Journeying With Henri Nouwen: Solitude: Part 1

Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. – Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline

A few weeks ago I posted about Loneliness taking my cues from Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. There he urges us to become aware of our aching loneliness and how we anesthetize ourselves through busyness in our searching for recognition and success. Living out of our loneliness tends to push us into competition and rivalry with others, even within our most intimate relationships. And, again, most of us aren’t aware of this posture and its practices. Yet, if we are ever to move towards the other and towards God, we must learn to transform this loneliness into solitude.

This isn’t a solitude of place where one rejects the world by moving into the desert. Our imaginations often picture a hermit living in utter isolation due to an oath of isolation. Rather it is, as Nouwen explains, a solitude of heart that is not dependent upon location. He states,

It seems more important than ever to stress that solitude is one of the human capacities that can exist, be maintained and developed in the center of a big city, in the middle of a large crowd and in the context of a very active and productive life. A man or woman who has developed this solitude of heart is no longer pulled apart by the most divergent stimuli of the surrounding world but is able to perceive and understand this world from a quiet inner center.

By attentive living we can learn the difference between being present in loneliness and being present in solitude…When we live with a solitude of heart, we can listen with attention to the words and the worlds of others, but when we are driven by loneliness, we tend to select just those remarks and events that bring immediate satisfaction to our own craving needs.

This inner life of loneliness and solitude makes up the moments of every day. It isn’t as if we can decide to stay honed in and living out of solitude at all times. We constantly fluctuate between these two poles as we live our lives. The beginning of the spiritual life is attending to this tension and intentionally moving deeper into solitude.

Analogous to living a hermit-type life of isolation is the fright surrounding the solitude of heart resulting in individualistic, escapist lives. This is not necessarily true. Nouwen discusses, “Solitude does not pull us away from our fellow human beings but instead makes real fellowship possible.” It is possible because it is in solitude that we begin to find our true selves. In a life where we are constantly bombarded by a cacophony of voices all competing for a chance to form our identities, it is in the silence of solitude that we begin to hear the voice of our true identity. It is here that we develop the ears to hear the gentle whisper of our souls as we tend to the questions we are asking of ourselves. Solitude opens up space for us to deal with ourselves and our areas of loneliness as we converse with God and hear, perhaps for the first time, the questions he poses to us. 21st century life tells us to run full speed after the answers and so we frantically search for comprehension from every available source. Beginning with an attention to the questions of our own souls and the questions God is allowing us to rest in, we then can deconstruct the need to see people as means to an end, namely our own needs.

Living out of a solitude of heart enables us to reach out to our fellow human beings recognizing both our own uniqueness and the tendency we have to see them solely as people who effectuate our wills.

Without the solitude of heart, our relationships with others easily become needy and greedy, sticky and clinging, dependent and sentimental, exploitative and parasitic, because without the solitude of heart we cannot experience the others as different from ourselves but only as people who can be used for the fulfillment of our own, often hidden, needs.

Solitude of heart cultivates the individuality of “me” as I love the individuality of “you.” This reciprocity of love between individuals living out of solitude forms creative communities solidified by their mutual respect and encouragement of each person made in God’s image. When we live out of places of loneliness, we force a homogeneity based on competition, rivalry, and cynicism where we all are alike in our pursuit of our own agendas. Trust, promise-making, and commitment don’t exist because hostility is just under the surface of our relationships due to us becoming atomized wielders of power.

And so solitude of heart allows us to clear the space where we can accept friendships and community as gifts, not as opportunities of personal fulfillment through exploitation of others. As we recognize the beauty of ourselves through the God who created us, we begin to see the same beauty in others. Recognition of this beauty paves the way for the further recognition that my exploitation of them is actually an exploitation of myself as well. It is attentive listening to the other, myself, and the God who binds us together that allows us to move past our loneliness and exploitative ways.

Loneliness can be transformed into solitude. In the upcoming part on solitude, I’ll discuss Nouwen’s “creative response” to moving deeper into solitude and out of loneliness.

See you then.

*All Henri Nouwen quotes are from Chapter 2 “A Receptive Solitude,” in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.

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