Exterior and Interior solitude have each to be considered as elements of the monastic life. Each plays a part in the activity of contemplation: exterior solitude ensures the setting or condition, interior solitude provides the disposition, Exterior solitude is the physical State sought by the soul as a means most conclusive to prayer. Interior solitude is an attitude of mind, brought about by grace, which combines tranquillity, detachment, and longing for union with God alone. 

The need and desire for exterior solitude can be seen as the consequence of conversion from worldliness to the service of God. The soul longs to be separated from creatures so that God may become the sale object of desire. “If it be embarrassed by anything and set upon anything,” says St. John of the Cross, “the will is not free, solitary, and pure in the way necessary for divine transformation.” The soul sees at the outset of the spiritual life that a measure of solitude is absolutely necessary, is indeed the element in which interior graces are responded to and the will of God more clearly appreciated. 

Solitude will accordingly be pursued and cherished, not as an end but as an environment. It is chosen aa the environment furthest removed from the world. Then, as the interior life develops and the soul becomes accustomed to the separations and to being alone, solitude is thought of not so much as something from which the world is excluded but rather as an element in its own right. The world is not the norm; solitude is the norm. The universe was solitary before the world invaded in isolation. The first human beings, alone together in the Garden of Eden before the fall, were solitary before sin made privacy something to be secured. The first monks were solitary, fleeing the world but possessing positively the Freedom of the desert. We would do better to think of the world as lacking the due environment of solitude than to think of solitude as escaping the business of the world. 

When the monk has learned the secrets of solitude, when be has come to terms with his loneliness, he will find himself able, when obliged to mix with the world, to take with him his own solitude and live within it in recollection. He will have learned, without having consciously acquired a technique, how to keep sheltered his essential self in the midst of distraction. But even so, it would be foolish for him to take risks; solitude can be easily displaced, The monk, like Ruskin’s artist, should be “fit for the best society of men, and keep out of it.” 

If example were needed to show the work of disposing the soul for contemplation, there is the example of St. Benedict himself. Not only did he begin his monastic life as a hermit, but in legislating for monks he allowed for the eremitical vocation as a development which in certain cases might arise out of the cenobitic. 

But it is not only for the sake of peace that a man withdraws himself from noise and creatures. He wants to be forgotten as much as he wants to forget. If a man seeks solitude only for the glamour which he sees in it, he is not seeking to be hidden but to be known. He is not seeking to be lost in God but to be discovered in the minds of men. It is a form of ostentation. There is always a certain lure about solitude, and a soul must learn by the light of grace to distinguish between the true and false yearning for it. False solitude draws a man in upon himself and gets between his soul and God. False solitude is a preoccupation, a bitterness; true solitude is a liberation. 

The fruits of true solitude are manifest at once: indifference to the appeal of worldly entertainments and pleasures; increasing purity of intention with regard to outward as well as inward works; unselfconsciousness in the exercise of virtue; greater objectivity in prayer: instinctive confidence in God and corresponding independence of self. “In solitude she lived,” sings St. John of the Cross in the Spiritual Canticle, “and in solitude built her nest.” These first two lines of the thirty-fifth stanza give us the work of the soul in establishing exterior solitude. The lines which complete the stanza give us the work of grace establishing the soul in interior solitude: “And in solitude, alone, hath the Beloved guided her. In solitude also wounded her with love.”

But the nest has to be built; it is not handed to the soul ready made. Silence has to be cultivated, and a serious effort made to withdraw from anything that is likely to jar upon the spirit. Interior silence is impossible without exterior silence, and in this matter of silence and solitude it is the whole man who is involved —spirit and sense. St. Bernard speaks of silence as “the guardian of the monastic life,” so it is the whole vocation that is involved — corporate and individual.

Just as monastic poverty guards the monastery and the monk against the worries which are occasioned by wealth, monastic silence guards monastery and monk against the disturbances which are occasioned by talk and outward affairs, Silence, solitude, enclosure: guardians of the monastic purpose. It is difficult to see how monasticism could exist without these safeguards; they are almost as necessary to it as the vows themselves. Indeed they are so closely connected with the vows as to deserve examination in the light of Benedictine obedience, stability, and conversion of manners. How does my silence, or the lack of it, reflect upon the submission which I owe to superiors and the principles laid down in the holy Rule? Is stability represented in my observance of enclosure? Does conversion of manners show itself in the separations which make from the world and the care which I give to ensuring solitude? 

For God Alone

It is important for monks, Benedictine and Cistercian monks especially, to realise that this solitude is not a subtraction from the common life but rather something added to it. The point is brought out clearly by Father Thomas Merton where he says: “It is because the monks enable one another to live most easily and peacefully in solitude and silence, because they provide for one another an atmosphere of recollection and solitude and prayer, that they are able to achieve the supreme end of the monastic life.” The strength of solitude is a combined strength, arising out of the individual spirituality of each monk every bit as much as it arises out of the seclusion of the place. The same author, and in a more poetic passage, says further: “… the silence of the forest, the peace of the early morning wind moving in the branches of the trees, the solitude and isolation of the house of God: these are good because it is in silence, and not in commotion, in solitude and tot in crowds, that God best likes to reveal himself to men. each one contributes his share in peace and recollection.”

Bernard of Clairvaux

In St. Bernard’s sermons, particularly where the saint is talking about the tabernacles and courts of God’s house, there is the same idea of a holy solitude built up by the holiness of the brethren living together in solitude, St. Bernard takes the soul from court to court, from exterior to interior solitude, until the final consummation is arrived at in the soul’s union with God, “Here on earth we have the tabernacles which are the lowest of these spiritual dwellings… the courts constitute an intermediate place, the place of expectation, whilst you are yourself the home of thanksgiving and praise… in the first are found the first-fruits of the spirit, in the second the riches of the spirit, in the third the fulness of the spirit… men are made saints in the first, find security in the second, and attain to complete happiness in the third.”

Though St. Bernard made a great point of enclosure —among the first of his requirements, for example, upon the affiliation of monasteries of black monks to Citeaux, was the abandonment of apostolic work and extra-claustral activity of any kind— he has more to say of inward than of outward solitude. For him the main concern is to draw the soul away from the desire of creatures and into inward unity, The physical seclusion involved is a subject rather for the “consuetudinary” than for the chapter conference. When the soul can say with the bride in St. John of the Cross’s Canticle “in the inner cellar of my beloved have I drunk, [Stanza 26] the measures needed to keep solitary the approaches to that cellar are taken for granted. Instinctively the crowds are left behind, for now “the bride has entered the pleasant and desirable garden [Stanza 22] and the secrets of interior solitude are learned. 

It is important to understand that interior solitude is not a dead thing, empty because cut off from outside supply. Far from being sterile it is productive: it produces tranquillity where external solitude merely conditions it. Vacate, —and if it stopped at that it would indeed be a negative quality, but it goes on— et videte quoniam ego sum Deus … [Psalmi 45:11 Biblia Sacra Vulgata]. Interior solitude assumes a presence and proposes an activity. Where God is present it would be a mistake to think of interior solitude as emptiness. Where recollection is going on it would be a mistake to think of inaction. We speak loosely of solitude as a certain holy loneliness in God, and as far as it goes the term gives the general sense of it, but if this suggests homesickness or a hankering for company it is misleading. A better idea is given, though it sounds clumsy, by speaking of aloneness with God. The soul stands solitary, and is content to stand solitary, but God is there.

This inward contentment with isolation is not something which the monk can bring about simply by achieving exterior solitude, It is as much as the monk can do to answer the summons vacate, and the greater part of this is effected in the night of the senses, while to comply adequately with the second clause, videte, he will depend entirely upon the light of grace. The videte is the introduction to the illuminative way.

As exterior solitude corresponds with the purgative, so interior solitude corresponds with the illuminative way. It is conceivably possible, though unlikely, that the way of purgation and the night of the senses could effect the necessary changes in the soul without the help of physical, actual, solitude; it is mot conceivable that the illuminative and unitive ways could be followed by one who lacked interior solitude.

Just as the light granted in the illuminative way eclipses the light of worldly wisdom, so the peace and order brought about by interior solitude subdues the disorder of worldly desires. Interior solitude not only secs but silences. It sees deeper into the will of God, into the meaning of his inspired word, into the significance of the created order, into the mystery of suffering.

And at the same time it subdues the emotions and passions, Nor is it that the soul sees first, and then decides to subdue. Rather the very act of appreciating the implications of grace is itself responsible for the subjection of what is contrary to grace. This act is itself the action of grace. I see now not I, but Christ sees through the eyes of my soul; I subdue now nor I, but Christ subdues for me. 

Having come to the state of interior solitude by the way of exterior solitude, the soul controls outward desires by the development of the one desire which is within. This is illustrated in St. Bernard by the simile of the spider, which, when the web is damaged, does its mending from within itself, from the centre of its spinning, and not at the actual break. We enter into our solitude by means of positive separations, and once at home and at peace we further establish our interior enclosure by the continued act of responding to grace. “I longed that a vital fid should be poured into all my veins and into the very marrow of my bones,” confesses St. Bernard of his search after God, “so that it should be detached from all other affections and know only this.” When he had found the union which he sought, he had found also the interior solitude which detached him from all other affections. 

This is not to claim that interior solitude is immune from every invasion. The powers of evil do not let the matter go at that. Temptation will attack the soul as much as ever it did, and probably more. But within the essential cell there will be greater reserves to draw from; the tranquillity which was the outcome of silence and recollection will come to the rescue. The higher faculties will find themselves composed enough to see the light of grace through the storm, and will be strong enough to command the lower. There is all the difference between disturbance and disorder. There is no part of the soul that may not be subjected to disturbance, but where there is interior solitude in the sense discussed there cannot but be order. Mary was disturbed on at least two occasions in her life, but never for a moment was her soul disordered. It was not the hidden life alone, lived in the obscurity of Nazareth, which guaranteed her calm in the face of puzzlement and anxiety; it was her solitude of heart, her “aloneness” with God. Only those who possess God can be truly self-possessed.

The conclusions to be drawn, then, are as follows. First that solitude is not a mere adjunct vo the monastic life but a necessary part of it. It is something which the individual monk may have to secure for himself: not all monasteries are so secluded that they can provide it for him, He should know that natural attraction or aversion to solitude has nothing to do with it: what matters is his recognition of its necessity and his will to see it through, He should know too that by itself retreat from the world and from creatures is without value: the void must be filled with the presence of God. Abstraction for the sake of abstraction has nothing supernatural about it, may even be rather unnatural. The rule is simple: empty solitude produces lifeless work, prayerful solitude produces prayerful and worthwhile work. Finally, all exterior solitude is related to interior solitude, and interior solitude is immediately related to grace. 

The above is borne out by the teaching of Francisco de Osuna in his classic work The Third Spiritual Alphabet. In his fifteenth treatise, the author enumerates three things necessary for contemplation. The first of these may be described here in his own words (though somewhat condensed); the other two will appear in subsequent chapters. 

“The first requisite is the place, which must be fitting, retired, and quiet, for we know that the Jews were blamed for being in the streets, and the angel bade Lot remove from the neighbourhood of Sodom and seek safety on the mountain. Abraham was told to go out from his kindred and ordered to go into the land of vision, and God bade the patriarch Jacob arise and go to Bethel, which means the house of God. God also commanded the chosen people to leave Egypt and dwell with him, implying that he could dwell better with them in the land of promise. He also bade the prophet Moses ascend the mountain to die, showing that the farther we withdraw from the world the better can we die to it and live with God. St. Antony and St. Antoninus left their homes as being places unsuited to prayer. Our Lord went into the mountains and desert places in order to pray more quietly. He did this not on his own account but to teach us by his example to seek for solitary spots, favourable for compunction and silence, withdrawn from the tumults and excitement of the world.” Certainly God is present in the market-place and in the plain, but souls are drawn to meet him more intimately in his own dwelling and on the mountain. 

Francisco de Osuna

De Osuna gives us the key co this doctrine where he cites the vocation of Abraham: the summons is to the land of vision. To leave one’s kindred is only half the battle for solitude; the main work is that of seeing when one has got there. Yet it is only in interior solitude that one does see. De Osuna does not mention it, but the incident —so casually given in the wider context of the story as hardly to attract the notice of commentators— of Isaac meditating in the evening, after his camels have been watered and when his camp is at rest, suggests exactly the same idea. Isaac is in the desert, he has withdrawn himself from the bustle of the cents, and he comes upon the well “which is called of the living and the seeing.” [Genesis 24:62-63] The desert by itself will not help him —it is in fact a place of menace— but the well can help him. Interior solitude is precisely such a well in the exterior solitude of the desert. Its shaft is walled, and it contains living water—, water which gives vision as well as life.