The Spirituality of Solitude

In the Poverty of Solitude All Riches Are Present.

Ben Self / 5.3.21

In a post a couple weeks ago, I used the paintings of Edward Hopper to suggest that there is an important difference between loneliness and solitude, and that despite our understandable exhaustion with the loneliness of these times, we may strangely come to miss certain aspects of solitude when this pandemic is over. But what is it, more specifically, we might miss?

Twentieth-century philosopher-theologian Paul Tillich offered some interesting insights on this subject. From Tillich’s point of view, for starters, “every creature is alone” by its very nature, at least to some extent. “Being alive means being in a body — a body separated from all other bodies. And being separated means being alone.” But this sense of aloneness is felt most keenly by us:

[Man] is not only alone; he also knows that he is alone. Aware of what he is, he asks the question of his aloneness. He asks why he is alone, and how he can triumph over his being alone. For this aloneness he cannot endure. Neither can he escape it. It is his destiny to be alone and to be aware of it.

For Tillich, this predicament is painful and tragic, but also useful, first of all as a facet of our “freedom” — of our sanity, personality, agency, and creativity as individuals. For this reason, he explains, we’ve long distinguished between different types of aloneness: “Our language has wisely […] created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.” While we resist and seek to remedy the former, which is seen as involuntary (if inevitable) and negative, we often simultaneously seek out the latter, seen as more voluntary and potentially enriching.

In other words, despite our loneliness, “We have a natural desire for solitude […]. We want to feel what we are — namely, alone — not in pain and horror, but with joy and courage.” As Thomas Merton has added, when people are “submerged in a mass of impersonal human beings pushed around by automatic forces, they lose their true humanity, their integrity, their ability to love, their capacity for self-determination […] [and] the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.” Thus, just as we cannot be human in isolation, we cannot quite be human without some separation either.

But according to Tillich, solitude — “the glory of being alone” — is primarily spiritual in nature and serves a spiritual purpose before anything else. He writes, “There are many ways in which solitude can be sought and experienced. And each way can be called ‘religious,’ if it is true, as one philosopher said, that ‘religion is what a man does with his solitariness.’” Tillich is suggesting that our awareness of our aloneness itself is at least in part at the root of our religious impulses, that our longing for God comes in part from our awareness of separation from God. But the same could be said of our longing for communion with one another, which often feels of more immediate concern. Thus, much of our lives is spent simultaneously trying to remedy these dual states of aloneness, of separation from each other and (often unwittingly) from God.

On the one hand, we most naturally try to remedy the pain of being alone — our loneliness — through contact with others. But paradoxically, we also seek to remedy that same basic pain — but the pain of being separate from God — through solitude, separation from others. Thus, it is our very loneliness that can drive us both into the arms of others and away from others into solitude, to spaces where we might be “alone with the Alone,” as Richard Rohr puts it.

Like sleep, it is often in solitude, in temporary retreat from the world, in the absence of doing, that God does his best work, rewiring us by the grace of his Spirit. At times, God draws us out into deserts of solitude precisely so that we might recover some sanity, some capacity to love, some inner stability or clarity. Jesus’ time in the wilderness is a quite literal example of this, but the trope is common across Christian history and other religious traditions. Here’s Tillich:

[S]ometimes God thrusts us out of the crowd into a solitude we did not desire, but which nonetheless takes hold of us. The prophet Jeremiah says — “I sit alone, because thy hand was upon me.” God sometimes lays hands upon us. He wants us to ask the question of truth that may isolate us from most men, and that can be asked only in solitude. He wants us to ask the question of justice that may bring us suffering and death, and that can grow in us only in solitude. He wants us to break through the ordinary ways of man that may bring disrepute and hatred upon us, a breakthrough that can happen only in solitude. He wants us to penetrate to the boundaries of our being, where the mystery of life appears, and it can only appear in moments of solitude.

Of course, all of that might sound good in theory, but it’s definitely not anyone’s idea of a good time in practice, and it’s not some straightforward cosmic exchange either. I’ve spent just enough time doing various forms of meditation to know that the supposedly miraculous benefits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, or at least not often. Solitude can be hard, and weird, and empty, and even terrifying. For Tillich, Jesus’ own example is instructive here:

What happens in our solitude? Listen to Mark’s words about Jesus’ solitude in the desert — “And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” He is alone, facing the whole earth and sky, the wild beasts around him and within him, he himself the battlefield for divine and demonic forces. So, first, this is what happens in our solitude: we meet ourselves, not as ourselves, but as the battlefield for creation and destruction, for God and the demons. Solitude is not easy. Who can bear it? It was not easy even for Jesus. We read — “He went up into the hills to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.” When evening comes, loneliness becomes more lonely. We feel this [in solitude] […]

Jesus went up to pray. Is this the way to transform loneliness into solitude and to bear solitude? It is not a simple question to answer. Most prayers do not have this much power. Most prayers make God a partner in a conversation; we use Him to escape the only true way to solitude. […] Better that we remain silent and allow our soul, that is always longing for solitude, to sigh without words to God. This we can do, even in a crowded day and a crowded room […]

It’s interesting to see here how loneliness and solitude are seemingly opposite yet overlapping experiences. Loneliness can draw us into and become solitude and vice versa. But the point is, from a spiritual standpoint, that solitude — “to sigh without words to God” — is a primary way that God seeks to connect with us, to rewire us in his image, even the sort of “solitude” we might find in crowds of people.

But again, for all its potential pleasures — such as those that I argue many of Hopper’s paintings help to illuminate — there’s something often uncomfortable and even cruciform about our experience of solitude. We go there to be schooled in humility and vulnerability. We offer nothing before God but our naked selves. Solitude frees us temporarily from that mad current of striving, and we simply wait on God, trusting in the slow mysterious work of his grace. It’s a time to be rather than to do. As Sylvia Boorstein puts it: “Don’t just do something, sit there.” And as Tillich explains, it’s in those moments, when we’ve ceased to do, that “something is done to us.” He continues:

The center of our being, the innermost self that is the ground of our aloneness, is elevated to the divine center and taken into it. Therein can we rest […]

[But] how can communion grow out of solitude? We have seen that we can never reach the innermost center of another being. We are always alone, each for himself. But we can reach it in a movement that rises first to God and then returns from Him to the other self. In this way man’s aloneness is not removed, but taken into the community with that in which the centers of all beings rest […]

And perhaps when we ask — what is the innermost nature of solitude? we should answer — the presence of the eternal upon the crowded roads of the temporal. It is the experience of being alone but not lonely, in view of the eternal presence that shines through the face of the Christ, and that includes everybody and everything from which we are separated. In the poverty of solitude all riches are present.

That’s beautiful stuff. In this way, solitude can be a school of Christ-centered love, an inroad for Christ’s cruciform work in our lives. But again, it doesn’t always feel like something good is happening. It certainly doesn’t feel like our “innermost self” is being “elevated to the divine center.” It often feels like a chaotic mess. Or torture. Or nothing. And yet still we wait and rest in God, finding our treasure there, knowing that nothing else can ever truly save us.

Of course, as I noted in part 1 of this post, this pandemic has been a time of such intense and devastating loneliness for many of us that it must sound rich for me to sit here lauding the supposed joys and spiritual benefits of solitude. Perhaps even cruel. But I have no desire to glorify loneliness, and that’s why it’s so important to make the distinction with solitude. I desperately miss people, too. I can’t wait to get back to “normal.” The pandemic has taught me how much I need other people.

But it’s also taught me about how loneliness can sometimes become something better, something rich and vital and life-giving. When I suggest that I might actually miss some of the solitude of this past year, and ask the question of what exactly about it I might miss, I think the answer is simply this: I’ll miss the time with God.