Anthony Bloom, the Russian Orthodox priest who has written so helpfully on prayer and the contemplative life, used a nursery rhyme to express his understanding of solitude and the contemplative life.
There was an old owl
Who lived in an oak.
The more he saw
The less he spoke.
The less he spoke
The more he heard.
Why can’t we be like
That wise old bird?
When solitude has a religious dimension, we are not only physically apart from others; we are using aloneness purposefully. We are pondering who we are, what life is all about, where we are in our quest for meaning, and how we are related to God and others. Solitude is a discipline for spiritual growth for all who wish to pursue the Christian life seriously.
Solitude Is Essential For Discernment
Alfred North Whitehead in his book “Religion in the Making” says, “religion is what a [person] does with…solitariness.” More than aloneness is being spoken of here. When solitude has a religious dimension, we are not only physically apart from others; we are using aloneness purposefully.
What we do with our solitude becomes the key. So we are not talking about circumstantial solitude; we are talking about choosing and creating solitude for personal spiritual growth: being alone enough, quiet enough, long enough that our jaded senses, dulled by the onslaught of a compulsive society, will be restored to aliveness. Spiritual growth—having the image of God restored within us, growing in the likeness of Christ—requires enough solitude and silence that we might distance ourselves from all that clamors for our attention. In that distancing, we gain perspective that enables us to see clearly, to be discerning, then to act intentionally with inspired intuitions rather than to react compulsively.
Solitude Is Essential For Prayer
As a part of his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:5-8), Jesus taught about prayer. There were two obvious lessons. One, we must never allow prayer to be a self-display of piety. Two, prayer is far more than words; it is being with God, putting ourselves in his presence and seeking to be attentive to him.
Yet, there is more here. Jesus instructs us to be alone and pray. Is the closed door of our private room, or the “closet” as some translations have it, a synonym for solitude? Jesus’ life was punctuated with deliberate times of chosen solitude. To inaugurate his ministry, he spent forty days in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11). He spent the entire night alone in the desert hills before he chose his twelve disciples (Luke 6:12). He sought the lonely mountain, with only three disciples, as the stage for the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-2). He prepared for his highest and most holy work with a long night of prayer in the solitude of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-44).
Jesus often connected significant acts of ministry or events in his life with a time of solitude. After miraculously feeding the five thousand, he asked the disciples to leave, dismissed the crowd, and “went up the mountain by himself” (Matthew 14:23). When the twelve had returned from a preaching and healing mission, Jesus told them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). He withdrew to a deserted place and prayed, following the healing of a leper (Luke 5:12-16). When he received word of the death of John the Baptist, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself”(Matthew 14:13). And following a long night of work “in the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
Solitude was a regular practice with Jesus. One of the reasons he called us to solitude was because he knew that solitude was essential for prayer. Fenelon expressed this truth in a cryptic sentence: “How few there are who are still enough to hear God speak.”
Solitude and prayer are linked. When we are alone, away from the outer and inner barrage of distractions, shut off from the noisy din and frantic pace of activity and relationship, beyond the distractions of all the pulls upon our attention and energy, then we can be quiet enough to hear the divine whisper. So we seek solitude as a setting for prayer.
Not only can we hear God in the silence of solitude, there we can also be so settled and centered that we can speak to God out of the deepest feelings and needs of our lives. Without solitude, it is likely that our praying will be reduced to concern about surface issues, immediate happenings, and present moment involvements. It is only when we carve out some daily time for solitude, if only thirty minutes, and add to that regular but less frequent times of three or four hours (usually weekly) that we stay in touch with our inner being and pray from our deepest feelings and needs.
We recognize that there is a solitude that we can maintain despite crowds and clatter. But rare is the person who can maintain inner attentiveness and heart-solitude in the midst of a busy life without being renewed by solitude.
Solitude Is Essential For Sensitivity To and Solidarity With Other Persons
One of the fruits of solitude is a sharpened sensitivity to and a solidarity with persons. In solitude and silence there comes a new freedom to be with people. We gain a capacity for a new attentiveness to the needs of others, a new responsiveness to their hearts. Thomas Merton observed,
It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am, the more affection I have for them. It is pure affection, and filled with reverence for the solitude of others. Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say (“The Sign of Jonas,”268).
We need to accept the truth of this testimony because it is very important. But, even accepting the truth of this testimony, we need to remember that simply being alone does not sharpen sensitivity and enhance solidarity. In our solitude we must open ourselves to the recreating power of quietness and stillness, the healing, sensitizing presence of Christ, so that coming out of solitude we can be with others meaningfully. In solitude we must settle ourselves inwardly, so that we will become aware of the indwelling Christ. In solitude and prayer we recognize and cultivate awareness of the indwelling Christ. It is the indwelling Christ who sharpens our sensitivity and makes us one with others.
Solitude May Be a Time of Testing
Audience members once asked philosopher Martin Buber a series of grandiose-sounding questions. Finally he burst out, “Why don’t we ask each other the questions that come to us at three o’clock in the morning as we are tossing on our beds?” Thoreau contended that we can learn more about ourselves in a sleepless night than by a trip to Europe.
Solitude, whether chosen or forced upon us, is a time of testing. Jesus, led by the Spirit into the wilderness, is our classic witness of this. Those forty days of solitude were his final preparation for his public ministry. There he wrestled with the devil in a life-death struggle. Who he was as messiah and the shape of his ministry were beaten out on the anvil of attractive, enticing temptation. Three times the devil tempted Jesus to accept the role of a popular, power-wielding messiah. That testing did not end, though Jesus was ultimately victorious. Luke’s account of this temptation experience closes with this word: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). The King James Version has it that the devil “departed from him for a season.”
The inevitable presence of evil returned to test Jesus in Gethsemane. The option to evade those who would destroy him and escape death was there with overwhelming attractiveness. The depth of Jesus’ agony in testing is seen in the bloody sweat that poured from him.
So solitude brings testing. We should see this not as something to evade. Though we do not invite the testing, there is a sense in which we may welcome it. We may welcome it if we go with God into solitude. Or, in the case of involuntary solitude such as that brought by grave illness, if we have known the presence and power of the living Christ in other times and can hold on, however tentatively, to his promise that he will “come again,’ that he will be with us “even to the end of the age,” then we can welcome the testing that is coming to us in solitude.
Matthew closes his story of Jesus’ wilderness temptation with the comforting assurance, “and suddenly angels came and waited on him’” (Matthew 4:11).
Have you had an experience of testing in solitude? If so, what was that experience like? What did you learn? Practice the discipline of solitude by having a time of quietness each day, and a weekly 30-minute time of solitude in which you “examine your conscience.” Remember to listen to the Lord.