“I would like to voice loudly and clearly what might seem unpopular and maybe even disturbing: The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift.” – Henri Nouwen
When drafting this post, I didn’t know whether to end the title with a question mark or an exclamation point. Loneliness and solitude are two fundamentally opposed yet connected states of being. As I’ve written before, in order to grow, we must move from loneliness to solitude. But how does that happen? Is it possible for all people? And can loneliness ever be truly defeat?
It is probably easiest to start with that last question. And the answer is no. Loneliness is an existential condition of being human. There is no one else in our heads, no other human being seeing and hearing our thoughts, which is probably a great comfort to many of us if we really stop to think about it. This “aloneness” is either experienced as loneliness or solitude, either unhealthily or healthily. But being people, thrown into the world and always already incomplete, loneliness cannot be fully purged, and there are many who have tried.
Can all of us move from loneliness to solitude? I believe that it is possible for all people, but there are vastly different challenges. For some, there is tremendous psychological damage, and that takes professional help to untangle and to heal. But I believe that Jesus offers all of us hope, through his community, the Church, and through the gifts of listening, counselling, and befriending. He said, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Loneliness is unrestful place to be. In solitude, we lay down our own burdens and take up the life of Christ. And all are invited.
We are invited, and God in Jesus Christ took the first step, by coming among us and being one of us. Creator entered creation, so that all creation might be restored and brought into full relationship with God, who is closer to us than we are to ourselves, as St Augustine said. We are invited into solitude; solitude with God, with the Spirit, the breath, of God. In this solitude, we can hear what God is saying about who God is, who we are, and where this world is going. That is why the Christian tradition has so long protected and practised the discipline of solitude, of silence, of mediation.
So, how can I move today from loneliness to solitude? There would be several recommendations, but I would suggest and have practised myself, some mediation. Consider the Scripture quoted above from Matthew 11. Find a quiet place, relax and settle in. This can take a few minutes. Focus on your breathing, on breathing in the presence of God and breathing out the distractions of your day. Listen to your heartbeat. Listen to your breath, and know that God is sustaining you, God is with you, and that God will never leave you. After some time, whenever you feel ready, close your mediation by reading the passage of Scripture again, and as you go about your day, ponder it again and ask how you can be laying down your burdens. Also, if you fall asleep, that’s okay. God is holding you in rest.
May we all learn to rest in the God that moves us from loneliness to solitude, and that let’s us take on the yoke of Christ, that is, the knowledge that we are the beloved of God, welcomed, accepted, and never forsaken.