Nothing so much approximates the language of God as silence. So writes Meister Eckhard. Among other things this tells us that there is a certain inner work that we can only do by ourselves, alone, in silence. There is a certain depth and interiority that can only be had at a price, silence and solitude. Some things we can only learn alone.
But that’s half of an equation: There is also the axiom: Communities are schools of charity. There is too a certain maturity, health, sanity, and resiliency that can only be had by interacting with others. Certain things can only learned by being with others.
The Christian spiritual tradition has always emphasized both, though rarely at the same time.
On the one hand, spiritual writers have always tended to put an important emphasis on the type of inner work that can only be done in private prayer and contemplation. That is why silence is judged to be so important while on a retreat: “How can you be serious about prayer and conversion unless you are willing to face, in silence, the chaos inside your own heart?” To fear or shun silence generally brings with it the judgment that you are superficial, shallow, fearful of depth, and afraid to be alone with God and yourself. Sometimes this is true. We often do fear being silent and alone because we are afraid of what we might find there. As Thomas Merton puts it, there is a hidden wholeness at the heart of things but, because we are afraid that we might find chaos there instead, we fear being alone and silent long enough to journey to the heart of things. It is far safer on the surface. The emphasis on interiority and silence in classical spiritual writings is trying to ease precisely this fear in us so as to challenge us to a silence and solitude within which we can face ourselves and journey to the heart of things.
On the other hand, Christian spirituality has also always emphasized the social aspect of our lives, family, church-going, and involvement within a community. The social dimension of life too has always been considered a non-negotiable element within a healthy spiritual life. Most of the same writings that emphasize silence and solitude also emphasize being within a family or a community and participating in church life. They warn that there is a real danger in being too private, in being too caught up inside of ourselves, in avoiding community, in being on a private quest without enough concern for the family and community.
Both emphases, taken alone, are one-sided: An emphasis on silence and solitude alone tends to penalize extroverts, just as an emphasis on community and church alone tends to penalize introverts. Too rarely have we struck a healthy balance on this.
Both are necessary and both are necessary within the life of the same person. Simply put, there is a certain inner work that can only be done alone, in silence, just as there is a certain growth and maturity that can be only be reached through long faithful interaction within a family and community. There is a time to be alone, away from others, and there is a time to be with others, away from the private fantasies within our own minds. Being silent and being social do different things for us. If I am alone and silent too much, I will probably develop a certain depth, but I also stand the chance of living too much inside my own fantasies. Conversely, if I am a social-butterfly who shuns silence and aloneness, the danger is that I will end up rather shallow and superficial, uninterested in anything beyond the gossip of the day, but I may well posses a balance, sanity, and resiliency that is less evident in the person more given to silence and solitude.
We need both, silence and socializing, in our lives and pitting one against the other is a false dichotomy. They aren’t in opposition to each other but are both vital components of the same journey towards a community of life with God and each other.
There is a great paradox within the mystery of intimacy and communion, namely, sometimes it is when we are most alone and in silence that we are really most in communion with each other, just as sometimes it is in the midst of a social gathering that we are most alone. Conversely, sometimes it is when we are most social, sharing with others, that we sense most deeply the mystery of God’s ineffable presence, even as it is sometimes when we are most alone and silent in prayer that we feel most strongly that God is absent. This is the great paradox, being alone is meant to lead us into deeper communion with each other and socializing with each other is meant to lead us into a deeper individual union with God.
Introverts and extroverts equally struggle and are equally privileged.