May 2016

Is there a place for solitude in our world today?

“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?

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. 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.

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