Summary: Pentecost 1986: We crave intimacy, and cannot live without it. It is not found in ceaseless work and striving, but in simply receiving grace.
The peculiar thing about our times is that while we seem to be so free and easy, so relaxed about what used to be thought of as intimate, yet at the same time we are hung up, truly hung up, about intimacy.
I say the strange thing about us in this last half of the 20th century is that on the one side we are so completely, utterly relaxed about our bodies, about our sexuality, about all the things that used to be spoken of, if at all, in whispers. We go to movies where the most private of relationships are portrayed and where the most Anglo-Saxon of language is used. We read books and magazines and make millions of dollars for their purveyors, in which there is all sorts of provocative material, and seem not to be much taken aback by it all. We get very relaxed indeed about things which used to be thought of as intimate.
But at the same time we are as a people scared of intimacy. What lam I talking about? What do I mean? Well, I mean that we find it difficult to share with one other the deeper things of the heart. We find it painful to live in the same household with wives or husbands or children or parents and see them as our soul's mates, as our partners, as our confidantes. We will pay a psychiatrist outlandish fees to listen to us unburden ourselves, and that may be all right. Yes, I know there are many times when that's appropriate. But I am finding more and more that the finest human resource we have – and that is, one another – we do not know how to use, we do not like intimacy.
In a little French film I saw a number of years ago, there is an elderly lady who daily makes her way out of her murky apartment into the bright sunshine of the Parisian gardens nearby. Every day her routine is the same: she puts on the same dark. old-style clothes, she gathers her shopping bags around her, and off she marches to the gardens, where she spends her day feeding the birds. The birds are her very life, you see, and she has no human contact, none at all. In fact as she makes her way among the pigeons and the doves it almost seems as though there are no other human beings in the world. She speaks to no one, she nods at no one, she acknowledges no one.
And then one day something new appears in the gardens: there is a sign, planted there by the authorities, and its command is clear and terse: Do not feed the birds. Do not feed the birds; this new factor in her life she discovers, she reads it quickly, does a double take, reads it again, and then, shaking her head, she goes on about her usual round of feeding the hundreds of birds which flock around her, as though the official order meant nothing to her. And nothing seems to happen – no one interrupts her, no officer confronts her, all seems well. But the film proceeds to a close with a haunting view of her little room, just off the Parisian gardens, and as the camera seems to float through the room, you see first a group of photographs: a smiling young woman on the arm of a handsome young man; a woman, not quite so young, cradling an infant add clasping the hand of another child; photographs of relationships, pictures of intimacies, somehow now evidently long gone. We are not told how or why, but relationships, intimacies now broken, and then the camera takes us to a chair in the corner of the room, a chair in which there sits, slumped over, the body of the old woman. Her last intimacy taken from her, she is gone; her friendship with at least some living thing to be denied her, then life itself has to go.
Intimacy: we need it but we don't seem to know how to find it. Closeness, friendship, the companionship of the heart. Sometimes we can do no better than scatter crumbs to the birds and pretend that we are not lonely; but the truth is that we may well be lonely. We may well be afraid of intimacy. We may well be unable to complete the kind of closeness that our humanity demands.
I say again, the peculiar thing about our times is that we appear to be so utterly free and easy, to the point of sheer vulgarity, about sexuality and the kinds of relationship that bear the marks of intimacy; but the truth is that in a hundred different ways we find it hard to be intimate, close in a deep spiritual way.