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May 3, 2010

solitudeI will lead you into solitude and there I will speak to your heart.

The poet and essayist W. H. Auden was insistent on the irreducibility of our solitude: “in the last analysis we live our lives alone.  Alone we choose, alone we are responsible.”  He bemoaned the fact that “so many people try to forget their aloneness, and break their heads and hearts against it.”  Being utterly alone is surely a fearsome thing; great reserves of energy may be expended in the service of keeping the experience at bay.  Emily Dickinson may have had dreaded aloneness in mind when she described the solitude of space, sea or even death as “society” compared to the “polar privacy” of solitary inwardness:

There is a solitude of space

A solitude of sea

A solitude of death, but these

Society shall be

Compared with that profounder site

That polar privacy

A soul admitted to itself –

Finite infinity.

Initially, the call to solitude may be feared and resisted.  We don’t want to let go of what we’re involved in.  Often enough that holds true with regard to valued activities, including our desire for time to pray and meditate, read and reflect.  Saying no to all of the things that demand our attention is an act of detachment that may be surprisingly difficult to enact.  Little wonder that the larger detachments involving relationships, professional commitments and hopes for the future evoke so much inner turmoil and fears of abandonment.  However much we may crave silence and solitude, their presence creates space for the appearance of anxious apprehensions, if not panic.  Father Adrian van Kaam noted that our discipleship, our following the Lord, entails bearing our solitude:  It is difficult to follow Him because it is difficult to bear the solitude of our original calling in Christ.

     Jean-Jacques Rousseau began his Reveries of a Solitary Walker with these words: “So now I am alone in the world, with no brother, neighbor or friend, nor any company left me but my own.”  There is a hint of social banishment and even of paranoia in Rousseau’s opening remarks.  But there is something else: there is the enormous pleasure he received in being able during the last two years of his life to celebrate solitude as an occasion to reflect personally on the beneficial aspects of his life.  Rousseau’s walking exercises resulted in the ten chapters (walks) he took during this period:

I am devoting my last days to studying myself and preparing the account which I shall shortly have to render.  Let me give myself over entirely to the pleasure of conversing with my soul, since this is the only pleasure that cannot be taken from me. . . .  The free hours of my daily walks have often been filled with delightful contemplations which I am sorry to have forgotten.  Such reflections as I have in future I shall preserve in writing; every time I read them they will recall my original pleasure.

His book ends with a short chapter expressing gratitude for a five-year period from his youth in which he was truly happy and fulfilled.

     Madeleine Delbręl, an extraordinary woman who lived in France in the first half of the twentieth century, desired solitude but may not have had the extended time for solitude that graced the latter period of Rousseau’s life.  Unusually spiritually awakened, she discovered the key to enjoying the “particles” of solitary time that come our way in the course of an ordinary day and life.  She invites us to open our souls to the small solitudes of the day, from the first moment we wake up in the morning:

For our tiny solitudes are as immense, as exultant, as holy, as all the world’s deserts, because they are filled with the same God, the God who makes solitude holy.

She evokes the solitude that might be painful for us but which deepens our hearts:

loved ones who have to leave though we’d like them to stay; friends that we wait for but who never show up; things that we want to say, but no one is listening; the strangeness of our heart while we’re among people.

Delbręl reminds us that in a certain way, all is solitude.  Yet, if we are open to what is offered, “the wells of solitude scattered throughout the day . . . give us the living water overflowing in them.”

     We may start out feeling alone in solitude.  We may resist the break with the familiar activity and scenery of life.  But the actual experience — the taste of solitude — often leaves us hungry for more.  Being in touch with our own depths, with the uniqueness of our given life experience, with the “company” of cherished memories cultivated by formative remembrance, and with the sense that we are not alone after all — we find communion in solitude.  In Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Ruth Haley Barton recommends solitude as the means of sharing experience with God in the moment, as our life is unfolding here and now

When we stop the music of our life to enter into solitude, we sit down right where we are at that moment, and that’s where we meet God.  We meet God in our present delight or our present sadness. . . . No matter where we are on any given day . . . . we sit right down where we are and allow ourselves to be there  with him.

     Ultimately, solitude is the bridge to communion, and we should bear in mind what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together:

Let him/her who cannot be alone beware of community.

Let him/her who is not in community beware of being alone.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.