Solitude, a spiritual practice

Solitude, and a life of solitude are two different things, writes Chittister in the eighth chapter of "Called to Question." Both are spiritual disciplines and practices in many faith traditions. The Christian faith has numerous saints (Julian of Norwich, for example) who lived a life of solitude, alone in a dwelling on the grounds of a convent. People who live a life of solitude spend their days and nights completely alone, except for the occasional visitor who comes seeking spiritual advice.

Solitude is a desire for some time out, a space to soothe the soul and enable one to become useful again.

I have never had a desire to live a life of solitude. The idea of being perpetually alone completely unsettles me. In fact for part of my life I couldn't handle being alone for more than a few hours or a day. I hated being alone at night. I didn't know what to do with myself. I couldn't read because the aloneness was deafening. I couldn't work because the alonesnes drove me to distraction. I think I was prone to panic attacks, although in those days panic attacks were not diagnosed. I felt crazy in my inability to be alone.

But slowly, over time, I gained the ability to be alone. Now I yearn for solitude. But I yearn for it as means to restore my equanimity from so much time with people, from spending hours with words, from having my head and heart and spirit full. I yearn for solitude so I can empty myself in order to be made full again.

This ability to be alone, and the yearning for it, has come from years of hard work. I had to go through some therapy and some spiritual direction. I had to acquire the ability to not be afraid of my own inner life and self. Until this moment I've never really thought of it this way. Chittister's reflections on our spiritual life are helping me understand the powerful depth of contemplative, inner work, and its potential for transformation from the inside out.  She writes:

"Solitude brings the raw material of life to the surface of our souls. It turns an inner light on the external chaos of our lives and requires us to come to grips with it." (pg 68)
No doubt, this is exactly how I felt when I was alone - profoundly afraid. I would not have described the fear as she has. But she is right, my external life was in chaos but it was so because my spiritual life was untethered. Curiously enough my response to this particularly chaotic time of living alone was to join a group of Buddhists who practiced daily chanting. We would chant alone once a day and or with the entire group. The chanting and teachings began to anchor me. Eventually I pushed back at this particular form of Buddhism, it touted too many Western values of success - "chant for what you want and the Universe will give it to you." That way of thinking felt wrong to me. But nonetheless, this practice of daily prayer is what eventually led me back to Christianity and the realization that I needed to find a church community to be in relationship with.

I needed community in order to be comfortable with solitude.

Chittister goes on to write: 

"(Solitude) turns an inner light on the external chaos of our lives and requires us to come to grips with it. Then the questions speak to us loud and clear: What should I be doing that I'm not? What am I doing that should go? What sand has collected in my soul that must be dredged away?"
No doubt these are the questions that rose in me as I began to chant and re-engage in meditation. I learned to meditate when I was 19 and Transcendental Meditation was all the rage at my University. But I lost interest in it. Over the years I have stopped meditation and then returned to it anew. By and large I have meditated consistently since I found my way back to Christianity - only now it is part of my daily prayer time. Anyway, in that chanting and meditation time I felt these same questions within me. And the unexpected answer that arose was "I practice Christmas and Easter as spiritual events, not social or cultural, so I must be a Christian! - Well, then I guess I better figure out how to live as a Christian."

Living life as a Christian means living life in community. A church community. And, whereas before I was terrified of Christianity - a fear born from my experience in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics - a fear rooted in the idea that to be a Christian meant one had to be a certain kind of Christian because anything else doomed one to eternal hell. I could not abide by that - in fact such a concept of a narrow, angry God who was always on the watch for my (our) failures - drove me away from church. The God of my prayer life and spiritual life, even as a child, was a God of love and compassion. I don't know how I knew this, I just did. And I believed it completely, still do.

(even though I am critical here of the LDS and Roman Church, I have experienced much in and through them that has shaped and formed me, I am grateful for them. I just can't abide by some their teachings...)

The God of love and compassion that I have come to understand more fully since I have returned to church is not a naive God, nor one with rose colored lenses, nor a warm fuzzy God. This God of love and compassion requires us to be accountable for all the ways we contribute too brokenness in the world and in our lives. Broken relationship of all sorts. We are called to tend too and mend those broken places. There is nothing easy, naive, or rosy about that calling.

The function, Chittester writes, of a life of solitude is not protection from the noise. It is not all smiley and "happy" is, she say, "eternal confrontation with the noise inside us." No wonder I was terrified.

Now, anchored in a life of prayer and community, I often filled to overflowing with words. I write, I create, I speak with words all day long. I listen until I am stuffed. Words. I even work on a project called "WordsMatter" - as if I didn't have enough words in my life. But as a result of being tethered to a faith community and practice, I am able too, even yearn for, solitude. Time to just be.

Chittister writes:

What is needed is honesty of heart and some kind of periodic distance from the daily that it takes to cure ourselves of the infectious disease of a noisy and aimless life...time to give ourselves back to ourselves."
My life is not noisy and aimless, but it can begin to feel that way when I do not tend to my inner life and carve out time for solitude. Living life in community, developing spiritual practices anchored in the tradition and history of the church, have enabled me to give myself back to myself. Because it is that journey that is ultimately leading me to God.

And, according to Chittister, this is the journey that what will lead each of us to our true selves, in whatever way we understand the Divine, the great mystery of God.


Gaye said…
I came at solitude from the other way to you I think. I spent may hours alone as a child - and they were the happiest hours of my childhood by and large. What I had difficulty with was people and school was torture to me. Just too many people. I had real hermit tendencies. But I was not called to be a hermit, much to my dismay.

Solitude, is still essential to my equanimity, but so is time with people, both one on one and in groups. I have learned through similar hard work some balance.
Diane said…
thank you for posting on this! I will continue your reflections Solitude

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