From 1999 until 2004, I lived as a hermit. Now, like many others, I once again find myself spending a great deal of time alone. However, there are two huge differences between then and now: then, my solitude was freely chosen. Now, because of COVID-19, solitude is forced by stay-at-home orders.
Even during my years living as a hermit, my solitude wasn’t total. I had a ministry of fund-raising for the Priests of Holy Cross which involved weekday commuting between Rolling Prairie and Notre Dame. But even that commute was a grace, because the 40-minute trip each way was a perfect time to transition from solitude to work with others, and then from work back to solitude.
While I did have access to a computer and a dreadfully slow wired Internet connection, I didn’t have access to a cell phone (they were just starting to come out). In addition, being profoundly deaf since age seven, I couldn’t use a regular phone either, because there were no lips to read! Nowadays, for solitude to be grace-full, one has to make a conscious decision to unplug oneself from electronics for a given time each day. Outside of working from home, Internet browsing, texting, games, email, and shopping can quickly use up time better spent exploring your inner and outer world. Solitude becomes noisy.
With that background, here are some thoughts on the graces that are possible in solitude.
The one grace that most surprised me was that solitude led to a deeper empathy with others. A part of my daily prayer was to sit with the Indiana Province directory and pray for a different community house each day. One by one, I got to “know” my brother CSCs in a deeper way, distinct from their ministries, titles, idiosyncrasies. When I met them in person, it was a different encounter than would otherwise have been the case. Get a work directory, or jot down a list of family, friends, co-workers, service people using your contact list on your phone. Make these people consciously present in your prayer.
Incidentally, a major presupposition for fruitful solitude is that it includes time for prayer. I recommend two thirty-minute periods, one early in the day and one late. Without prayer, you’re just living alone, probably caught in the rut of “new day, same old stuff.” If possible, use a room or set aside a part of a room as your “hermitage.” Having a set place is a great help in making the journey of prayerful solitude.
A second grace of solitude was discovering myself. Productive solitude requires internal exploration, which can be uncomfortable, even excruciating. It might take a little work and discipline before it turns into a pleasant experience. But once it does, it becomes maybe the most important relationship you have: the relationship with yourself. You are alone without being lonely because you are providing yourself wonderful company. Being alone helps you become more comfortable in your own skin. You can make choices without outside influences, which will help you develop more insight into who you are as a person.
How to discover yourself? Sit down and start writing. Writing is important because it offers a concrete record of growth and insight. Use a laptop only if necessary; I’ve learned it can be too much of a temptation to use it for other things.
What to write about? Whatever comes to mind. Use daily Scripture or the daily news or a walk through nature as a way to jump-start things. If you’re stuck writing a narrative, write your thoughts as a letter to God, to Jesus, to your favorite saint, to deceased family members. Narratives can be sterile, but letters always have an undercurrent of love.
A third grace: this journey of self-discovery and comfort with oneself helps establish intimacy with others. As you come to know and delight in your self, you realize you don’t have to be anyone other than your genuine self, what Thomas Merton called the “true self.”
Another grace: becoming one with the rhythms of nature. The hermitage was in deep woods on the shore of a private lake. Every season brought about an eruption of beauty, and each season was totally unique from beginning to end. Even if you are in the middle of a city, get out and walk. Sit in the backyard. Experience—really experience—the budding trees, the song of a cardinal, the flutter of a butterfly, the tiny flower hidden in the grass at your feet, the feel of a breeze on your cheek. Treat yourself to some alone time with Mother Nature. Her power of restoration and growth is awesome. In this time of disruption, when all the usual markers and routine of a day are not present, watch and ponder how quietly Mother Nature is going about her annual springtime rite of renewal and new life. Hope is springing forth!
By way of nature footnote, if you have a pet, wonderful! I had a cat named Grady, and there were times when she was a life-saver. Sometimes the line between solitude and loneliness is very thin, and it helps to have another creature around. Cats aren’t noted for their empathy, but still. It can be good to have someone or something else to take care of, so one doesn’t get wrapped up in oneself.
A final grace: having wonderful meal guests. If you’re eating alone, instead of watching TV or scrolling through social media, read an autobiography or biography of people who’ve impressed you or whom you’d like to know.
Jesus said he came to offer us life to the full (John 10:10). So often we’re just too busy to see and appreciate the full life that is all around us and within us. We get caught in ruts that deaden us and have us living like robots instead of men and women alive with the spirit of God. Solitude fills our ruts and fills our lives with an awareness of the grace of God.
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