ‘Loneliness’, he writes, ‘is as intimate and as common to humans as death. Loneliness does not respect persons, but inflicts all – men and women, those of status and the derelicts, the adolescents and the old people, the single and the married, the learned and the illiterate, and, one might add, the clergy and the laity’ (p. 23). Stringfellow proceeds to note that loneliness is neither a unique nor an isolated experience, but is rather the ‘ordinary but still overwhelming anxiety that all relationships are lost’ (p. 24). While neither denying nor negating the existence of lives other than the life of the lonely person, ‘loneliness so vividly anticipates the death of such other lives that they are of no sustenance or comfort to the life and being of the one who suffers loneliness’ (pp. 24–5).

Stringfellow then names some of the fictions of loneliness: that it is unfilled time, that it can be satisfied in erotic infatuation, and that it can be answered in possession. Of the latter, he writes: ‘At worst the fiction that one’s identity is to be found in another is cannibalistic – a devouring of another; at best it is a possessive, if romantic, manipulation of one by another in the name of love’ (p. 28).

The reason that none of these attempts have the power to answer loneliness, Stringfellow insists, is because they fail to comprehend the severe nature of loneliness – namely, that it is a foretaste of death. Work, excessive drinking, sex, psychotherapy, marriage, positive thinking (otherwise known as self-hypnoses), suicide, self-pity and leisure are all capable of filling the time but not the void. And not even prayer provides any magic solution. Still, it is the last resort:

‘Prayer is nothing you do, prayer is something you are. Prayer is not about doing, but being. Prayer is about being alone in God’s presence. Prayer is being so alone that God is the only witness to your existence. The secret of prayer is God affirming your life. To be that alone is incompatible with loneliness. In prayer you cannot be lonely. It is the last resort’. (p. 31)

In prayer we approach the lonely, unwelcome, misunderstood, despised, rejected, unloved and misloved, condemned, betrayed, deserted and helpless Christ. Only in the radically-lonely Christ who suffered loneliness without despair – and who descended into hell – is the assurance that no one is alone, and the reality and grace of God triumphant over the death that masquerades as loneliness and the loneliness that anticipates death.

‘In the event in which you are alone with your own death – when all others and all things are absent and gone – God’s initiative affirms your very creation and that you are given your life anew. In the moment and place where God is least expected – in the barrenness and emptiness of death – God is at hand. It is in that event that a person discovers it is death which is alone, not he’. (pp. 32–3)

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3 thoughts on “William Stringfellow, Instead of Death – Part II

  1. This sounds quite Kierkegaardian. Given Stringfellow’s larger sensibilities I wonder how he might overcome the popular stereotype of existential individualism with a sort of existential resource of prayer that nourishes the social body. In any event great reflections here.

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  2. This gives interesting significance to Jesus’ last words on the cross: eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani; my god, where are you? The ultimate statement of loneliness. I wonder if Stringfellow considered it as such

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  3. I haven’t read Stringfellow – at least not enough to feel as if my judgments would be worth much. However, I must say what I get of him through your readings leaves me — dissatisfied. For instance, what he says about prayer seems to me deeply strange and estranging. If he had said, ‘Prayer is not only something you do, prayer is also something you are’, I would agree. If he had said, ‘Prayer is being so alone that God witnesses your existence, And prayer is being so gathered with all the church to witness God’s existence’, or something along those lines, then I could say Amen. As it is, I just feel unsure of what exactly is going on.

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