Bishop's Message

Why we need solitude

Feb 2002    
SOLITUDE is not everyone’s cup of tea. It is often seen as a deprivation, a loss, the result of unfortunate circumstances.

          On the other hand, solitude can be seen as a gift that enriches our lives. In reality, it is in fact a necessity that meets one of our deepest needs – the need to be alone.

          Circumstances often throw people into solitude – as a patient in a hospital room, as an aging person who stays home to live a solitary existence after sending family members to a world throbbing with busyness, or as a single person who has to get used to the experience of living alone. Such experiences of solitude are often seen negatively because solitude is equated with loneliness. This may be because solitary moments do indeed reveal one’s inner condition of loneliness.

          However, solitude has to do with being alone rather than with being lonely. In that sense solitude is a basic necessity for our well-being. Without solitude our souls will wither in the barrenness of much of modern life. Without it, people face the danger of spiritual malnutrition as they are force-fed with illusions that do not connect with their deepest and most important needs.

          But why is solitude so important?

          Firstly, solitude allows us to be alone with ourselves. One’s interaction with the world creates and props up the false self, a mask that helps him to cope with a world of expectations. The world of cheers and jeers forces its imprint on the mask through its social techniques of acceptance and rejection. And if one experiences neither, experiencing indifference instead, then one may begin shopping for masks that are celebrated as having the power to bring attention and success in the theatre of life. Some have called this the rat race.

 

          It is tragic when people believe that they are their masks. They may gain the whole world but lose their own souls (Mt. 16:26). They become the creation of the world and fail to discover their true vocation as creatures of God.

          Solitude helps us to avoid this by revealing our true selves. We will notice that below the superficial masks lie the deeper contours of our own true faces. It will also dawn on us that we are far from being perfect, that indeed our faces are marred and scarred, festering with rotting flesh eating away what was created with beauty.

          In the initial horror of finding our own faces, we will also experience the terror of our loneliness. The deep unquenchable loneliness in every human heart that knows that while others may be familiar with the simplistic and deceiving mask, no one can see the whole true face. Out of this loneliness is born our deepest need for God who alone can see our entire face.

          Solitude also allows us to be alone with God. It not only gives us the opportunity to find our faces, but also to face God. When we do this we find perfect love that heals and brings beauty to our deformed faces. God, through Christ our Lord, will tell us who we really are. The lies that shape our masks are challenged by the truths that heal our faces. Solitude allows us to hear the voice of God, through His Word and Spirit, which nourishes and strengthens our souls. Such an experience of solitude will anchor our lives amidst the strong soul-threatening currents of fad, fashion and herd-instincts in the world.

          Thirdly, solitude helps us to relate to the world in the right way. Solitude is not an escape from the world. As the English poet John Milton (1608-1674) wrote, “Solitude sometimes is best society, and short retirement urges sweet return.” Solitude enables us to avoid relating to the world in a way characterised by the drivenness of selfish desires and the uncritical conformity to the ways of the world. This is possible because in our moments of solitude we can see how much we are driven by what lies within, and how much we are shaped by what surrounds us.
          Solitude, therefore, facilitates a “sweet return” to the world. After having truly met God and our inner selves, we can return to the world passionately and compassionately as God’s children and servants. Jesus exhibited this holy rhythm of solitude and engagement with the world. In the midst of busy ministry, He regularly sought moments of solitude (Mk. 1:35), especially before making key decisions in life and ministry. If He Himself needed that, can we, His followers, afford to live without it?

          The Christian’s life is in danger of becoming too crowded. The same goes for the life of the church. We must not allow our lives to be characterised by the word “crowd”. Rather, words like “solitude” and “community” should express the patterns of our lives. In fact, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1905-1945), these two words sustain one another. Without solitude there can be no healthy community. And without community, there can be no authentic solitude.

          We must celebrate moments of solitude that come as gifts from God every day (such as when you drive, or are alone in your room or in the lift) and not discard them and waste the opportunities they bring. But solitude must not only come by circumstance but also by choice. We must develop habits of finding times of solitude (quiet times nourished by Scripture, prayer, reflection and the presence of God) so that our souls remain vibrant and alive to God, and become familiar territories.

          If our lives are not punctuated with solitude, they may end up like meaningless sentences, messy heaps of words and letters that hurry into oblivion. On the other hand, we can choose to be like a sentence where the letters stand in solitude and community, in their right places so that meaning is joyfully discovered and effectively communicated.

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