In 2005 a documentary was released called, Into Great Silence. The documentary was about the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse Monastery. (Yes. They are the same monks who make the liquor, “Chartreuse.” 🙂 These monks, who were founded by St. Bruno in the 11th century, live high in the French Alps and dedicate their simple lives to God in the form of “prayer and work,” a phrase translated in Latin as ora et labora, revolutionized by the founder of Western Monasticism, St. Benedict who lived in the fifth and six centuries. While the documentary could be perceived as boring, it’s fairly long at a clip of about two hours and 40 minutes. (You can watch the whole thing for FREE on youtube.com). Also, the documentary has received anywhere from 3.5 – 4.5 stars out of 5 from major movie critics. But what was unique about the documentary was that it was done almost in complete silence with virtually no conversation. While some disliked it, I found it quite refreshing, particularly because of the solitude it presented in a positive way. Monks were often shown working in solitude. But they also prayed in community and in solitude and seemed to enjoy God’s creation in solitude too. I am not advocating to do everything by yourself in solitude or live by yourself in solitude 🙂 We are social beings by design. But the solitude these monks enjoyed was far different than the loneliness people often experience being by themselves. While the monks are called to a communal life of prayer as well as solitude, they seemed to experience the solitude in a joyful and welcoming way, far different than becoming angry, uncomfortable, or sad that one could experience living by oneself and feeling lonely.
First, what is the difference between solitude and loneliness? Let’s try to define both words and then try to make some distinctions.
Loneliness: Being by oneself in an unhappy state and wanting to fill it with someone or something
- Uncomfortable being by oneself
- Uncomfortable in silence… For some who struggle to be by themselves, silence can be deafening, especially from all of the noise already in their lives.
- Struggle to find something to do… One may feel he/she always has to do something or feels the need to be constantly busy, efficient, and productive. Instead, just be…Just be a beloved son or daughter of the Father in Jesus Christ, and receive the love of the Father!
- Feels the need for someone or something to always be with him/her.
Solitude: The state of being alone in an uninhabited place
- Comfortable being by oneself in silence in the peace and quiet of the moment.
- Great appreciation for nature and the surroundings
- Being comfortable with not doing anything at all
- Recognize that while one is by oneself physically, one is truly not by oneself spiritually. Faith tells us that one is actually in the presence of God (in his omnipresence), one’s Guardian Angel, and in the presence of other angels and saints if called upon through prayer.
What other ways would you describe loneliness and solitude? Similarities? Differences?
Second, Jesus experienced both loneliness and solitude. He felt lonely and abandoned as he experienced the Agony in the Garden (Mt. 26:36-46, Mk 14:32-42, Lk. 22:39-46 KJV). In his loneliness as he hung upon the cross, Jesus cried out to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46). There have been moments I have felt lonely. Some of you may have experienced loneliness being single or lonely after losing a spouse to death. You may have experienced loneliness in your own marriage. Think about an infant or a young child. What happens when mom or dad leaves the room? Left unattended, the child instinctively cries out. We all experience feelings of loneliness. When we experience these moments, it’s a signal for us to reach out to God with trust and bold faith through a simple, prayerful conversation with the Lord, for example.
But Jesus also experienced solitude too. Mk 1: 35 states: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” Another good question to ask is what did he do with the solitude as well as the loneliness he experienced? He prayed. Mt. 14:23 states: “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.”
Third, how can we experience healthy solitude in our own lives? We can experience healthy solitude like Jesus experienced, and it doesn’t have to be anything you need to create. It can already be created for you. What do I mean? Recently, I had the experience of solitude at an eight-day silent retreat with over 20 people in Ontario. The majority of the retreat was silent with the exception of daily spiritual direction and participation at Mass. You may respond, “Father, I can’t take eight days off, let alone try to be silent for that length of time!” I’m not asking you to do that. Instead, I recommend to take SOME time for solitude. You decide how long that will be. It doesn’t have to be an eight-day silent retreat. It could be just a weekend retreat away from distractions (e.g. technology). How else could one experience solitude? Through a walk or a hike, an evening in the convenience of your own house if the circumstances allow with either a cup of hot chocolate, tea, or coffee, or even for five minutes in the convenience of your bedroom with a Bible and a journal.
Fourth, why would one want solitude? To deepen one’s relationship with God and to spend time with God in prayer and reflection, but also to get recharged for the responsibilities that lie ahead.
May we understand that God doesn’t call us to loneliness. Rather he calls us to spend time with him in solitude. This is not wasteful time but a good investment of it. Jesus often went away to spend time with His Father in solitude. May we take time to do the same to deepen our relationship with Him and be ready for what God calls us to do next.
In the Solitude of Spending Time with the Lord,