Increasingly, modern man and woman find it difficult to be “alone.” For a variety of reasons, we feel compelled to surround ourselves with people, sounds, visual images, telephone conversations, texting, idle chatter, and other stimuli that become the milieu in which we live. Much of this is described as “social communication.” We seek to be accessible 24 hours a day. The thought of not being able to be reached at all hours increasingly alarms us. The radio must be playing, the television must be on, there must be people about. We must be part of the “social network.” Psychologists muse that this state of affairs is a form of “escapism” – man seeks to avoid plumbing the depths of his own person.
However, to people who take life with any degree of seriousness at all, who are people of meaning and faith, who live from “the inside out” rather than from the “outside in” – these things are distractions from “the one thing needful” – our relationship with and life in the Living God. As we prepare for Great Lent, we do well to consider the place of solitude in our lives and the profound lessons we can learn from simply and plainly being “alone.”
Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) describes solitude in the following way: “Solitude is one’s internal experience of living within oneself, withdrawal into one’s inner person, something that is necessary for uniting oneself with God. At the same time, it is the experience of renouncing the ‘other’, even if it were a friend or a relative. It is finally an experience of withdrawal from the world and renunciation of it in order to achieve union with God. Solitude can be painful, full of inner suffering, but without this experience one can never come close to the fullness of life in God.”
Making time to be “alone” each day extricates us from the world that, in the words of the poet Wordsworth, “is too much with us.” It gives us time to create “depth” in our life, to peel away the layers of distraction and to face our soul – wherein the very Creator and Lord of history “lives and moves and has His being.” The creation of solitude in our lives attests to the truth of the Divine Indwelling. Fr. John Meyendorff writes: “God is now to be found within us. He is no longer exterior to us. Therefore, we find the light of Mount Tabor within our own hearts.”
The Syriac ascetic Father of the Church, St. Isaac of Nineveh, wrote of the discovery that is possible when we embrace solitude: “Be at peace with your own soul then heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and you will see the things that are in heaven, for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within your soul. In solitude, dive into yourself and in your soul and you will discover the stairs by which to ascend.” Indeed, the desert Fathers teach that the purpose of solitude is to descend with the mind into the heart in order, not to speak toGod, but to listen to Him speak to us. Remember the words of the Psalmist “Be still! And know that I am God.” (Psalm 46)
Be still and know……..through solitude we come to know God, to familiarize ourselves with His voice, to sense His presence.
How difficult it is for us to create that solitude in our frenetic lives today! Yet it is possible. The fact is, it was not living in the desert that made a desert Father – it was the desert within him, the place of solitude, the inner monastery where he came face to face with God. That discovery can belong to each one of us. As Great Lent approaches, consider developing the practice of solitude in your personal life. I suggest a possible approach..
Make time each day to be alone with God. Whether in the morning before your hectic day begins or in the evening when things have settled, STOP! Find a prayerful place in your home, and be with God. Start with a brief prayer such as the Jesus Prayer repeated in a low voice or perhaps silently. Create the conditions whereby your heart can listen to the Divine Lover. Above all, commit yourself to this time as a regular part of everyday. Even at work, doing the business of your day, steal moments of quietness and prayer and focus on God’s presence. This, too, is solitude. Recall Jesus’ words “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret…” (Matthew 6:5)
Use Sacred Scripture to hear His voice. During this time, read a passage of Sacred Scripture, Old or New Testaments, and ask yourself “What is God saying to ME in this passage?” Scripture is His Word, spoken to you personally and intimately. What does it say to you? How does what He says there apply to YOUR life specifically? Particularly as you begin to develop the practice of solitude, lean on God’s Word to discern His voice and to steep yourself in His message for you. If God’s Word is foreign to you, however will you discern His voice?
At all cost, persevere in this effort. The notion of a daily time for solitude in our lives can be daunting. The struggle to settle ourselves in quietness and to focus on things spiritual, on the depth of life in God, can easily cause discouragement. The lure of the world’s attractions, noises, and sensual temptations that appeal to our passions is a strong force, indeed. Be strong. Resist. Keep focused on the purpose of the creation of daily solitude in your life – the intimate experience of God and His incredible love for you. Therefore, all the while, pray to Him that you may be attentive. Fr. Henri Nouwen, a spiritual writer, put it this way: “We have to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw everyday, shake off our compulsions and dwell in the gentle healing presence of the Lord. Without such a desert we will lose our own soul while preaching the Gospel to others.” (The Way of the Heart, p.30)
May the God of love, living in your heart, give you strength to discover Him there!