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Solitude

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

I believe it is more than coincidental that in the revised liturgy for the second of January we celebrate the combined feasts of St. Basil and Gregory Nazianen. They are two oriental saints both of whom died before the end of the fourth century. They were close friends. Both became bishops and both are Doctors of the Church. The important thing for our purpose is they had both been for a long time solitaries in the desert and only with great reluctance and on the stormy insistence of the people did they leave the desert and enter the active life of the priesthood and the Episcopate.

Both wrote extensively. Their writings on the beauty and importance of solitude are among the finest we have in Christian ascetical literature. In a word, our present conference is on solitude. We need, we especially, desperately need to be reminded of the value and even the necessity of solitude because of our over-preoccupation in a country like ours with everything and everyone except with that which really matters. It is no wonder that so many of our young people, the numbers are counted; some say several million are literally disgusted with the materialistic preoccupation of their elders. The human heart is hungry for solitude.

We then first ask ourselves, “What is solitude?” In the Christian vocabulary, solitude is the conscious and deliberate aloneness with God. One of the problems, as we know with a word like solitude especially in a culture like ours, is that we have practically become to identify solitude with aloofness or separateness, and a person who is alone habitually we have put down as a psychotic.

We tend to think of solitude as a form of loneliness or isolation. That, in its extreme forms, is a form of pathology. What a mistake. Of course, there are people who are lonely even pathologically lonely. Who doubts it? Lost for long hours, as I have seen in the state hospital where I worked for five years as chaplain, alone, lost in their own thoughts. There are also people who are afraid of others and as much as they can from being in other people’s company. But whoever said that extremes or forms of illness are normative for the rest of mankind? This is, to say the least, not Christian solitude.

As we talk about the solitude of a Christian, the first thing we must immediately distinguish is between what, for want of better words, we call exterior and interior solitude. Exterior solitude implies living apart from the world either as a complete solitary or hermit or as those do or should who belong to a religious community.

The Church has not only protected but insisted on a greater or lesser measure of exterior solitude for those who seriously claim to be living lives of perfection. Remove some and much exterior solitude from religious communities and you cease to have religious communities except in name. Interior solitude on the other hand, means, as the name implies, recollection and quiet attention of my mind and heart to spiritual things or more broadly, the practice of the presence of God. These two solitudes are meant to be related as means is related to end.

Exterior solitude is meant to assist and foster interior solitude, and this is the real purpose of either total solitariness as among hermits in the Church since the time of Jesus who began the salvation of the world in solitude. The one, then, is a condition, a means, for the other. A certain amount of exterior solitude every believer and follower of Christ needs if he or she is even to remain in the state of grace let alone grow in intimacy with Christ.

If ever a Christian begins to doubt the importance of a certain amount of even exterior solitude he is only to reread the pages of the Gospels where the evangelists tell us that Christ often, not just occasionally, often went apart alone. Spent whole nights separated from His disciples alone with His Father. He did not need that exterior solitude we do, but to teach us the importance of periodically saying no to creatures and yes to God. He gave us the model to imitate.

What are the values of solitude? Whether of exterior separateness, periodically, or the interior recollection of soul as far as possible constantly, solitude is necessary to remain and to grow as a Christian. It is, first of all, in solitude that we are in communion with God and not merely, which necessarily we often have to be, in communion with ourselves and with other people.

It is in solitude that we are able to think. The inspired writer tells us, “The world is in desolation because no one thinks.” How often I’ve told people, good people, say dedicated religious, couldn’t be more committed to the apostolate, I tell them if they are non-sisters, “Look, you mean well but in God’s name don’t be lost in the apostolate. Remember it is possible to lose your souls in the religious life unless you put first things first.” We must be able to think and to think about that which most matters, namely God.

Finally and a way most practically, the more involved we are in working with and for others the more we are liable to make the mistake of identifying effectiveness with the amount of time we give to the work we are doing. That is not true. In working for souls the real measure of effectiveness is the apostles union with God. One who is closely united with God, where the union has been fostered maybe through hours of solitary, intimate prayer, in one minute or with one sentence can do more good for thousands than someone else, who with all the vocal and muscular movement that may look like apostolic effort, will accomplish.

If we need to be convinced, and we need to be convinced, of the importance of solitude we have it by now in the record of the saints. There is an astounding statement in `A. Kempis which goes like this, “The greatest saints avoided the company of men as much as possible and chose to live to God in secret,” The Imitation of Christ. Let me tell you, these were among the most apostolically effective saints in the Church’s calendar. This needs to be learned by priests. Needs to be known by bishops. Needs to be practiced by religious. Needs to be recognized and put into effect by every follower of Jesus: that we most truly imitate Him when we first imitate Him in His solitary, quiet, peaceful, intimate communion with The Almighty. Then we are ready as the greatest saints were to meet the world, and the world will listen to us because, whether we realize it or not, the world will know this is a man or a woman who has spoken to God. Then they won’t be listening to us.

Who are we anyhow worth paying attention to? They will be listening to Jesus speaking and acting and witnessing through us. We can win more souls to God by our silence provided we have learned the deep, secret power of solitude than we could with all the speeches of all the preachers of history if we preach and teach only ourselves. The solitary is not a queer. He is not strange. He or she is a person who has learned the secret of life. Be with others, indeed, but always being united with God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica






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