The Art of Solitude

“Recollection without faith confines the spirit in a prison without light or air. Interior asceticism should not end by locking us in such a prison. It would only defeat all the purposes of God’s grace by doing so. Faith establishes us in recollection not by setting limits to the activity of the soul, but by removing all the limitations of our natural intelligence and will, freeing the mind from doubt and the will from hesitation, so that the spirit is let loose by God and plunges into the depths of His invisible freedom. 

Recollection is almost the same thing as interior solitude. It is in recollection that we discover the finite solitude of our own heart, and the infinite solitude of God dwelling within us. Unless these vast horizons have opened out in the center of our lives, we can hardly see things in perspective…

How many there are who have solitude and do not love it, because their solitude is without recollection! It is only loneliness. It does nothing to bring them to themselves. They are alone because in their solitude they are separated from God, and from other men, and even from themselves. They are like souls wandering out of hell and finding their way by mistake into heaven, only to discover that heaven is more of a hell to them than hell itself. So it is with those who are forced into the heaven of solitude and cannot taste its joy because they know no recollection. 

The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God. Such a one is alone with God in all places, and he alone truly enjoys the companionship of other men, because he loves them in God in Whom their presence is not tiresome, and because of Whom his own love for them can never know satiety. 

Solitude is so necessary both for society and for the individual that when society fails to provide sufficient solitude to develop the inner life of the persons who compose it, they rebel and seek false solitudes. 

A false solitude is a point of vantage from which an individual, who has been denied the right to become a person, takes revenge on society by turning his individuality into a destructive weapon. True solitude is found in humility, which is infinitely rich. False solitude is the refuge of pride, and is infinitely poor. The poverty of false solitude comes from an allusion which pretends, by adorning itself and things that can never possess, to distinguish one individual self from the mass of other men. True solitude is selfless. Therefore, it is rich in silence and charity and peace. It finds in itself seemingly exact inexhaustible resources of good to bestow on other people. False solitude is self-centered. And because it finds nothing in its own center, it seeks to draw all things into itself. But everything it touches becomes infected with its own nothingness, and falls apart. True solitude cleanses the soul and lays it wide open to the four winds of generosity. False solitude locks the door against all men and pours over its own private accumulation of rubbish. 

Both solitudes seek to distinguish the individual from the crowd. True solitude succeeds in this, false solitude fails. True solitude separates one man from the rest in order that he may freely develop the good that is his own, and then fulfill his true destiny by putting himself at the service of everyone else. False solitude separates a man from his brothers in such a way that he can no longer effectively give them anything or receive anything from them in his own spirit. It establishes him in a state of indigence, misery, blindness, torment, and despair. Maddened by his own insufficiency, the proud man shamelessly seizes upon satisfactions and possessions that are not due to him, that can never satisfy him, and that he will never really need. Because he has never learned to distinguish what is really his, he desperately seeks to possess what can never belong to him. 

In reality, the proud man has no respect for himself because he has never had an opportunity to find out if there’s anything in him worthy of respect. Convinced that he is despicable, and desperately hoping to keep other men from finding it out, he seizes upon everything that belongs to them and hides himself behind it. The mere fact that a thing belongs to someone else makes it seem worthy of desire. But because he secretly hates everything that is his own, as soon as each new thing becomes his own it loses its value and becomes hateful to him. He must fill his solitude with more and more loot, more and more routine, seizing things not because he wants them, but because he cannot stand the sight of what he has already obtained. 

These, then, are the ones who isolate themselves above the mass of other men because they have never learned to love either themselves or other men. They hate others because they hate themselves, and their love of others is merely an expression of this solitary hatred. 

The asceticism of the false solitary is always double-dealing. It pretends to love others, but it hates them. It pretends to hate created things, and it loves them. And by loving them in the wrong way, it only succeeds in hating them. 

Our solitude may be fundamentally true, but still imperfect. And that event, it is mixed with pride. It is a disturbing mixture of hatred with love. One of the secrets of spiritual perfection is to realize that we have this mixture in ourselves, and to be able to distinguish one from the other. For the temptation of those who seek perfection is the mistake hatred for love, and to place there perfection in the solitude which distinguishes itself from other men by hating them in which at the same time loves and hates the good things that are theirs. 

Therefore, as long as our solitude is imperfect it will be tainted with bitterness and disgust, because it will exhaust us in continual conflict. The disgust is unavoidable. The bitterness, which should not be, is, nevertheless, there. Both must be used for our purification. They must teach us to distinguish what is truly bitter from what is truly sweet, and not permit us to find a poisoned sweetness in self-hatred and a poisoned bitterness in the love of others. 

The true solitary must recognize that he is obliged to love other men and even all things created by God: that this obligation is not a painful and unpleasant duty, and that it was never supposed to be bitter. He must accept the sweetness of love without complaint, and not hate himself because his love may be, at first, a little inordinate. He must suffer without bitterness in order to learn to love as he ought. He must not fear that love will destroy his solitude. Love is his solitude. 

Our solitude will be imperfect as long as it is tainted with restlessness and accedia. For the voice of accedia makes us hate what is good and shrink from the only virtues that can save us. Pure interior solitude does not shrink from the good things of life or from the company of other men, because it no longer seeks to possess them for their own sake. No longer desiring them, it no longer fears still love them. Free from fear, it is free of bitterness. Purified of bitterness, the soul can safely remain alone.  

Indeed, the soul that does not seek to dress itself and possessions into revel in purchased or stolen satisfactions will often be left completely alone by other men. The true solitary does not have to run away from others: they seized to notice him, because he does not share their love for an illusion. The soul that is truly solitary becomes perfectly colorless and ceases to excite either the love or the hatred of others by reason of its solitude. The true solitary can, no doubt, become a hated and a hunted person: but not by reason of anything that is in himself. He will only be hated if he has a divine work to do in the world. For his work will bring him into conflict with the world. His solitude, as such, creates no such conflict. Solitude brings persecution only when it takes the form of a “mission “, and then there is something much more in it than solitude. For when the solitary finds that his solitude has taken on the character of a mission, he discovers that he has become a force that reacts on the very heart of the society in which he lives, a power that disturbs and impeeds and accuses forces of selfishness and pride, reminding others of their own need for solitude and for charity and for peace with God. 

Pure interior solitude is found in the virtue of hope. Hope takes us entirely out of this world while we remain badly in the midst of it. Our minds retain their clear view of what is good in creatures. Our wills remain chaste and solitary in the midst of all created beauty, not wounded in an isolation that is prudish and ashamed, but left it up to heaven by a humility that hope has divested of all bitterness, all consolation, and all fear. Having nothing left of our own to rely on, we have nothing further to lose and nothing further to fear.

This is true solitude, about which there are no disputes and no questions. The soul that has thus found itself gravitates towards the desert but does not object to remaining in the city, because it is everywhere alone.”

~ Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, p. 246 – 250.

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