When God created mankind, He decided that man should not be completely alone, and thus, Eve was formed. When the disciples were commanded to preach to the world, they were sent off in pairs of two. Humans are social beings. We are not meant to rejoice alone or to struggle alone, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15). We rely on a Christ-centered community to share in the Trinitarian love and to make each other stronger Christians (check out the article on Friendship).
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). One who experiences loneliness can fall and have no brother or sister there to encourage him.
While this indefinitely holds true, there is a caveat…
We need solitude.
A strong community is necessary in our walk with Christ to keep ourselves accountable and share in a holy love. However, periods of solitude are vital for refinement. In other words, periods of loneliness can be transformed into periods of solitude that inevitably transform us.
During the lockdown back in April, we all unwillingly forfeited our social tendencies and found ourselves searching for alternate ways to fill our time. Some took up art, some took up cooking, some took up an instrument, some even became Chloe Ting’s biggest supporters (you know who you are). Some of us may have also found ourselves in a dark place, lacking the solidarity that our friendship circles provided. This period of searching for fulfillment was an experience of extreme loneliness.
On the other hand, another common theme among many was that we opened up our Bibles more and prayed a little harder. We experienced the Passion of our Lord in front of our TVs and learned to create church within our hearts. There was a multitude of unanswered questions and we desperately searched the Word for answers. Each of us were forced to confront ourselves in the rawest way possible, by solitude.
We need solitude.
This precisely defines for us the line between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is unfulfilling, depressing, resentful. Solitude, however, is restorative, confrontational, analytical. I consciously empty myself before the Lord, laying out my faults and confronting them. I take time to forsake the world around me, immersing myself into a serene, heavenly environment of prayer… alone. It means I spend time with God, away from the hustle and bustle, away from the social formalities and empty, earthly chatter.
Eventually, physical seclusion will no longer be needed, “But the solitude that really counts is the solitude of heart; it is an inner quality or attitude that does not depend on physical isolation.” (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out). Until then, we must discipline ourselves to attain solitude by self-isolation and prayer.
In the moments that we are unable to put ourselves into solitude, sometimes God will coerce us into it.
Last week, we celebrated Jonah’s feast. Jonah’s seclusion for three days was exactly what he needed for self-confrontation. The sounds of the world were suddenly tuned out, allowing him a period of prayer and self-reflection. Three days later, Jonah had a renewed and vitalized spirit, offering praise and thanksgiving to the God that would bring him out of the pit.
In my period of solitude in the belly of the whale, do I fall into loneliness and despair? Or do I use my isolation to praise the God who will bring me out of the pit? Do I use my isolation to analyze my disobedience?
When our Lord took His disciples to the garden of Gethsemane to pray, He left them and retreated deeper into the garden, seeking seclusion for His time with God. He entreated the Father, offering His distress and His sorrow before He would be taken to this cross.
When I am about to face tribulation, do I lament over my circumstances? Do I find solace in frail, earthly matters? Or do I move deeper into my solitude to pray for God’s clarity and His will?
We need solitude.
In Elijah’s pursuit to see God, the Spirit of the Lord brought him to a mountain.
“Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12)
How can I expect God to work in my life when I won’t settle down for a minute to hear His still, small voice, and I am instead constantly tuning Him out?
Solitude gives us the opportunity to be still enough to hear God’s loving gentle whisper. While we need our communities, we also NEED solitude to hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance. In our periods of despair and sorrow, we must recall the refinement that God calls us to by our solitude. With a changed mindset, we can transform our loneliness into solitude, and thus allow God to work in us.
Allow us to conclude with a portion of Fr. Daniel Fanous’ sermon, Fear of Solitude.
“A middle-aged woman came to me, saying to me, “The one thing that I have learned during this period of COVID is that I don’t know how to be in God’s presence. I don’t know how to pray when there’s not people around me. I don’t know how to pray when I’m not in church. I don’t even know how to have a relationship with God when I’m not surrounded by other people having relationships with God. And whilst that is something that is nice and beautiful, it teaches us that this is why the church is there for us, to support us in our relationship with God. It is also revealing that when I enter solitude, I don’t know how to be in God’s presence, because I’ve never let myself be in God’s presence. I fear it. But being in God’s presence and solitude are one in the same. It is extremely difficult to be in God’s presence when I’m not in solitude.”
Our spiritual lives are not meant to be dependent on our church community. Rather, it should be enhanced by it. My relationship with God is rooted in the personal time that I give to Him.
May God allow us to understand His Holy presence and teach us the power of solitude as a means of internal transformation.
Reaching Out – Henri Nouwen
Fear of Solitude – Fr. Daniel Fanous