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Feb 19, 2021

The Only Real Solitude

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Stephen A. Gregg

Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas

Stephen A. Gregg is a monk of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, in Texas.

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The Only Real Solitude

The Pain and Power of Being Alone

Wanderer in the Storm, Julius von Leypold, 1835

Wanderer in the Storm, Julius von Leypold, 1835

Is it better to be alone or in company?

In the second chapter of the book of Genesis in the Bible, in the more specific account of the creation of human beings, the Lord says, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18). And so he forms woman. Yet, in one of the most often cited of his Pensées, the seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal begins a critique of diversion thus: “I have often said that man’s unhappiness springs from one thing alone, his incapacity to stay quietly in one room.”1 These are very different texts, but together they raise the question “Is solitude a good or an ill?” 

This question expands all too rapidly: public and private, individual and society, action and contemplation, study and labor, withdrawal and engagement, prayer and good works, particular community to broader world. The question of what it means to be a human person is connected with this question of solitude. Is it even possible for a person ultimately to be alone at all, rather than inescapably connected? Or, to flip it, is it possible for a person, in the end, to be anything but merely alone, disconnected from everyone and even from self? As Montaigne writes, “We are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.”2

So, indeed, we all move back and forth on this. We are wary of people who prefer being alone too much, yet we lament that we are never left alone anymore; we worry about those who develop personalities in total isolation from the real world, and we are also anxious about those whose identities are constructed entirely by society. We fear that the inner world and the outer world may both become, or turn out to be, entirely virtual—that is, insubstantial.

I cannot offer a system for how to relate these poles and move skillfully from one state to another. If we began looking, we would find in our traditions many wise considerations guiding us toward resolution. As a Christian, I would think of Jesus’s teaching of the Great Commandment on which depend “all the law and the prophets”: “You shall love the Lord your God” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34–40 and parallels). The dynamic interweaving of these three (God, neighbor, and self) into one coherent image of love expressed gradually and ever more deeply in a temporal life span would not be so much an answer to our questions about the good life as, rather, the good life itself.

What the word solitude first calls to mind is probably isolation, solitary confinement, and loneliness; it is a stretch to get to independence, self-reliance, and other seeming virtues, though habitually less of a reach to come to leisure. To understand what the challenge of solitude is, then, we can start with its relation to suffering more broadly.

Suffering as Solitude

Isolation has been the most universal effect of the viral pandemic that still plagues us midway through 2020. The first evil brought through sickness is of course the physical suffering and death of many of our fellows, and along with the precautions to assuage the situation come anxiety about the future, economic instability and the loss of work, and difficulty getting even some basic supplies. Nevertheless, what afflicts even the healthiest and most secure among us is the breaking off of normal social ties and events—the breakdown of the human community into independent and isolated cells, linked by virtual simulacra of real communication. Going to school, to worship, to the park, to a concert, to a restaurant, to family and friends seemed not as necessary as physical well-being, yet life without them is hard to bear. Daily life has been reduced to a static repetition and maintenance of familiar and necessary connections, without the possibility of progress and surprise, without the experience in our communities of what, as David Remnick recently wrote, defines a city: “the constancy and the poetry of its encounters.”3 And a greater fear haunts some of us: What if it turns out that, for many people, a virtual life inhabited in isolation seems an adequate substitute for being human?4 This enforced isolation has directed our whole world’s attention immediately to the question of suffering that solitude presents.

The opposite of suffering could be comfort or consolation, both of which have in their etymologies the Latin prefix cum, which lends emphasis by adding the notion of accompaniment: comfort, to be strong alongside (and thus thoroughly), consolation, to be met in one’s solitude by a companion, to be kept whole through another’s service. To lack that other is the real suffering. 

My own early experiences showed me that suffering is closely linked to isolation. I had ear infections well more than the average kid. The throbbing pain is one problem, of course, but what is worse is that it feels like a pain no one can reach. I remember once curling up on the floor on my kindergarten blanket and trying to remain still enough that the pain would settle into a weird, thick deafness. I had a doctor, medicine, a concerned mother, and a secure place to rest, but I felt as if I were totally blocked off from the world, like my ear canal. You learn to handle such things with fortitude, but the isolating mystery of the suffering remains with you.

Podcast: What Is the Nature of Being Alone? with Fr. Stephen A. Gregg

Wheat Field with Cypresses, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Wheat Field with Cypresses, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

I saw something similar, though much graver, at the end of life, as my grandfather suffered the slow decline of Parkinson’s disease. He went from shuffling to speaking with difficulty to almost total paralysis. Once, near the end, my father, some uncles, and I were sitting around him, but he began to become agitated. From his moans and unclear gestures, we eventually discerned that he simply wanted to cross one leg over the other, so he could sit as he always used to, there among us for the last time. He calmed down once we helped him. Afterward, outside the room, his sons were upset because they remembered how brilliant, intense, and steady a man he had been. The painful challenge of the body was one part of his suffering, but a further pain for him and his loved ones was that, though his mind was still sharp, he could not communicate or act to express it. More and more of him was imprisoned within, past the reach of our consolation.

Suffering peaks with the isolation of the mind and heart. In Shakespeare’s King Lear (3.6), Edgar, himself half-mad in the guise of Poor Tom, sees the mental anguish of Lear and proclaims: 

Who alone suffers, suffers most i’ the mind,
Leaving free things and happy shows behind;
But then the mind much sufferance doth o’erskip
When grief hath mates and bearing fellowship.

Suffering is not merely physical pain but an inner test and gauge of our human connection to others. Those who suffer some kind of oppression in a society do not just bristle at the general injustice or at the worldly losses and inconveniences it may cause (great as these may be) but at the negation of their particular right to be recognized as part of the human community. Those who perpetrate oppression know this, as slave traders broke up families and tribal groups, or as a system such as Auschwitz attempted methodically to reduce individuals and cultural differences to chaos—“a perpetual Babel, in which everyone shouts orders and threats in languages never heard before, and woe betide whoever fails to grasp the meaning.”5 Our history shows us too many such depraved attempts, as if we human beings were eager to map out the exact boundary at which the individual soul ceases to be able to remain truly human, as if we wanted to know exactly what it takes to force someone across that line, and even to force ourselves across in insane self-desecration. You cannot say that the real problem is solitude here; we cannot so easily delineate what it means to suffer the worst kinds of abuse and violence or to face the consequences of war, famine, cataclysmic disaster. But in all those who suffer thus, we see how much the soul too can be wounded, how the outward evil can afflict the inmost heart. One aspect of suffering is this assault on the individual within, when solitude becomes part of the battleground: we risk the collapse into despair and hatred, or instead we hear the cry of love still resounding at the center—that existential reaching out to be treated with kindness, by which, in the darkest moments, we defy solitary oblivion and remain human, even if reduced only to our need for others. 

Separation from others is always an element of suffering. When Julius Caesar dies in Shakespeare’s play (3.1), we all know he cries out, “Et tu, Brute?” But he follows that with “Then fall, Caesar.” He feels the pain of many knife wounds, he sees the downfall of a political destiny, but what truly kills him is that “most unkindest cut of all,” the betrayal of his beloved Brutus. “Then fall, Caesar” is as much to say, “If my connection even to you has proved illusory, then let me be dead”; he is vanquished by “ingratitude,” as Antony interprets the story in the subsequent scene.

Perhaps in some ultimate view, isolation is the whole of suffering. I think of Dante’s Commedia, a poetic vision of the move from solitary darkness to shared light. A powerful though understated line in Inferno comes at the very end of Canto 5: “Mentre che l’uno spirto questo disse, / l’altro piangëa” (While the one spirit said this / the other wept).6 This canto takes us into the second circle of hell, where the lustful are represented most vividly to Dante in the figures of Paolo and Francesca da Rimini. The two were slain together, giving in to adulterous passion (she had married his horrible brother, who killed them), and now are blown about in the “hellish squall, which never rests.” Dante begs the story of Francesca, whose glorious speech, though told by her “as one who weeps in telling,” comes across as a kind of self-defense, or self-justification: but love made us do it! At the end of it all, right before Dante swoons for pity, we hear nothing from Paolo; we are only told, “While the one spirit [Francesca] said this / the other [Paolo] wept.” Is this the lovers’ dream of being together forever, even in death? No, the two have not conquered death and preserved an eternal bond; lustful abandonment of reason did not really bring them together. Rather, she seems self-satisfied, while he merely mourns. They do not tell the story together; imagine if Dante had composed a song here in alternating voices, as Shakespeare does when Romeo and Juliet first dance (1.5). No mutual song binds Paolo and Francesca; though they are blown about in the whirlwind together, they are not really connected to each other. Paolo weeps for the eternal solitude he suffers, a regretful brooding made all the worse by his being bound to the woman for whom he thoughtlessly fell, forever repeating her justification. It is not the suffering of the whirlwind that moves us to pity but those tears of unspeakable and unchanging loneliness.

Solitude as Suffering 

Solitude is inherent in the structure of radical suffering, yet it is also a danger in the normal day-to-day. The pain of solitude includes boredom and loneliness, but these trials are not the limits of the ways it can lead to deformity of the soul.

I am a monk; I live with other monks in a monastery. In our formation as monks striving to live a communal life, we often bump into this phrase from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (4:10): “Vae soli quia cum ruerit non habet sublevantem” (Woe to one who is alone, for when he falls he has no one to pick him up). Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, uses it to explain that an evil spirit can lead us to strive to outdo others, wake earlier, do more fasting, or go out into the desert—all with the purpose of getting us on our own where we will fail, nodding off to sleep in communal prayer, because we tried to get up earlier than the others for individual mortification.7 The lesson is that we who live by the Rule of St. Benedict need each other. Although hermits are also to be praised, to live that life well, one requires formation in community. Benedict writes in his Rule (1:4–5): “Thanks to the help and guidance of many, [hermits] are now trained to fight against the devil. They have built up their strength and go from the battle line in the ranks of their brothers to the single combat of the desert. Self-reliant now, without the support of another, they are ready to grapple single-handed with the vices of body and mind.” Solitude is single combat against the devil, and most are not ready for it; pride can lead us away from others to face this battle unprepared.

For all the caution about it, however, solitude does feature in the non-eremitic monastic life. I begin and end every day in a cell of my own, by myself; throughout the day, there are moments of solitary prayer and work, and even time spent with others is often spent in silence or with public reading. Moreover, I am unhooked from the pursuits of family and career, of fame and pleasure. But the monastic life is to be seen more as a regular than as a solitary form of life; we are not hermits. By a rule of life (regula), in fact, we are compelled to be more social than we might want to be, with many more meals in common and time together than a lot of families have, and with a basic unity of common work. The whole of life is regulated by patterns we share with all the others: the bells that ring; the times we need to be together in certain places, doing certain things; bowing together; kneeling together; rising together; chanting together (if possible). Our doctors sometimes remark that elderly monks tend to live longer than people outside the monastery because they are surrounded continually by other monks with whom to speak, whom they can observe, who are young, and so on; they do not suffer the isolation typical of advanced old age, and the communal life is healing. Thus, the wisdom of this particular spiritual tradition does found itself on a liberating kind of solitude or separation, but it also emphasizes the necessity of community for real spiritual security and even for basic well-being. Vae soli, because on his own, man can so easily sink into pride, into idleness, into danger. The soul is individual, but it needs company for its health, not just its entertainment.

As a young student of Latin, I learned this proverb: “Homo solus aut deus aut daemon” (A man on his own is either a god or a devil). This is sometimes attributed to Aristotle because he writes, in the Politics, “One who cannot associate with others or does not need association with others because of self-sufficiency is no part of a state but is either a brute or a god” (ἢ θηρίον ἢ θεός) (1253a).8 The Latin proverb turns Aristotle’s “beast,” or “brute,” into daemon, but the point is still clear: solitary man can be great, can be a saint, can be self-sufficient like a divinity, but he is as likely to go the other way, and being really human means being in some association. You do not have to go far in ancient Greek philosophy to notice the importance of the polis, of the city, state, or whatever words for the political community we use (monastery? religious assembly?). And this remains central, even as we recognize the importance of a figure such as Socrates, who is rejected and executed by the city of Athens, who spends his life, yes, in dialogue with the youth (forming his own city?), but who also has the habit of “wandering off and standing for hours in a solitary trance,” as we read in the Symposium, and whose concern in the Gorgias is not to “contradict or clash” with himself even if everyone else is against him.9 The city rulers end up taking Socrates to be a devil, a madman, a dangerous beast, while others take him as a kind of god; no one leaves his presence unchallenged. There is always something exciting and dangerous about the individual—not only for himself but also for others.

The possibility of imagining the solitary man as an almost divine figure fades away in some corners of the modern world. In his essay “On Friendship,” Francis Bacon (1561–1626) opens by specifically denying the aforementioned proverb, or at least the part about homo solus being a god. He acknowledges the value of “sequestering a man’s self for a higher conversation” (i.e., a higher way of life) but, in reality, insists that the community of friends is necessary for being human: “It is a mere and miserable solitude to want [be lacking] true friends; without which the world is but a wilderness; and even in this sense also of solitude, whosoever in the frame of his nature and affections is unfit for friendship, he taketh it of the beast, and not from humanity.”10 More than a century later, the great Samuel Johnson also affirms in an essay11 that the man perfected in solitude may be “elevated above the mists of mortality” but should also consider that his piety, “however free from taints of impurity, yet wants the sacred splendour of beneficence.”12 Virtue needs to shine upon others, and true humanity is lived among others.13

The solitary life is not only difficult for human beings physically but also dangerous for the human soul14 and thus can itself be a form of serious suffering. I hesitate to bring up Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, that sprawling compendium published in ever-expanding form from 1621 onward,15 but it does offer marvelous insight into the danger of solitude. In fact, on its last page, Burton summarizes his advice for the good health of body and mind thus: “Observe this short precept, give not way to solitariness and idleness. ‘Be not solitary, be not idle.’”16 Toward the end of part 1, section 2, member 2, subsection 6, Burton examines how indulgence in voluntary solitude is one of the paths by which melancholy deforms the soul to make us “degenerate from men, and of sociable creatures become beasts, monsters, inhuman, ugly to behold, misanthropi” (249) to the point of self-loathing and hatred of others. His portrait of this descent into madness is extraordinary though typically prolix. He begins by noting how nice it can at first be for people to be on their own, “to melancholize, and build castles in the air, to go smiling to themselves, acting an infinite variety of parts” in their imagination; this is so pleasant that it can go on for days and nights, until this virtual life starts getting in the way of doing anything else. But those dwelling in this solitary melancholic inner world are threatened:  

They run earnestly on in this labyrinth of anxious and solicitous melancholy meditations, and cannot well or willingly refrain, or easily leave off, winding and unwinding themselves as so many clocks, and still pleasing their humours, until at last the scene is turned upon a sudden by some bad object, and they, being now habituated to such vain meditations and solitary places, can endure no company, can ruminate of nothing but harsh and distasteful subjects. Fear, sorrow, suspicion, subrusticus pudor [a clumsy shyness], discontent, cares, and weariness of life surprise them in a moment, and they can think of nothing else, continually suspecting; no sooner are their eyes open, but this infernal plague of melancholy seizeth on them, and terrifies their souls, representing some dismal object to their minds, which now by no means, no labour, no persuasions they can avoid. (247)

Solitude may start as a kind of leisure, but for Burton, it develops not just into boredom or sadness but into full-fledged and inescapable madness and misanthropy. One might think of King Richard II in Shakespeare’s play, in prison with his “generation of still-breeding thoughts” (5.5), or in a vein that comes out lighter, the likewise melancholy Jaques in As You Like It, with his general irritability and his “All the world’s a stage” meditation on death (2.7). The human mind, on its own, becomes an overwound clock, ticking away in the labyrinth—the mind rendered useless not by idleness but by the ever less avoidable awareness of dark and evil objects of thought.

Mountain Solitude (Lake Oesa), J. E. H. MacDonald, 1932

Mountain Solitude (Lake Oesa), J. E. H. MacDonald, 1932

How many of us, in days of quarantine, have been reduced to strange levels of terror and unease by the videos or press conferences or statistics or behaviors we have observed, by the harsh things we could find no way to free our minds from? Leisure in isolation so easily turns to poison. Thus, solitude is not only a feature of suffering but is itself a dangerous and trying place for the human soul.

The Necessity of Solitude 

This exploration of the darkness of solitude and its perils should not, however, lead us to deny the need for solitude, and even its basic goodness. In fact, if we fail to recognize the positive value of the solitary human being, we may by fleeing one danger  fall into the other of having no identity at all, of watching all we know as self slip away from us.

The value of solitude is not a question of leisure alone. Although much can be said in favor of leisure—not just recreation, but something like what we find in Josef Pieper’s wonderful little treatise Leisure, the Basis of Culture, in which contemplation and wonder, for example, are part not of work but of leisure—that would really be a different topic than the good of solitude. For one thing, leisure is not always attained without companions. Furthermore, the attempts to convert this quarantine time of 2020 into a kind of leisure have not been very convincing—that now you have time to learn more languages, derive calculus, invent modern epistemology, write King Lear—as if a time of panicky confusion about daily survival were the best time to finish that novel you have been working on for years. Self-improvement may demand a certain solitude and freedom from the normal burdens of work, as do all scholastic and creative efforts of sustained concentration. But to convert the study of solitude into the study of leisure is to make solitude merely an opportunity for something else, rather than focusing on what solitude itself reveals about us and can help us with.

When we looked at some views of the ills of solitude, we also observed how they can provide a kind of space for the perfected individual—from Socrates lost in thought on his way to the symposium to Benedict’s hermit trained to self-reliance by the communal life. “Homo solus aut deus aut daemon”—in other words, sometimes a “demon,” so maybe sometimes a kind of “god.” Solitude is the testing ground for a certain capacity (i.e., the capacity for being on one’s own—an extension of what a child experiences when removing the training wheels or taking its first solo swim, or even its first steps, for that matter) and for a new sense of being able to reach others more by being more capable in oneself. An elementary understanding of self is essential to all further efforts. Those who want to get married simply because they are tired of themselves and incapable of being on their own probably do not face a promising future. The self needs a testing ground to learn to stand on its own, or else it sinks into being an unbearable burden to itself and others.

Solitude and separation call into question our capacity to be individuals, and this capacity is a good that needs practice and strengthening in order for us actually to enter into community well. One author who calls us to this practice is the great sixteenth-century French (or Gascon) writer Michel de Montaigne, who is, in some sense, the father of the essay. In his essay “Of Solitude,” he beautifully communicates the need for solitude: we must not only get away from people but “must get away from the gregarious instincts that are inside us, we must sequester ourselves and repossess ourselves” (213).17 This means escaping the lures of ambition and reputation by recognizing that “a man of understanding has lost nothing, if he has himself” (214) and that “the greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself” (216).

What Montaigne recognized in his own experience is that in order to live well we need two distinct but connected “spaces,” an outward and an inward realm:

We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can; but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them. We must reserve a back shop (arrière boutique) all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place; here we must talk and laugh as if without wife, without children, without possessions, without retinue and servants, so that, when the time comes to lose them, it will be nothing new to us to do without them. We have a soul that can be turned upon itself; it can keep itself company; it has the means to attack and the means to defend, the means to receive and the means to give: let us not fear that in this solitude we shall stagnate in tedious idleness.18 (214–215)

The “back shop” is a marvelous image: we have a little storefront zone for commerce with the world, and a space behind the shop to live (I permit myself to think of an apartment above a shop). One element here is obviously a kind of Stoic self-defense—the quest for detachment even from the best goods in this world of family, prosperity, and health. We learn to govern ourselves in the face of losses by preparing for them ahead of time, acknowledging to ourselves that we will lose all things; if we cannot be happy simply within ourselves, we cannot be happy at all.19 This freedom from attachment actually gives rise to the real liberty of enjoyment; for all its importance, joy comes from taking things lightly, which is to say, at their proper weight. Free joy comes from such wise detachment, through not approaching all of reality as our own private possession to be defended publicly, in the storefront. In this way, we can reach what Thomas Merton taught in No Man Is an Island: “True solitude is the solitude of charity, which ‘seeketh not her own.’”20 Perhaps my inner freedom is what will make me an instrument of others’ freedom.

Detachment trains the soul for strength by a kind of mental asceticism, but this distinct back shop is also a place of discovery where we can establish our real liberty. We all acknowledge in some way that we are free individuals, but the truth is that to live this well, we must really discover our individuality, as well as safeguard and train it, as more a matter of self-knowledge than of self-expression. For this, solitude is necessary and requires work: “Retire into yourself, but first prepare to receive yourself there” (221), Montaigne writes. Perhaps the pain of isolation in this viral quarantine for many has been that they had not prepared at all to be with themselves so much; their individual self was merely a matter of outward and often inauthentic self-expression, not of interior discourse and freedom. 

It is hard to find rest in oneself, yet that is the challenge Montaigne poses. His advice is calmly human and plain: leave ambition away from solitude, “fix [your mind] on definite and limited thoughts in which it may take pleasure; and, after understanding the true blessings, which we enjoy in so far as we understand them, to rest content with them, without any desire to prolong life and reputation” (222). He does not even want us to think of solitude as preparation, and he argues against the “ostentatious and talky philosophy” of Pliny and Cicero and those who “have only stepped back to make a better jump, to get a stronger impetus wherewith to plunge deeper into the crowd” (221). To make a good of our solitude does not mean using it to accomplish all the things on our list we do not have time for normally (i.e., all the reading programs and home improvements, all the little projects); in fact, that would drive us crazy. We need to be able to rest within ourselves and find that presence and existence are enough. Solitude is not something to be avoided or to be converted into opportunity but a state to be managed well for itself and for its ability to bring us back to ourselves, content to know life for a moment—even if that means preparing to face the demons that haunt the solitary wilderness and recognizing the painful voids within the heart, and nevertheless resisting the urge to run away from ourselves and throw ourselves senselessly upon others. We must be able to stand without terror at the spiritual boundary between self and other.

God and Solitude 

Anyone can see that, for the religious person, solitude would be different. I am not thinking of that presumptuous vibe some apparently religious people give off, that “God is their co-pilot.” In fact, for the religious person, solitude presents even greater challenges. If God exists, can anyone be truly alone?21 “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). Again, we have Paul’s appeal to the Athenians in the Acts of the Apostles: “In [God] we live and move and have our being” (17:28); the second-century Christian apologist Theophilus of Antioch writes of God as “not contained but Himself the locus of the universe” (Ad Autolycum 2.3), seeing, governing, and sustaining all. Augustine praises God famously: “You were more deeply within me than the innermost part of my being, higher than what was highest in me” (Confessions 3.6.11).22 While solitude denotes a kind of isolation of the human person, a God who is omnipresent—not in some physical sense but even beyond the inner depth of the person—changes the way we understand solitude.

People go out into solitary places not to find themselves only but to find God; religious traditions pass on many stories of God drawing individuals or peoples out into the desert or to the high mountain, for some revelation. It need not be a terribly mystical journey: Benedict of Nursia, for example, the father of Western monasticism, left his education in Rome because he saw how vicious all the students were and feared for himself; he went in search of a holy way of life, settling eventually in the caves of Subiaco, “wishing to please God alone.”23 Later, after a group of monks asked him to be abbot but then, unable to handle his discipline, tried to poison him, he left them and “returned to the place of his beloved solitude and lived with himself, alone in the sight of Him who watches from on high.”24 Likewise, the gradual path of separation from the world traversed by Anthony of Egypt, the father of all Christian monasticism, began even as a child, when “he burned with a desire for God and lived a life of simplicity at home,”25 rather than reading and writing and playing silly games with other children. He was ready to move farther and farther into the desert to live a life of radical austerity, “as if he was entering battle each day and wished to prove himself to be what he knew was worthy in the sight of God: pure of heart and ready to obey God’s will.”26 These men had a single audience, their God, and from that one-on-one experience arose their broader communal role. So from very early on in the Christian tradition, the faithful pursued solitude as a path to God. Jesus himself spent forty days in the desert after his baptism (Matthew 4 and parallels) and went into solitude many times, up to the agony in the garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper (Matthew 26:36ff. and parallels).27

In the nineteenth century, John Henry Newman also knew the important spiritual grace of solitude. In the third part of his Apologia pro Vita Sua, “History of My Religious Opinions up to 1833,” he tells a story of his early days at Oxford:28

During the first years of my residence at Oriel, though proud of my College, I was not quite at home there. I was very much alone, and I used often to take my daily walk by myself. I recollect once meeting Dr. Copleston, then Provost, with one of the Fellows. He turned round, and with the kind courteousness which sat so well on him, made me a bow and said, “Nunquam minus solus, quàm cùm solus” [Never less alone than when alone].29 (136)

The provost is politely recognizing the young man as a member of the learned community, offering a kind of philosophical compliment from Cicero: at the beginning of book three of his De Officiis, Cicero repeats the praise of Scipio, “That he was never less at leisure than in his leisure-time, and was never less lonely than when he was on his own.”30 But in reviewing his life’s development, we see this solitude was also of a religious significance for Newman. Earlier in the same section of the Apologia, he speaks of his inner conversion as a teenager, saying that the Calvinist works presented to him then had these important effects: “In isolating me from the objects which surrounded me, in confirming me in my mistrust of the reality of material phenomena, and making me rest in the thought of two and two only supreme and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.” This statement worries people, who then see Newman as solipsistic or at least self-centered.31 But anyone can see that, in his long life, Newman did not rest forever in such a minimalist vision of religious experience, and if we see here a fifteen-year-old awakening to his own individuality as a spiritual being entwined with an awareness of the presence of God, we can understand the beauty of the strange expression. Leaving aside questions of “election” and “final perseverance” that can divide Protestant and Catholic Christian theologies about the individual’s being chosen by God (and thus their views of Newman’s development), we see a solitude that has been made rich by the “luminously self-evident” interchange of two beings, “myself and my Creator.”32 I think, therefore we are.  

We find this quiet recognition of mutual presence in the ancient Christian monks of the Egyptian desert too. Solitude was a battlefield but also a resting place. In the collection The Desert Fathers, Abbot Antony says, “Who sits in solitude and is quiet hath escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing: yet against one thing shall he continually battle: that is, his own heart.”33 The desert for them is a place of intense combat, of temptation, of struggle against evil thoughts and against devils. But the quest for inner peace is not a solitary or selfish struggle: the abbot Allois says, “Unless a man shall say in his heart, ‘I alone and God are in this world,’ he shall not find quiet.”34 Such sayings are challenges to our religious life, which in many traditions is also configured as essentially communal.35 Nevertheless, this lesson of solitude is important: not all (perhaps few) are called to the direct and intense ascetic struggle, and few are given the grace of a Newman to see it so clearly from youth onward, but if the believer cannot imagine ever reaching the point when simply the connection of God and himself is enough, he risks ultimately not wanting to be in the presence of the God he believes in, and so following belief for some other reason. Solitude presents this extra challenge to the believer, because he must recognize that God is in some way always there. Can I really be there too? Do I dare? Can I insist on facing God as much as Job does?36Or does the idea of a solitary moment with God Himself drive me away into other distractions, into all the danger of a solitude badly lived? The religious person must prepare himself even more than Montaigne suggested one must, because the solitude we face is potentially, at least in the Christian view, a solitude of spiritual intimacy.

Toward the end of Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis presents a challenge:

What can you ever really know of other people’s souls—of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. If there is a God, you are, in a sense, alone with Him. You cannot put Him off with speculations about your next door neighbours or memories of what you have read in books. What will all that chatter and hearsay count (will you even be able to remember it?) when the anaesthetic fog which we call “nature” or “the real world” fades away and the Presence in which you have always stood becomes palpable, immediate, and unavoidable? (184) 37

We have explored the question of solitude abundantly and we all know the experience, but from this theological point of view, final solitude simply does not exist for the living soul. If we want to convince ourselves that we can hide from this presence, we have only one way: hell. Solitude is a form of suffering in this world only insofar as we make it resemble hell; otherwise it is a preparation for life with God and a possible foretaste of His presence. Hell is not just a vision of retribution but of self-imposed isolation; from a biblical view, hell is the extension and finalization of Adam and Eve’s trying to hide from God in the garden (Genesis 3:8), and (as I was catechized in youth) it is the three-fold alienation of sin (alienation from self, from neighbor, and from God) as well as the inversion of the Great Commandment to love God and to love neighbor as oneself. The death of the soul is abiding in true and absolute solitude. Lewis puts it well in The Problem of Pain:

The characteristic of lost souls is “their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves.”38 Our imaginary egoist has tried to turn everything he meets into a province or appendage of the self. The taste for the other, that is, the very capacity for enjoying good, is quenched in him except in so far as his body still draws him into some rudimentary contact with an outer world. Death removes this last contact. He has his wish—to lie wholly in the self and to make the best of what he finds there. And what he finds there is Hell.39 (125)

The only real solitude is the exile we force upon ourselves and extend into the world by the conquest of refusing to be in communion; the wind that freezes Satan into the bottom of the pit of Cocytus in Dante’s Inferno is the wind stirred by the beating of Satan’s own wings (34.52). Hell, the vision of final suffering, is really a form of solitude.

Rowing Home the School-Stuff, Peter Henry Emerson, 1886

Rowing Home the School-Stuff, Peter Henry Emerson, 1886

For the religious person, spiritual disciplines inform the experience of solitude in this life so that in solitude we learn the “taste for the other” and are prepared for what is beyond ourselves by finding what is truly within ourselves. We Christian monks, in a continual round of prayer based largely on our scriptures and especially the Psalms, find many different ways of “reading” our experience. A voice can be discerned in the quiet but constant breeze of inspired words, a pattern noticed in the innumerable points of light filling the dark sky. One such pattern is the gradual recognition of God’s presence. One might meditate on a progression like this one: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13). “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139). “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me” (Psalm 23). These prayers seem to be drawing us to consider God’s presence, offering us different measures with which to assess it, or our sense of it. In fact, these Psalms form within us the question about our solitude and seek to convert that solitude not only into communal worship but also into a communion with a mysteriously present God. The faithful person does not generally perceive God’s presence as some immediate, obvious, and vivid reality, discoursing at his side just like another human person;40 rather, our tradition, as I am sure many others do, provides a way toward perceiving this mysterious presence even in solitude, or perhaps necessarily through an experience of solitude.

The conversion of solitude at this level is indeed mysterious and gradual, and thus is difficult to discern. So it demands commitment. By no means does being religious solve the “problem” of solitude. Solitude always presents a danger and has in it the frightful trace of hell; moreover, all suffering somehow sparks the fear or feeling of that final danger of isolation. What do I need as I pass through the “darkest valley,” the “valley of the shadow of death”? What communion will not only relieve suffering but illuminate me, transform my inmost being, and restore my taste for the other?


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