Thoughts on Solitude


  Solitude is necessary for both the private life and the spiritual life of celibate person.  Many people today are afraid of being alone.  Solitude help us face this fear; it helps us face ourselves.  Celibacy is a positive choosing of solitude.  Celibacy comes from the Latin word meaning alone.  The celibate chooses solitude because he or she can grow within it.  He or she feels called to a more solitary life than people have the opportunity to live.


Solitude is not withdrawal, it is not rebellion; it is not private religion it is not a return to the womb.  Solitude is not necessarily being a hermit.  One of the best essays on the philosophy of solitude is that by T Merton – Notes for a philosophy of solitude-

‘Why write about solitude in the first place? Certainly not in order to preach it, to exhort, people to become solitary.  What could be more absurd? Those who are to become solitary are, as a rule, solitary already.  At most they are not yet aware of their conditioning.  In which case, all they need is to discover it.  But in reality all men are solitary.  Only most of them are so averse to being alone, or to feeling alone, that they do everything they can to forget their solitude.  How?  Perhaps in large measure by what Pascal called, ‘divertissement’‑diversion, systematic distraction.  By these occupations and recreations so mercifully provided by society, which enable a man to avoid his own company for twenty four hours a day’.


The solitary side of a person refuses to live by being amused.  It resists the tyranny of diversion.  In solitude, as well as with others, one can face himself, others and God.  True solitude‑not the anti‑social attitude of withdrawal, not the anti‑establishment solitude of rebellion, not the anti-catholic of private religion, not the immature fear of life which longs to return to womb, but the solitude of man or woman who wants to grow and to love and to be – the solitude of one who faces risk of life by facing himself.  True solitude confronts the irrational element within one’s self and one’s universe in the face of which faith becomes a possibility.  Solitude facilitates facing life in such a way that faith is an appropriate response to life.


It is not that some men are solitary and others are social.  All are both solitary and social and all must face both.  Solitude in itself a social reality in that it is shared by everyone.  Merton writes;

‘What the solitary renounces is not his union other men, but rather the deceptive fictions and inadequate symbols which tens to take the place of a social unity‑to produce a facade of apparent unity without really uniting them on a deep level.  For example – the excitement and fictitious engagement of a football crowd.’


The solitary side of life seeks union with others just as the social side of life does.  It simply seeks union in a different way.  The goal of solitude as well as of intimacy is love.  Both find their fullness in the life of charity – the supreme hallmark of the spiritual life.  Traditional spiritual theology sees charity as the goal of the spiritual life ‑ this insight remains unchanged in contemporary asceticism.  If solitude does not lead to love,it is not true solitude.  Its goal, as well as well as the goal of the whole spiritual life, as well as the goal of sexuality, is compassion.  Compassion is identity with mankind and the task of identity is not constructively resolved until this takes place.  My universality is the ultimate goal of both sexual and spiritual identity.  The task of identity is to realise that I am one with all, that Atman is Brahman, that God is in me and I in Him, that we are all one as the Father and His Son are one, as vine and branches are one, as a body is one although it has many members.

Merton writes:

“Compassion teaches me that my brother and I are one.”

Luke’s counterpart to Matthew is, “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.”


Within a sexual environment based on orgasm, the celibate is a failure and a contradiction.  Within a social environment based on diversion a solitary man or woman is likewise a failure and contradiction.  Merton writes,

“In the eyes of our conformist society, the hermit is nothing but a failure.  He has to be, a failure – we have absolutely no use for him, no place for him.  He is outside all projects, plans, assemblies, movements.  We can countenance him as long as he remains only a fiction, a dream.  As soon as he becomes real we are revolted by his insignificance, his poverty, his shabbiness, his total lack of status.  Even those who consider themselves contemplatives often cherish a secret contempt for the solitary.  For in the contemplative life of the hermit there is none of that noble security, that intelligent depth, that artistic finesse, which the more academic contemplative seeks in his sedate respectability.


The solitary is first of all one who renounces this arbitrary social imagery.  When his nation wins a war or sends a rocket to the moon, he can get along without feeling as if he personally had won the war or hit the moon with a rocket.


The monk is compassionate in proportion as he is less practical and less successful, because the job of being a success in a competitive society leaves one no time for compassion.


A solitary person has his eccentricities.  These are not impediments, however, to human maturity.  He realised not only his obligation to human maturity but to spiritual maturity as well.  Solitude must be based on prayer and meditation.  Just as its social goal is compassion so its spiritual goal is contemplation.  Compassion and contemplation are elements of mature Christian living.  ‘Without solitude of some sort there is and can be no maturity’ Merton writes.  Solitude not only contributes to psycho-social growth; it forms along with intimacy the private life of man.  The private life of a celibate person is as important as is his public life.  His public life is lived out in community and ministry; his private life is discovered in intimacy and solitude.  All four of these are of importance if we are to be mature.  Solitude forces a person to face his or her true self.’

Loius Bouyer write, “solitude alone allows a man to discover, and so to face, all the obscure forces that he bears within himself.  The man who does not know how to be alone, does not know either (and secretly does not wish to know) what conflicts there are in the depths of his heart, conflicts that he feels that he is incapable of untangling, even of touching.  Solitude is a terrible trial, for it serves to crack open and burst apart the shell of our superficial securities.”


Although we often associate solitude with hermitage, solitude is not isolation.  There is a solitary dimension to all of us.  There is a priceless solitude in celibate life.  Merton points out that there is solitude in cenobitic life.  Solitude is found in interior peace and quiet.  It exists within as well as without.  Its interiority is silence.  It is not necessarily loneliness although it sometimes may be experienced that way.  Silence itself is social.  It is a form of human communication.  It is communication with self, God and others.  There is the silence of listening – to self, to God, to others.  There is the silence of awe – for art, for nature, for God.  There are realities for which the only appropriate form of communication is silence.  There is the silence beyond words – as in mystical union or sexual union.  We are reminded of the lover in the Song of Songs who after every possible extravagance of language realise the insufficiency of words.  Love requires silence together and silence can communicate love – whether the love of holding hands, the love of just being near, or the love of just being.  The aspiration of the solitary side of life is just to be.  All I want to do God is just to be!

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