Reflections on Solitude

‘It is not good that the man should be alone;’. These words of Genesis (2:18) seem to acquire a new relevance today, as if the passage of history had restored their bygone profound value. Ideas such as collaboration, solidarity, communion, unity, koinonia, have such value that they give a true intonation to the life of people today. There is absolutely no singular aspect of human activity that has not in some way been influenced by it. Thus areas such as the labor, politics, culture, academia, the sciences, commerce, sports, are developing more today than ever before under the banner of the community dialogue.

Yes, I know, truthfully that it’s not strictly a discovery made by our current generation, and to remain unbiased toward history we have to remember that there were times when the community’s extent exerted such great influence on almost all  aspects of our daily lives. Medieval brotherhoods are a good example of this. Yet, the unusualness of today’s social scale lies in the discovery of the pervasiveness of social interactions, something that had deeply impressed Theilard de Chardin. Today it seems that everything wants to climb the societal ladder and reach a new realm, within the relentless journey of humanity.

The Religious life is not alien to this phenomenon. In an anthropological context, the religious values ​​that somehow provide proof and which are coming closer together through one great ‘single-minded’ motion by all of humanity, today acquires its own unique significance, it excites in way’s previously undiscovered, even for those who reject all forms of religion. This reverberation cannot be explained through a pure coincidence in values: the Church is, by divine institution, a teacher of unity, of genuine unity, and people, whatever their spiritual orientation may be; as long as they preserve a modicum of sincerity, have always had within their soul, at the minimum some form of mysterious yet natural aspiration (perhaps at times, supernatural) to the “utsent unum” as they also retain a veiled desire for the one true God.

The general aspiration of humanity towards union naturally acquires its true expression within the Church. No one would hesitate to state that one is walking towards a flourishing realisation that the union between people is a religious moral principles of the Christians, and if at any given time this principle were not to be afforded the pre-eminence it deserved, and had been discarded, left abandoned in the hands of non-Christian, as Saint Augustine would now say, “in usum nostrum vindicandum est” use it to our advantage.

Consequently, the great sin at that moment would be to isolate oneself, to hide, to withdraw. Solitude, and any other form of isolation are sometimes suspected of being misanthropic, or a general hatred, dislike, distrust or contempt of the human species, human behaviour or human nature simply a “hatred of all man is.”

“Solitude” within the Church

On one hand, it will be necessary, to be truly honest, to recognize that for centuries within the Church itself there has been a current of spirituality that considers solitude as one of its essential constituents. How would we begin to evaluate this type of spirituality? As a valid element of Christian spirituality is it still practicable for us to speak of a “separation from the world” in this day and age?

Even if we disregard the formal condemnations, it is quite easy, when one has not been all that concerned with trying to understand the content and spirit of the conciliar documents, to understand that the trend within Christianity today, is “openness to the world”, therefore relegating the spirituality of “separation from the world” as something that is altogether outdated and inappropriate in the world today. After all, spirituality, like all forms of energy, evolve, or at least evolve the underlying concepts that support that particular type of spirituality, and as a consequence, it begins to evolve. That is not the case when we speak of the spirituality of solitude?

Many of the current forms of spirituality or perspectives toward Christian life frequently avoid the subject of ​​solitude. While it is true that there are newer forms of religious life which to a certain extent accept a “separation from the world”, and at times even a radical form of detachment, such as the new outbreak of hermitism which the Church is witness to today, it must be recognised that for an ordinary Christian “separation from the world” is a somewhat alien concept to grasp in an attempt to give it a positive spin. Our viewpoint today is poles apart from what medieval Christians would have had, who almost instinctively expressed an admiration for “separation from the world.”  

Having said that, in the face of the noticeable prevalence and the extent of spirituality in the “Christian in the world”, the idea of ​​solitude endures within the Church, it is even conceivable to institute a whole scale appreciations in this regard.

So what exactly is “separation from the world”? Is something that plays a crucial role within the life of the Church? Something which may even be countenanced as a reliquiae of a Christianity belonging to an earlier time? A purely misleading assertion? Is it an ember of Manichaeism, a system with elements of Christianity, gnosticism, and paganism more or less passing itself off as Christianity, yet intrinsically resistant to the christian doctrine of evangelism? Or perhaps, something that has managed to pervade and envenom the outer regions of the life of the Church with varying degrees of virulence for centuries, and which have become an encumbrance to the growth and development of the true spirit of the Gospel, and which now, in our time, and finally made manifest in order to extinguish its remnants definitively? If that is how things stand, it would then become a duty to participate in its total extirpation?

The problem exists in an almost dormant state within the psyche of a large number of Christians, whether they are lay members or belong to the clergy. Despite that difficulties do arises in a particular manner for religious persons, mainly for those who consider themselves to be a part of and aligned to the Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life: Perfectae Caritatis which calls them “that venerable institution: monastic life.” ( Pope Paul VI. Perfectae Caritatis §9, October 28, 1965)

“Solitude” & monasticism

In truth, it could be said that an appreciation of the significance and the influence of “separation from the world” within the spiritual life, is manifestly a monastic predicament, for a very simple reason: Monastic spirituality was born, broadly speaking, if not from the very idea of a “separation from the world”, then at least with some very strong emphasis upon it. The idea of monasticism was born with an imprint of the desert sealed upon it.

It is not necessary to gather texts to prove that almost all of the great masters of monastic spirituality speak ad nauseam of the need to withdraw from the world in order to become a monk. We simply need to recall the Life of Saint Anthony, where the ideas of Saint Athanasius on monastic life are revealed, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, where it is precisely the greatest Fathers who speak most clearly of the “separation from the world”; the catechesis of Saint Pachomius and his successors; the writings of Evagrius Pontus and Palladius; the letters of Saint Jerome and Saint Nile, the works of Cassian; in general all the great authors of the first monastic centuries of Egypt and the Near East. To which it would be necessary to add, although superficial appearances could be interpreted in some isolated case in other ways, the pioneers of monasticism in northern Europe. Be that as it may, admitting even true exceptions, it is easy for those who have the curiosity to look at the texts of the primitive monastic masters, discover that the problem of “separation from the world” is not a problem, it is simply the first presupposition of the monastic life. Even the very word “monk” (monachos) with which the first Christians who undertake this type of life begin to be called and that maintaining its Greek form in Spanish today does not clearly speak to us of its relationship with solitude, it recalls the fundamental identity of “Monk” and “solitary”.

This has been clearly understood by even the opponents of monastic life of all centuries. Already Julian the Apostate (+363) writes:

“There are men who leave the cities and take refuge in the desert, despite the fact that man is by nature a social and civilised animal. But the perverse demons to whom they have given themselves push them into this misanthropy”.

In our days, J. Lacarrière views within the monastic phenomenon an extreme case of man’s “antisocial” inclination.

The great accusation against monasticism has been, before any other, to blame him for his “antisocial” assumptions, his estrangement from the world, his “fugue mundi.” Which is not a pure falsehood but contains an undeniable historical aspect. Therefore, trying to defend the actuality of monasticism by denying its birth in the desert and the strong accent on the “separation from the world” that has accompanied it for centuries, would be to falsify history in the most obvious way.

We are, therefore, faced with an antinomy: on the one hand, the “separation from the world” is, in a certain way, one of the pillars of primitive monastic spirituality, and, on the other hand, the Christian of today, when discovering the values social evangelicals, he thinks he sees, by opposition, that the idea of ​​”separation from the world” is not evangelical. This contradiction is necessarily the substratum of the question posed to monasticism. Can this coexist and be integrated into the life of the Church today, or is it better that it disappear or be transformed once and for all? What can you expect from a building built on a bad foundation? Or can the water of the stream that rises from a poisoned spring be good water? It is the problem of the sources of monasticism, which is not in itself negligible, because it always remains true that the plant, as long as it is not grafted onto another trunk, feeds on its own roots.

What is to be thought today of “separation from the world” in monastic life? Leaving aside the attitude that is limited to ignoring theoretically or practically the need to examine the sources to renew the vitality of monasticism today, to which, on the other hand, loyalty to the spirit and the letter of the Council obliges us. One can try to group the answers to the problem posed by “separation from the world” into three broad types. The schematisation that follows runs the risk, like any schematisation, of being unfair, if it is taken too literally; Therefore, we must not forget that it is only a scheme and that many intermediate nuances are not expressed here.

But before examining the various responses to the problem of “separation from the world,” it is necessary to agree on the scope of this expression. By it we are going to understand, broadly speaking, what primitive monasticism meant, which, for the use that we are going to make of it, is by no means difficult to pin down.

“Separation from the world” in ancient monasticism

When the monks of the first centuries speak of separation, of withdrawal, of anachresis, of flight, it is primarily a matter of a real, physical separation. It is true that this physical separation has a spiritual “intention”, but this does not cancel but rather defends the reality of that. Whoever does not separate himself physically but morally from the world may be called an ascetic, but not a monk.

The separation can be constituted by moving away to a deserted place, as is the case with hermits, but it can also be done by retiring to live within an enclosure that isolates from the world. Cenobites in a monastery, inmates in a cell, etc., are considered true monks, true solitary.

Separation is necessarily habitual, it is a way of life, a constant and effective tendency to solitude. There is certainly the possibility of sporadic contacts with the world out of necessity or utility, but what interests us is that these never constitute the scaffolding of monastic life, but rather that the accent of the life of relationships is clearly on the “separation of the world”. This undoubtedly appears in the structure of the Holy Rule, in which the life of the monk is described and organised as a life totally thought to be lived in the usual solitude within the monastery, without excluding in any way perfectly legal and justified exceptions, but that does not mean that they lose their character of exceptions. The same law of silence, which is certainly not disciplinary or criminal, could hardly have any other meaning than to ensure the value and efficacy of solitude within the same monastery.

As for the word world, its meaning is very specific. It is not an abstraction: the bad, sinful aspect of the world (whose estrangement does not oblige only monks but all Christians), but the common society of men as it is, with its good and bad aspects. It is true that the formal reason for the withdrawal from the world is “the bad” of the world, but this cannot be confused with the concrete world, which is what the monk abandons. The only ones who by exception are not part of the “world” are those who share the separation from the world. ” The entire monastic tradition agrees that a solitary who visits another solitary does not return to the world for that reason. This is what makes it possible to fully maintain the “separation from the world” within the cloisters of the monastery, in which many monks live together, many solitary, however paradoxical it may seem.

Clarified the sense in which we will use the expression “separation from the world”, let’s see what attitudes can be taken in this regard.

Solutions of the First Attitude

The historical fact is accepted that in the origins of monasticism “separation from the world” was considered as constitutive of monastic life. It is accepted that over the centuries, the Church has gradually discovered that in this abandonment of society there is something negative and even almost opposite to the evangelical sense. Consequently, she denies the “separation from the world” either totally and openly, or gradually, gradually abandoning everything that defends her and gives her meaning.

This attitude is easy and clear. However, a doubt remains in the dark. If you deny something that is essential to the monk, such as solitude to the solitary (remember that in Greek, monk and solitary are expressed with the same word), destroying the “separation from the world”, whatever the goodness of the end. What drives us, don’t we destroy at the same time what the first monks called “monk”, is there the right to keep the same name that they used if it has been stripped of its meaning first? In addition, it seems difficult to maintain that the Church could have been wrong during so many centuries in which she has exalted in every imaginable way the lives of many saints who fulfilled the fullness of Christianity in solitude.

Second type of attitude

The idea of ​​the primitive monks about the separation of the world as essential to monastic life is maintained, but the expression is given a different meaning from the original. For example, Be exalts the idea of ​​inner solitude to the point of making the outer one unnecessary; or the word “world” is given the exclusive meaning of “world of sin”, with which the physical separation no longer has a reason to exist.

This solution respects the terms used by primitive monastic spirituality, but ends up emptying them of their content. In the end, although this solution is less logical and courageous than the previous one, it must be said, however, that it sees more clearly the urgency of continuity with the sources.

Third type of attitude

The “separation from the world” is admitted as the foundation of primitive monastic spirituality. It is also given a current value today, but it is brought to light more clearly something that, it is true, was already not only contained but expressed in ancient monastic spirituality, but of which the demands of new historical circumstances call for a more expression. explicit: its positive aspect.

This type of attitude is thus kept in perfect communication with the sources, but it renews its expression. Let us pause for a moment on this third type of solution.

Solitude and Gospel

The “separation from the world”, as the expression sounds, is a negative thing. Realisation itself, taken in its most material aspect, is also real: it consists in not living in the common society of men.

But it is necessary not to stay neither theoretically nor practically in this superficial aspect of its formulation. It is known how much it costs modern man to discover in negative formulas all the richness of an affirmation. Let us remember, for example, the little attraction that the so-called “negative” virtues have today, although in reality they have nothing of that nature. The same happens with the traditional formulation of the three religious vows, which emphasises the idea of ​​renunciation more than that of finality.

The “separation from the world” like the “evangelical counsels”, is also a renunciation. But a resignation is always a means, not an end, and to come to appreciate it it is necessary to know that end.

The “separation from the world” is not an “evangelical advice” if the usual terminology is observed, but neither can the great affinity of structure and purpose that exists between religious vows and “separation from the world” be ignored. It must also be remembered that the exhaustive enumeration of the three “counsels” was not known in the first centuries, and that in the Gospel we find other “counsels” that extend to all or only to certain Christians5.

If in a broad sense we understand by “evangelical council” a way of life that is not compulsory but rather proposed by the Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to certain Christians, and which is derived from the evangelical doctrine, it is evident that together with the three great ” advice ”there are others. In the Rule of Saint Benedict, for example, next to the “council” of obedience are that of living within the cloister of the monastery and that of silence, both closely related to what we could conventionally call the “evangelical council of solitude.”

But is the life of “separation from the world” really taken from the Gospel? Can you deduce from this without forcing the texts? Clues here and there can be found without difficulty. The ancients, with less exegetical concerns, did not hesitate to affirm their evangelical origin6. Strictly speaking, it is not easy from the only literal sense of the Scriptures to directly infer the legality or goodness of a life consecrated to God in solitude, which is also the case with religious vows. In spite of everything, the first monks knew how to find in the Bible, not only the defence of their way of life, but the reason for the very institution of monasticism. Did they exaggerate?

It is a fact that the same scriptural text, that the same words can penetrate in a very different way in the one who receives them according to their degree of “sensitivity”, docility, permeability. Just as, for example, a saint like Saint Francis of Assisi perceived in the same nature that other men of his land watch, the voice of the Lord, his goodness, his mercy, a whole world of resonances unsuspected by others, thus a The same text of Scripture can speak much more deeply to those who have the grace of a special receptivity. In the lives of the saints it is very common to “discover” a whole spiritual perspective in a simple sentence of Scripture. Is this pure subjective imagination? It does not seem prudent to say so. In the case of the initiators of the monastic life, it is legitimate to think that it was the Holy Spirit who granted them the capacity of deep intuition to perceive in the doctrine and using the Lord’s examples, the principles of solitary life.

In any case, the Church has decided the question by repeatedly teaching ‘the’ ‘evangelical’ ‘origin not only of an ideal of a life consecrated to God with vows, but, in our case, of a life consecrated to God in solitude.

In Chapter 6 (n° 43) of the Constitution “Lumen Gentium” we read:

“The evangelical counsels … as counsels founded on the words and examples of the Lord and recommended by the Apostles, the Fathers, doctors and pastors of the Church, are a divine gift that the Church received from the Lord and that with his grace is preserved perpetually. The authority of the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, took care to interpret these advice. From there it has resulted that they have grown … various forms of solitary or community life … for the benefit of its members and for the good of the entire Body of Christ.”

The insertion in the text of the expression solitary life, as the history of the conciliar text shows, was made to expressly refer to the hermitic life, where the “separation from the world” is more visibly realised. It is evident, therefore, that the same authority of the Church, through the Second Vatican Council, teaches that the spirituality of “separation from the world” has its deep origin in the Gospel (although it does not detail how or from where it is possible to deduce it ), and not of doctrines, religions or philosophies alien to Christ.

Positive sense

But the approval of the Church, even expressly made for the current historical moment, does not by itself show the meaning of “separation from the world” for the man of today. For the monasticism of the first centuries, and even of the entire Middle Ages, “separation from the world”, solitude, is nothing but the reverse of a life consecrated to intimacy with God. Today, as in all preceding centuries, the “separation from the world” has the same reason for being. But on the other hand, today, perhaps more than ever, it is clearly perceived that it is perfectly possible to live a life of surrender to God in the middle of the world. It is true that a certain degree of separation is always an essential requirement, but it is also true that in no way can total separation be considered the ideal (even unattainable) of every Christian.

The history of spirituality shows the constant tendency of men to want to standardise, in each age, the various ways of the Holy Spirit. In the first centuries of monasticism, the idea floated in many Christian circles that only the monk had taken the true path that leads straight to God; only he was perfectly logical with his faith. If this opinion is seldom stated so openly, it is not uncommon to find it as an underlying presupposition in many Christian authors: let us remember, among others, the great Saint John Chrysostom. Today, conversely, we run the non-hypothetical risk of wanting to standardise God’s calls in the vocation to live “with, in and for the world.”

In order not to pass from one deviation to another, it is necessary to abandon this uniforming attitude, to admit with simplicity and sincerity the real diversity of God’s gifts, even in the same historical situation, which is nothing more than recognising the all-encompassing freedom of the blowing Spirit. where you want, and deeply respect the originality of the Supreme Craftsman. It is possible to surrender to God in the world and it is possible to surrender to God in solitude. Diversity lies fundamentally, not in syllogistic reasoning, but in the gift of God. For this reason, it seems necessary that in the depths of the soul of those who are called to monastic life, as the first presupposition of that call, there should be the conviction that, for 61, it is possible to surrender to God in solitude, and not only possible, but that is the path that God traces for him personally, his only path.

From a positive point of view, the call to monastic life is confused with the discovery, perhaps very confusing and dark but true, of the absolute of God, of the absolute of his goodness, of his justice, of his mercy, of his love. The “Deus meus et omnia” is, in a certain sense, the beginning and the end of monastic life. Everything that is not God, without ceasing to be worth what it is worth, clearly appears relative. It is important to understand that the call to solitude, if it is true, does not imply even a shadow of the slightest contempt for the authentic values ​​of the world, just as the life of the Christian in the world never implies the forgetting of God. The monk, like every Christian, not only can but must have a true appreciation of the true values ​​of the world, but his grace, his charism, is precisely to live intensely the absolute of the mystery of God, and consequently, the relative of the creature.

In this sense, the life of the monk can be spoken of as a testimony that everything – insofar as it is lawful for man to say “everything” with his life – that everything is below God. Hence his solitude.

However, solitude is not justified primarily by the testimony, nor is it exhausted in it. The projection to the outside is nothing more than a reflection of an internal grace, of a particular discovery of God that demands a deep freedom.

Solitude and celibacy.

We would like to explain ourselves with an approximation or a comparison of two ways of living: celibacy and monastic life, an approach that appears with some frequency in the writings of monastic authors of this last time. This is not done without a deep objective foundation. Even the words single and solitary are nothing more than two almost identical forms that denounce a common origin of concepts. And if we analyse the content of both ideas, we discover that there really is a very unique correspondence. 

First of all, celibate life and monastic life coincide in one aspect: solitude. Both are accomplished by renouncing society: conjugal society for the celibate; to the common society of men for the monk. In both cases, the renunciation of a positive good is justified by the search for a higher good, subject to the call of God.

Both attitudes are, therefore, easily vulnerable, since they are justified only by the end they pursue, and this, being fundamentally an internal attitude, is not clearly perceptible; vulnerable, moreover, because it is possible that time, fatigue or weakness obscure the end even to the interested parties themselves. It is easy to defend, even before oneself, the legality and goodness of lives devoted to curing the sick, preaching, or teaching. It is not so when the only truly valid reason to defend an attitude is a very little visible purpose. Today criticism against celibacy is frequent. Let us remember the recent encyclical of Paul VI in which a list of the main objections appears. All of them could be applied “a fortiori” to monastic life. The answers of the encyclical could also be applied, almost without the need to adapt them, to the problems that monastic life presents to man today.

The most frequent accusation against the celibate life and against the monastic life, consists in attributing to the one who lives it contempt for the world, or for marriage or for the body, concealed Manichaeism, comfort, selfishness, laziness, fear of facing life, etc.; or also, on the contrary, to attribute to the same celibate or monastic life, an intrinsic difficulty such that it is not humanly possible to live it with sincerity.

But why does celibate life or monastic life really exist within the Church? A text by Saint Paul will provide us with the key to solve both problems:

“He who is married,” he says, “cares about the things of the world and how to please his wife; he is, then, divided. He who does not have a wife cares about the things of the Lord and how to please him”.

Evagrius Ponticus (+ 399), when beginning his work titled “Bases of the monastic life”, after quoting the words of Saint Paul that we have just transcribed, laconically adds: “This is the monk”, this is the solitary one. For him, the vocation to solitude, like a vocation to integral virginity, has only one meaning: consecration to God alone.

On his side, Paul VI recalls in his encyclical on “Priestly Celibacy” (Sacerdotalis Caelibatus № 54. June 24, 1967):

“The true, profound reason for dedicated celibacy is, as We have said, the choice of a closer and more complete relationship with the mystery of Christ and the Church for the good of all mankind…”

And a few years before, Pius XII had expressed himself like this: 

“What has been called the spirituality of the desert, that form of contemplative spirit that seeks God in silence and self-denial, is a deep movement of the spirit that will never cease: it is not fear, nor repentance, nor is this the only meaning of these two parallel renunciations, painful and incomprehensible if they are emptied of content, but very rich of meaning if they are considered from their true perspective.

The Measure of Solitude

A vocation to solitude, to “separate from the world”, is conceived not infrequently with straightforward articulation as, total, unconditional and absolute separation from the world. To all intents and purposes, it is necessary to irrefutably assert that, in its material character, separation from the world, in the almost all cases cannot and should not be total nor absolute

This is because a Christian life lived in solitude assumes the necessity of having lived a long time in community with other men, but also due to minimal contact with those on the outside would always be necessary simply because of a persons need for sustenance, not taking into account the vital relationships of a spiritual order, which are in fact quite numerous. The exceptions, then, to the essential restrictions of separation, which appears in some of the “Lives”, should, under the circumstances be considered as either unreliable or as something which is truly extraordinary. The fact that a “separation from the world” is never entirely “total”, determines a licit ‘de jure’ existence from a very broad assortment of alternatives.

The unchanging factor within this diversification must be determine, more so than through the rigorous perpetuation of some observance, but within its spirit and vitality, within the solitaries genuine and profound determination to seek God alone and in solitude.

The “intensity” of solitude are established by numerous factors. Not only do two eminent kinds of monks exist: hermits and cenobites, but within these there may be temperaments, abilities, and vocation, which not only excuse but would require entirely different gradations of solitude. The Council itself, while reminding all monks that their main mission consists of a vertical dimension:

“The main duty of the monks is to offer the Divine Majesty a humble and noble service at the same time within the cloisters of the monastery”, admits different types of monastic life: one, entirely consecrated to divine worship, and the other, which includes certain pastoral activity. Furthermore, there may be variations in the “intensity” of solitude due to its necessary adaptation to the current historical moment, as the spirit of the Council requires. Adaptation must make solitude an intelligible sign, especially for the monk himself, it must capture the real needs of today’s man, it must be patient, it must be full of goodness, but it must also make solitude a true solitude. An adaptation that should never be admitted would be the one that would practically destroy it, or destroy its deep meaning, its mystery, “You are monks,” Paul VI used to say to the Benedictine abbots, and in them to all the monks, “you are monks, that is to say, unique men who, separating yourself in a certain way from profane life, embraced solitude not only external but also internal … You are men dedicated to silence and prayer”. Hence, for any monk, whatever his specific degree of separation from the world, the great hours of his life are precisely the hours of silence, of solitude.

It seems unnecessary to remember that the adaptation of the “separation from the world” implies the revitalisation of everything that ensures its objective reality, such as closure and silence. These can come to have very different forms of realisation from those currently in force, but it will always be necessary that they effectively realise the atmosphere, the climate, the atmosphere of solitude that is so deeply rooted in the tradition of the Church. The great “aggiornamento” of monastic life, the measure of its rejuvenation, consists then, perhaps, more than in modifications of peripheral realities to monastic life itself, in the search for ways that allow today’s man to value and rediscover the content profound ecclesial sense of solitude, his sense of vocation, of charism, of demand, of dedication, of sign, of mystery, of joy; that all this contains true solitude. That is why it can always be said with all truth, parodying Evagrius Pontus:

“When your solitude is your greatest joy, 

then you will have truly found solitude”.