Alone but Not Lonely

When I came across this painting, I thought it was an appropriate image for the time we are in. Loneliness has become amplified during this time of social distancing and isolation. As winter starts to close in and we enter a darker season with shorter days, it can be hard to be alone. I was talking to a friend the other day who is a self-proclaimed introvert and she said she is even struggling with the lack of social opportunities.

The artist, Nicolaes Maes, was one of Rembrandt’s most gifted pupils. Like Rembrandt, Maes focuses the viewer’s attention on the essence of the scene by using warm colors and restricted lighting. A lone woman in a modest home is shown saying grace. Her table is set for a solitary dinner. No one is expected to join her. The meal is simple—bread, soup, butter, and fish. She does not let the begging cat tugging impatiently on the tablecloth distract her.

On the sill in the upper right corner, we see common items that have spiritual symbolism. The hourglass tells of passing time. The Bible is propped open beside a lamp, suggesting that the Word of God is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. The keys suggest that in her faith and devotion, this woman is holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

The painting’s title is Old Woman Saying Grace but is subtitled Prayer without End. What do you suppose that suggests? Perhaps the artist wants to remind us that prayer is an on-going habit and not a one-off gesture. Could he be saying that prayer is not so much an event, but instead is a posture? Maybe prayer does not end with “Amen.”

George Muller was an evangelist in England in the 1800s. He said, “The most important part of prayer is the fifteen minutes after saying ‘Amen.’” For him, “Amen” did not conclude the prayer but instead marked a transition. Instead of talking, now it was a time to listen for God to speak and look for God to answer. We have been trained to think that the time during prayer is what counts. Let us not fail to listen and look earnestly for what happens after prayer.

Being Human connection: I get the feeling from this painting that when this woman concludes her prayer (probably a prayer of thankfulness), she is not finished hearing God or being with God. She is not eating alone but the presence of the Almighty is across the table. May we, too, sense God’s presence even in our solitude and even after we have said, “Amen.”

Featured art: Nicolaes Maes, Old Woman Saying Grace (The Prayer without End), 1656, Rijks Museum, Amsterdam

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. -1 Thessalonians 5:16-18