The Loss of Solitude
It may seem strange to focus on Solitude as a neglected path to God but the season of Lent leading into Easter provides a perfect opportunity to explore a dimension of our spiritual life that has fallen out of favour in our modern age. While Jesus used moments of solitude for refreshment and renewal before engaging with the wider community, we too often have viewed solitude as something to be avoided at all costs. Silent retreats are something which I particularly find refreshing and yet for many people time spent in silence and alone – away from community – can be overwhelming.
As ever in our life, we are to seek for balance. So much of our modern church life is focused on community and fellowship. The institutional church is highly extroverted. We focus most of our efforts on engaging the larger society and bringing people into the community and fellowship of the church. But such outward emphasis needs to be balanced by a growth in our own individual spiritual life. We need to drop the idea that inward contemplation is selfish and stop believing that a good Christian is always community centered.
No doubt the industrialization of our society and the growth of cities has done much to convince people that solitude is something to be avoided at all costs. Of course, we need to ever keep in mind that solitude and aloneness are far different from isolation and loneliness. In the former, there is an intention and focus that can only be achieved apart from community while in the latter, there is a real danger of depression and potential loss of life.
Christopher Moore tackles this subject of Solitude by looking at the tradition of the Judeo-Christian faith and practice. When he did this, he discovered or rediscovered that both solitude and community were perceived as two aspects of the spiritual path – each necessary in their own way. Throughout the Scriptures, we read of individuals who have left community to go to a solitary place – often what is called the wilderness. Two very poignant examples of this are Jesus and his temptation and Paul after his experience on the road to Damascus.
The wilderness can be a real place or a metaphor for a place where solitude can be experienced. In the wilderness we encounter God as well as the tempter. We can also be confronted with the basic questions of meaning and life mission. In the wilderness we struggle with our sense of self-identity and it is also the place where we can gain a sense of personal clarity. We find in the wilderness not only the presence of God but a more personal connection to God.
In the 4th and 5th centuries, it was not uncommon for Christians to withdraw from the cities to live for a time in solitary contemplation in the desert. One of these people – named St. Anthony – spent 20 years in the desert and then founded a community of hermits known as the Desert Fathers. Several centuries later the tradition of solitude reappeared in Celtic Christianity and it is still an integral part of that tradition as evidenced by the emphasis on the individual listening for the heartbeat of God and the strong emphasis on the gospel of John which speaks of the personal connection between God and each person. Remember that the heartbeat cannot be felt by a whole community together, but everyone can share their experience – an experience only gained through a time of personal space.
At one time, monasteries and convents were not just for those who chose to commit their whole life to that unique community. People could go for a period and the connection between those religious orders and the wider population was closer. The Sisterhood of St, John the Divine – an order to which I am an Associate member – has programs designed to give people the opportunity to experience the balance that can be achieved in their spiritual life between solitude and community.
Moore points out that our modern society with its emphasis on what is perceived to be a healthy psychological state has come to no longer believe in the beneficial effects of solitude. Sigmund Freud was a great proponent of the belief that the ability to form successful relationships was the key to emotional health and personal fulfillment. That belief was then expanded by others to the point where intimate personal relationships were the seen as the chief source of human happiness. Those who chose to practice solitude as part of their emotional and psychological health were seen as neurotic, immature or even abnormal.
But perhaps we need to start our journey through the path of solitude by first of all recognizing that solitude is a choice and as such it can have great benefits.
One of the gifts of solitude is the gift of attentiveness – the ability to see the world with focus and intensity. Solitude can renew in us the ability to see things, to really notice things. Times of solitude can help us slow down and get us back in touch with God’s rhythm of life.
Another gift is the gift of healing. While we often find that the presence and counsel of others can bring us healing where we are hurting, taking time apart can help us come to terms with losses or significant changes in our life. The practice of solitude is not simply finding a place to be alone and then letting our minds be filled with swirling emotions and thoughts. It is about finding a place where we can speak to God and then quiet our minds and spirits as we wait for the voice of God to speak and the hand of God to touch and the heart of God to heal. It is intentional.
Other gifts of solitude are personal clarity, insight and creativity. Think of the artist, the writer, the musical composer. Much of their time is spent alone as they compose their thoughts and then translate them into a form that can be expressed and shared with community. But the greatest gift of solitude is an awareness of the presence of God.
It is interesting that in our connectedness in this world, people often express a need for space. What is driving this need for space? Moore suggests that this desire reflects a hunger for solitude and the gifts of solitude. Through the daily round of life, we may find that have lost a sense of meaning and purpose, we may have lost touch with ultimate realities in our life, we may have even lost touch with God.
Before we move further into this neglected path to God, Moore wants us to not desire solitude merely as a way to recharge our batteries but rather see solitude and the practice of solitude as an opportunity to challenge ourselves in our relationship with our God. Solitude can not only be a time of discovery or rediscovery but also a path to repentance, of turning again on the way to embracing a healthier and more balanced life expression that makes us more aware of the presence of God.
Jesus said: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Mt. 5:6). Solitude represents a quality of hungering and thirsting for something deeper, something we cannot put into words, but that we intuitively sense is real and genuine and life-giving. On some level, solitude is a neglected path to God.