Moving from Loneliness to Solitude

Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest, and a gifted teacher in the area of Christian spirituality. He was also a restless soul who lived and worked around the world. He wrote over 40 books, which in a powerful way, trace the path of his personal quest for wholeness, peace, and meaning.

One of his most read books is called “Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual life”. In his foreword, Nouwen said he wrote it as a personal response to the question, “What does it mean to live a life in the Spirit of Jesus Christ?”

This is a question worth wrestling with. How are we to live? How does our faith inform, and shape, and bring meaning and purpose to our lives? What is worth our time and attention?

Early in the book, Nouwen said about himself, “When after many years of adult life I ask myself, ‘Where am I as a Christian?’ there are just as many reasons for pessimism as for optimism. Many of the real struggles of twenty years ago are still very much alive. I am still searching for inner peace, for creative relationships with others and for the experience of God…..”

The book’s sub-title refers to “three movements of the spiritual life”. Nouwen said “we are called to reach out, with courageous honesty to our innermost self, with relentless care to our fellow human beings, and with increasing prayer to our God.”

The movements Nouwen wrote about are inward, in deeper relationship with our true selves, outward, in loving relationship with others, and “upward” or “God-ward”, in prayerful connection to God. In each of these areas of the spiritual life- our relationships with ourselves, and others, and with God, we live in tension, and we move back and forth on a continuum. We don’t always feel the same sense of connection to ourselves, to others, to God. Part of consciously living a spiritual life is to grow in our awareness, and acceptance of the fact that each of us live in these tensions, with these polarities, all the time.

Today we are looking at the inward dynamic, our relationship with our true selves. Nouwen suggested that each of us live somewhere in the range between crying loneliness, and the desire for true solitude. In the way that poverty might make us long for wealth, or prison might make us value freedom, it may be that our experiences of loneliness have given us a glimpse of the importance of solitude. When we have felt the pain of loneliness, it may lead us to imagine, and hope for a way to feel at peace, and satisfied, even joyful in solitude.

Loneliness is not something we like to talk about, or think about, but it is a universal human experience. I think the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby, written by Paul McCartney reminds us of that truth. View video clip of Eleanor Rigby.

(I am especially touched by that line about Father McKenzie, writing sermons that no one will hear.)

Loneliness is normal. We all have a natural instinct towards connection, towards relationship, and we feel a lacking, a discomfort unless that need is met. We also need to learn how to be alone with ourselves, to accept and love ourselves –to look upon ourselves with soft eyes.

Nouwen wrote, “Too often we will do everything possible to avoid the confrontation with the experience of being alone, and sometimes we are able to create the most ingenious devices to prevent ourselves from being reminded of this condition. Our culture has become most sophisticated in the avoidance of pain, not only our physical pain but our mental and emotional pain as well…. We have become so used to this state of anesthesia, that we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us. When we have no project to finish, no friend to visit, no book to read, not television to watch or no record to play, and when we are left all alone by ourselves we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and are so afraid of experiencing an all-pervasive sense of loneliness that we will do anything to get busy again and continue the game which makes us all believe that everything is fine after all.”

Nouwen wrote that in 1975, well ahead of the technological advances that allow us to carry a complete entertainment system in our pocket.
The movement from loneliness to solitude involves accepting a degree of separateness, aloneness, as a human reality. It also involves the idea that each person is unique, and individual, and carries with them a certain mystery- there is no one just like them. If we are uncomfortable, or unwilling to be alone with ourselves, then we may never actually discover who we really are. We may never see ourselves the way God sees us.

If we never come to know ourselves, and see ourselves through God’s loving eyes, we may continue to crave the distractions of the world, that allow us to avoid feeling the loneliness we fear. We may also fall into the pattern of using the people in our lives as part of our distraction strategy. There is something unfair in this, if the value we place on a person has less to do with their uniqueness, and more to do with our fear of being alone.

Earlier this month I was on retreat with a group of 20 people who are training to become spiritual directors. This was a bit of a reunion, as the same group was together last year. Last year, as part of the retreat experience, we arranged a 24 hour period of silence. From 7 pm on Monday evening, to 7 pm on Tuesday evening, we lived in silence. We ate our meals together in silence, but for the rest of the day, we encouraged people to be on their own. We provided art materials, quiet spaces to sit and reflect, books to look at, trails to walk- but everything was in silence.

The only exception to the rule of silence was that staff people on the retreat were available by appointment for spiritual direction sessions. A person could talk about whatever was on their heart, and the spiritual director would deeply listen, and try to reflect back how they were hearing God at work in the person’s story.

One person I met with that day suffered from anxiety attacks, and was quite concerned about the day of silence. She said she didn’t know whether she could go twenty-four hours without calling home and checking in with her kids. I assured her that she could make her own choice about that- but that it might be good to try to live through the time. My hope for her was that she would get a glimpse of her own worth, and value, and giftedness, unique and separate from the people in her life, and that underneath the fear, the pain, the anxiety, she might sense God with her, within her.

The scripture we heard this morning says, “God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us….” The passage goes on to say, “There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love. We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. God loved us first.”

The woman did live through that day of silence, without calling home, and in the year that followed, actually went away two more times for silent retreats. She survived, and thrived, and recognized that her children and her husband were in their own ways, quite able to live a few days without her. They actually seemed to cherish her more when she returned, because of her short absence. She also said that while she was away from them, she was able to pray for them, and trust that God was with them, just as she knew God was with her.

This year she did not dread the day of silence. She made an appointment with me to talk about how the year between these retreats had been for her, and it was absolutely delightful to hear that she was getting to know herself, and appreciating who she was getting to know. I was not altogether surprised to learn that her anxiety attacks were diminishing, and happening less often.

Henri Nouwen wrote about what he called the conversion from loneliness into solitude. He said that “instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into fruitful solitude. To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. This requires not only courage but also a strong faith. As hard as it is to believe that the dry desolate desert can yield endless varieties of flowers, it is equally hard to imagine that our loneliness is hiding unknown beauty. The movement from loneliness to solitude…. is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.”

As I was preparing this teaching time, I felt very aware of who might be hearing it. I realize that for some of us, time alone is not so much a choice, but a daily reality. It is something we all face, at different stages in our lives. The other day I was at the Queens Avenue Residence, and I taught the group gathered for communion my favourite new way to pray. I learned it while on that retreat I mentioned, and I have been calling it the “heart prayer”. Let’s try it.

Teach and practice the heart prayer. End with Amen.

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