The Work of Loneliness: Solitude, Emptiness, and Compassion

By Burton-Christie, Douglas | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Work of Loneliness: Solitude, Emptiness, and Compassion


Burton-Christie, Douglas, Anglican Theological Review


This essay considers the meaning of solitude in the spiritual life, especially as it comes to expression in the Christian monastic tradition, from the witness of the ancient desert monks to the life and works of Thomas Merton. It argues for a vision of solitude that understands deep vulnerability and uncertainty as significant elements in the process coming to know God, and that sees solitary struggle as leading to a profound resituating of the self in relation to human community. Transformed by solitude, the self becomes a bearer of compassion, a witness to the mysterious presence of God in the lonely places of human existence.

Solitude for you resides in everything, and everything for you resides in solitude.

Luis Cernuda

Solitude. The undeniable allure to be alone in a garden or on a mountaintop or in a desert. Or perhaps alone in a room, reading a book, writing a letter, sewing, playing the piano. Who among us does not dream of being this person, untroubled by the cares of life, free, happy, serene, content with ourselves, even if only for a short while? The dream of solitude. What is this dream about? Why is it so persistent, so elusive? And do we really understand all that we dream for, all that is embedded in the longing for solitude? I suspect we do not. But how could we? Solitude is labyrinthine. It knows no bottom. It is not only a refuge from trouble, but trouble itself, a place where we risk losing ourselves forever.

The ancient Christian monks thought of solitude as a kind of paradise, a place where the full mystery of God became manifest. But they also knew it as a place of the demonic, where the terrors lurking deep within us could be unleashed with a nearly uncontrollable power and fury. Antony of Egypt, who spent a lifetime in the solitude of the Egyptian desert, said: "[For the one] who wishes to live in solitude . . . there is only one conflict . . . and that is with the heart."1 For Antony, and for those who joined him in this experiment in solitude, the conflict was real and deep and often terrifying. The demonic was palpable and close. One cannot help but wonder what drove them to remain there, to struggle through long years in that wild, desolate solitude. Only a deep hunger could have kept them there, a sense of something mysterious and beautiful at the heart of that loneliness. God.

Yet to utter this word-God-and to suggest that, finally, it is God who sustains and fills the hearts of those who struggle in solitude is to risk missing something crucial. I mean the sense of God's absence and the accompanying feelings of loneliness and alienation that are, for many, so deeply woven into the experience of solitude. Without an honest reckoning with the desolation of solitude, with the real sense of abandonment that so often colors this experience, we risk losing who and what God can become for the one who ventures into this lonely place.

Thomas Merton's experiments in solitude, and his reflections upon those experiments, are instructive in this regard. In many of his published works, especially those appearing toward the end of his life, there is a sense of solitude as a balm, as a place of freedom, where the human person can be reconstituted as a child of God. Solitude is for Merton a kind of paradise where we rediscover our true identity. It is also a place where the reconstituted person can begin to reimagine the meaning of community, can perhaps even help to re-create community. Solitude is thus a place of tremendous creativity. It also makes possible a certain clear-eyed, prophetic critique of those cultural and spiritual patterns that undermine a true and authentic personhood and community. All of this is beautifully expressed in Merton's classic essay "Rain and the Rhinoceros."2 It is without question one of his most mature reflections on the meaning of solitude in human experience. Written in light of his life as a hermit at the Abbey of Gethsemani, it reflects an honest, even sober sense of what it means to face oneself in solitude. …

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