The Healing Power of Solitude
So far in our study of Solitude as a neglected path to God, we have discovered that solitude and community were two paths that combined to provide Christians with a balanced approach to their faith journey and enabled them to not only care for one another but also to care for themselves. Time in solitude was an opportunity to renew and refresh themselves so that they could be more effective in their relationships with one another and with God. We discovered that solitude is not the state of being alone that can be caused by rejection from society or from family or friends. We also discovered that it is to be thought of as a conscious choice made rather than an imposed state. And while there were dangers to being in solitude, if the focus was on deepening or strengthening or simply discovering again who we really are and how God seeks to be in our life, then we can take time in solitude and be assured that we will return to be an active part of our ongoing communities and life.
This leads us to the healing power of solitude. Moore begins this part of his book by speaking about what he calls circles of healing. The first circle of healing is a healing of ourselves. Solitude offers us the opportunity to bring our lives back into balance. It enables us to get in touch with our inner sense of vocation or call and helps us to rediscover meaning and purpose in our lives. Drawn away from our daily routine and busyness, we can begin again to renew in mind, body and spirit.
The second circle of healing is that of our relationships with others. Solitude helps us to gain greater perspective on our relationships with others. Solitude can offer us the opportunity to find fresh resolve to live out our relationships with more grace and patience.
The last circle of healing is our relationship with God. Whether or not we are consciously looking for God, we find God as we seek to find ourselves. We discover that God is there in the centre of our very being. But it often is only in a time of solitude that we can clearly experience that presence of God. Whatever may cause us to seek solitude – be it a major crisis in our life or simply a sense that we are becoming overwhelmed – solitude can restore to us balance, perspective, hope and healing.
What a wonderful thought to be able to go to a place of solitude but do you have the time or does one person’s vision of solitude suit you? The point really is to experience solitude. For some people, it will be best to go to a place where a silent retreat can be experienced; for others it may be to take a pilgrimage such as walking the Camino in Spain; for others it may be a place in the home or near home where they can disappear for a few minutes or hours. What we are doing is seeking for a space, a place that can separate us from the distractions of life, a place that we feel safe, a place that feels like “home”. For me, the convent of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine was not the first place that I experienced solitude in retreat, but it was the first place that I intentionally went to experience a directed silent retreat. Like all the others I was unsure whether I could really do it. But after that first experience, I felt drawn to return repeatedly. I have been connected to the community since 1987 and an associate of the order since 1999. When the convent moved and built a new facility, I had trouble finding my “home” in the new space, but I have found it and it will continue to be “home” to me. I can now take that experience of “home” with me, but I still am drawn to return to the place that truly feels like “home.”
Moore reminds us of our Celtic roots when such places were called “thin” places – places where God breaks more easily into human consciousness.
Solitude also offers us healing qualities. The first is that of slowing down, getting away from what has been described by James Gleick as the “hurry sickness” of our times (Moore, pg. 48). When I am at the convent, my daily routine changes. Except for meals and times of worship, the time is free. I can choose how to fill it with reading, meditation, prayer or sleep. The demands on my time and my energy are far less and I can begin to experience healing in areas of my life.
Another quality of healing in solitude is the opportunity to simplify our lives. Think of the many customs and practices in our faith that encourage us to simplify by giving up something for Lent, the tradition of keeping a Sabbath rest, or the monastic vows of poverty just to give a few examples. But our very society and even our life in the church often works against allowing us the time to heal by expecting us to be as active and involved as possible. One of the ministers in our Presbytery recently went on a course about Compassion. It was on self care. The main point that came out was that when we do not allow ourselves to draw back and take care of ourselves – be compassionate to ourselves – we will eventually burn out and become ineffective in our compassion for others. All of us need space for ourselves. Giving permission to one another for that space and being reasonable in our expectations of one another is critical to our own well-being as well as that of others.
A final quality of healing in solitude is the expectation that we will achieve spiritual and emotional healing. I have related before the importance of Psalm 51 to me – a prayer for God to create in me a clean heart and to put a right spirit within me. The words came in a vision in the night – a vision that I needed at that time of my life but one that I have never forgotten and often recall. But that vision and that prayer came after a struggle within me. And that is the point. The healing I found for my spirit came not from avoiding the pain but by plumbing its depths to discover where it came from and then how I could deal with it and find hope and healing. Another part of that same passage of Scripture is this: “Take not your holy spirit from me but restore to me the joy of your salvation.” As believers, our time of solitude is apart from the world but not apart from God. We go to a place where we can experience solitude, but we go with the spirit of God. Paraphrasing what Paul said: “Even when we do not know what to pray, the Holy Spirit will pray for us and we will find peace.” Trust God to be present, trust the Spirit of God to draw out of us our deepest needs and know that peace and healing will come.
So, you decide that you will take the path of solitude. What about when you come back? We all must re-enter life. Well the first thing we need to remember is to appreciate the importance of self-nurture. Treat ourselves gently taking our needs seriously. The second thing we can remember is to question the assumptions we live our lives by and seek for changes that will allow us to not lose the benefits we have found through our time of solitude. Thirdly, we need to develop what is called mental silence – being able to still our minds even amid our communal life. Fourthly, we need to find the balance between engagement and renewal, between solitude and community. Finally, solitude can provide us with the opportunity to continue the process of personal self-discovery. Each time of solitude opens part of who we are but remember it is a path and every path has more than just a few steps.
Next week we will focus on the role of solitude in the rediscovery of the self.