Is there a place for solitude in our world today?

Patty Fawkner SGS

Patty Fawkner SGS

“I say that I need and desire solitude, but do I really? I know that I resist solitude and when I have the opportunity, do I know what to do with it,” asks Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS*

Has solitude become a luxury reserved for those who can afford to pay for it? Aren’t those who seek solitude anti-social if not mentally unbalanced? Shouldn’t solitude be presented as a positive and as a reward for good, rather than as punishment for bad behaviour?

The question that underlined these various perspectives on solitude aired on a recent Radio National program was: Is there a place for solitude in the modern world?

It’s a good question and an important question, and one that caused me to pause. Is there a place for solitude in my world? In your world? Would you agree that it’s becoming more of a challenge to find a place for solitude when so many of us have become time-poor, device-addicted multi-taskers?

We have the ability, and many of us the inclination, to be connected 24/7. So much connection and so much potential for distraction.

Perhaps it’s always been the case. “My soul is crammed through from top to bottom with the trite, the commonplace, the insignificant, the routine,” anguished the theological giant, Karl Rahner, in a decidedly pre-device era. “What will become of me, dear God, if my life goes on like this?” What will become of me if I never pause, never find space and never enter into silence?

Solitude forms and transforms me. It cracks open the shell of the inner life, said the American poet May Sarton, and enables me to explore the mysterious terrain of my heart. Solitude is the realm of intimacy with myself, the precursor of intimacy with others and with God.

I say that I need and desire solitude, but do I really? I know that I resist solitude and when I have the opportunity, do I know what to do with it?

Solitude – even the thought of solitude – can be unnerving. During a demanding period of my life I would occasionally withdraw to a simple seaside cottage for a weekend of relaxation and bush-walking. Leaving the city I would always, always, feel ambivalent. Why on earth am I doing this? Won’t I feel lonely and bored? What if it rains? How will I fill in the time?

It wasn’t enough to change locale. I also had to make interior adjustments. I could be immersed in beautiful surrounds, and I could go a whole day without speaking, but my monkey mind would be elsewhere, generally in the future planning, strategising, and mentally rehearsing the coming week.

Being in the present moment is the easiest and most difficult thing to do. During these solitary weekends I had to school myself consciously and deliberately to be in the NOW, to be attentive, to free myself from the usual domination of crowded thoughts by focussing my senses as I wandered through the bush or along the sea shore. And when I did, a rich, beautifully diverse world presented itself to me, a world of textures, shades, tones and surprising patterns, a world which, in utter humility and simplicity, offered to companion me.

Slowly over these weekends I made the archetypal journey from loneliness to solitude. A journey from the pain of being on my own, to the delight of being on my own. Or, as Sarton described it, a journey from loneliness which is poverty of the self, to solitude which is richness of the self.

The Christian and Benedictine traditions have always cherished and promoted solitude. Throughout the centuries believers have been encouraged to retreat from the roles, responsibilities and the busyness of everyday life. We retreat, be that for a moment of prayer or for 30 days, in order to reflect more deeply on life and so engage more intentionally with life.

Have you noticed how many times the various Gospel writers tell us that Jesus retreated to a lonely place to pray? Certainly this time was often interrupted, yet we are presented with a man who craved solitude and carved out the necessary space, time and silence to enter into it.

Jesus needed solitude to discover who he was and whose he was. This, I believe, is the crux of solitude, its purpose and its fruit.

At his baptism, Jesus hears a voice proclaim, “This is my beloved child in whom I take delight”. Immediately, the Gospel writers tell us, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, the iconic place of solitude. There, for 40 days, Jesus has time to ponder these words which speak of his identity as son and beloved, and to engage with a God who delights in Jesus rather than a God who demands anything of him. For 40 days he is tempted to discount and negate this truth of who he is and who God is.

Jesus’ desert experience reminds us that solitude is not for the feint-hearted. It can be a purifying experience, stripping one of delusions and pretensions, while leading to a deeper inner truth, a deeper clarity about life and what is ultimately important.

Saint Benedict was another who craved solitude. We are told that as a student, repelled by the dissoluteness of Rome, Benedict journeyed alone to Subiaco. There, for three years, he lived a life wrapped in silence, prayer and solitude.

The wisdom gleaned from his experience of solitude is evoked in the Rule, which Benedict wrote many years later for communities of monks. “Listen with the ear of your heart” are the first words and the clarion call of the Rule. Know that silence is more than not speaking. Do what you can to “cultivate silence”, Benedict says.

There is no unhealthy dualism between solitude and engagement in the Rule. Honouring time alone and time together is the necessary alternating rhythm for life. Get the balance right between work, prayer and leisure, the Benedictine tradition urges, and do all of this in the service of seeking God and full human flourishing.

Like Jesus and Benedict, I too need solitude to discover who I am. I need solitude to enter the depths of myself, where hopefully, I will hear God speak a word of love to me. “Be still and know that I am God,” the psalmist pleads. This is solitude’s gift to me, to know myself, the beloved of God.

Both Jesus and Benedict had their solitude ‘interrupted’ by others who stretched their vision and thinking about their mission and to whom they were sent. Like Jesus and Benedict, I too, need solitude to discover whose I am.

Solitude is not an exercise in self-indulgence and self-absorption. Rather, it leads me to realise my deep connection with others, such as my loved ones and those with whom I rub shoulders, and also those whom I may never meet but whom I bring to God in prayer: Syrian refugees, both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, those who have died and those grieving, our political leaders… My solitude is a gift for others.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh captures this evocatively in her classic, Gift from the Sea:

“Moon shell… You will remind me that I must try to be alone for part of each year, even a week or a few days; and for part of each day, even for an hour or a few minutes in order to keep my core, my centre, my island-quality. You will remind me that unless I keep the island-quality intact somewhere within me, I will have little to give my husband, my children, my friends or the world at large”.

I need my own “moon shell” to help me find some structure for my solitude. Married or single, fully employed or retired, extravert or introvert, I need times of mindfulness and enriched stillness that follow the contours of my unique personality and life circumstances.

For some this may mean rising a little earlier in the morning or practising mindfulness on the daily commute. Some may choose to engage in lectio divina, journalling or spiritual direction. For others gardening, listening to music or playing a musical instrument may lead to a deep inner stillness. I know people who find precious solitude in swimming or walking – witness the ever increasing popularity of pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago. And then for our device-loving generation, there are meditation apps!

Solitude is fuel for life. I have experienced the gift of solitude and I continue to both desire it and resist it. I know that solitude takes discipline and commitment. Even more it takes courage. Will you join me in praying for the courage to embrace it?

* Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner is an adult educator, writer and facilitator. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality. Her formal tertiary qualifications are in arts, education, theology and spirituality.

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The Good Oil, May 17, 2016. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

20 Responses to “Is there a place for solitude in our world today?”

  1. Gerri Boylan says:

    This is solitude’s gift…to know myself, the beloved of God….to discover whose I am…
    Those words of yours Patty ring true for me. I have lived in Outback WA now for 16 years and I appreciate the daily silence and solitude. These bring a needed balance to my life where my inner being/spirit is nourished and enlivened. That and the tremendous people in my ministry are the reasons I love it here. Thank you Patty. Gerri

  2. Patricia Gemmell says:

    I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this article, when I met you on Saturday, but Benedict got in the way! I was deeply struck by the connection you made between Jesus hearing the Father’s voice and then being driven into the wilderness, as if he were somehow so shocked by what he heard he could barely comprehend it and needed 40 days to take it in. It’s an experience I can relate to. Many thanks – and for Saturday as well, which was a rich blessing.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Patricia, it was a delight to meet you at the workshop. If you read Matthew, Mark and Luke’s account of the baptism, all of them say that IMMEDIATELY Jesus is driven into the wilderness. Go well.

  3. moconnor says:

    “When you pray go into your room and shut the door”. So advises Jesus as recorded by Matthew. just so hard to keep that door shut! Marie O’Connor.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Even when I shut the door, I can open my mind and heart to countless other “distractions” – but all part of the rich tapestry of our lives. Hope you are recovering well, Marie.

  4. Jeanie Heininger says:

    Patty you are always worth a read. I love your image of the moon shell.

  5. Lucy Molony says:

    Patty, thank you for your many insights and reflections over time, which are so enriching and inviting of reflection and personal growth. What you offer is such a gift to so many. Lucy

  6. Marie Casamento says:

    Prior to becoming ill some almost thirty years ago now with an auto immune illness I had boundless energy that saw me filling every moment of my day with ceaseless activity. Then challenged by very much reduced energy I struggled to accept moments of stillness and solitude in my life. Now I can just sit but the sitting at times does not always connect me with the divine and this continues to be my challenge. I like the image of the ‘moon shell’ that you cited. It is often the image or the metaphor that leads me into the presence of God. Marie

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      You’re right, Marie. But the divine is always connected to us and our solitude helps me be mindful of that. I think you’re connected with the divine in the solitude surrounding your gardening, poetry and drawing.

  7. Carol Tomlinson says:

    You have incorporated several rich perspectives on this subject with amazing succinctness. Such a good, wholesome read. Thank you Patty. Glad to see you present the desire and need for solitude as an ordinary, human yearning – not something esoteric! I was so impressed that I even used my dictionary to explore ‘feint’, believing that your skill may in fact, have made its use here meaningful!

  8. Debra Vermeer says:

    Thanks Patty for this lovely piece. Some regular solitude is essential for me. But, as you say, I always find that after a period of solitude (say a five day retreat or similar), I am not only inwardly revived, but I also find myself reoriented outwards. It’s a curious thing. All part of the great mystery. I suppose it comes down to the fact that in my solitude I’m not really alone, but resting with God, who always gently calls us outward.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Yes, Debra, my experience of solitude connects me at a deeper level to others. If I connect with them in my solitude, it facilitates the external connection as well.

  9. Terry Clout says:

    This is wise counsel but harder to achieve then to understand that it is necessary

  10. Leo Pitts says:

    You’re absolutely right Patty. Solitude is much maligned and yet it is an essential ingredient for all our lives. The mystics cherished it and in times of solitude one is able more than at any other time to really communicate with God and the universe. For me especially I have re-named it soul etude and at these times my soul sings the most beautiful of songs. Thanks Patty.

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