A few summers ago, I decided to spend three months in a Trappist monastery. I was tired out from a very busy year within which my work kept me over-active, over-involved and over-stimulated, I was looking for solitude, and in the weeks and days immediately preceding my departure for the monastery, I began more and more to fantasize about how good it was going to feel spending those months in solitude.
I imagined myself walking in silence around a peaceful lake, sitting by a fireplace smoking a pipe, making visits to the chapel to pray and sitting under an oak tree drinking in the serenity of the distant mountains.
I arrived at the monastery in the early afternoon and could hardly wait to begin all this solitude and… by late evening, I was restless and climbing walls. I had already done almost all of the contemplative things about which I had fantasized. I had walked around the lake, smoked my pipe by the fireplace, visited the chapel twice and sat under the oak tree and drank in the mountains!
Now I was in a panic, wondering what I would do for the rest of the summer—with no work to do, no meetings to go to, no classes to teach, no talks to give, no newspapers to read, no movies or television to watch, no picnics to go to with the family and friends, no sports scores to watch over.
I suddenly felt very sorry that I had gotten myself into this commitment. Also, at that moment—hyper, restless, dislocated, disillusioned and in panic—I began to enter into solitude.
My case, I suspect, is typical. Our fantasy about solitude most often sees it precisely as leisured serenity, a quiet walk in the woods, a peaceful contemplation of some scene of beauty, or a consoling time spent sitting in a chapel or church.
The reality is, normally, exactly the opposite. Real solitude most often hits us unawares and sends us reeling. Almost always the initial stages of solitude are extremely painful and are experienced as dislocation, disillusionment and intense loneliness.
Moreover, like real prayer, genuine solitude is often not something we choose for ourselves. More often, solitude is the experience of being taken, against our own choosing, where we would rather not go.
We are led into solitude. Thus, for example, we are led into it in our experience of moral loneliness, namely, on those occasions when, alone or within a group, we feel ourselves radically isolated, a minority of one, in terms of what we hold precious and value deeply.
It is when we feel most without moral companionship, when we feel out of sync with everyone else, dislocated, disillusioned, naked and alone, that we are led into solitude. This is the desert that constitutes solitude and it is always, initially, very painful—and it is rare that we go there of our own choosing. Most often we end up there after having exhausted every means of escaping the experience.
In John’s Gospel (John 21) after Peter swears his love for him, Jesus tells him: “Until now, you have girded your belt and walked where you wanted to walk. Now others will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go!”
John informs us that Jesus said this to indicate the type of death Peter was to die. Prayer and solitude are a lot about a certain kind of death—death to narcissism, to fantasy; to illusion, to false grandiosity, and to false beliefs and values.
Rarely do we walk into the desert that purifies us of these by ourselves. Generally it is a conspiracy of circumstances, more accurately called divine providence, that puts a rope around us and leads us where we would rather not go. Most of our solitude is by conscription. It is rarely by our active choosing that we are taken into the real desert.
This should, I hope, be valuable to us in helping us understand what is happening to us during those times when we feel so dislocated, isolated, alone and morally lonely. We are experiencing desert pain, the rope of baptismal displacement that Jesus told Peter about, the dark night of the soul, the painful purification of real contemplation.
Real solitude is not the type that one normally reads about in the tourist brochures… or that one fantasizes about when one is over-tired and over-restless! It is important, at those times when we are most lonely and in pain, to know this.
But it is the type of solitude that, because it is so disillusioning, precisely dispels illusion. It also dispels fantasy and narcissism because it takes us out of a dream world into the real world.
And it is, ironically, this type of painful aloneness that is the basis for real community since, as Rainer Marie Rilke once said, love is the capacity of two solitudes to protect and border and greet each other.