Saturday, May 24, 2014

in the desert: on the need for solitude

But soon [St. Anthony] realized that more was required of him. He had to... let himself be totally transformed into a new being. His old, false self had to die and a new self had to be born. For this Anthony withdrew into the complete solitude of the desert.
-Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart

Last week tailspin came unexpectedly, like it always does. My friend cancelled dinner out and my internal balance got thrown. She hates spending time with me, I am a loser, I will be alone forever. The emptiness of that night loomed like a dark oblivion ready to swallow me up. I thought about making plans S. or N. or SOMEONE so that my night would be filled again. So that I wouldn't have to spend the rest of my life alone.

But the thing is, I sometimes really enjoy time alone. And - the next day I'd be going away for the long weekend, so the extra time was actually sorta needed to pack and prepare. I know something isn't right when I respond so dramatically. I resisted those sneaky solutions to just make new plans and forced myself to face me Empty Thursday Night.

It was then, in the middle of this past week, that I was absolutely convinced that this weekend away was necessary, and that I had some inner work to do while here. Not coincidentally we are in the desert, the same terrain where Jesus himself was tested and emerged prepared for ministry. I will admit, this desert is probably quite different from the one where Jesus went, or the one where the Desert Fathers fled. Here there are manicured landscapes (and greenery!) and golf courses and swimming pools. Tonight we are headed to a Purple Rain tribute concert and I'm hoping to get a cocktail.

But here I am with Nouwen and my journal and some coffee, wondering about how to create some internal solitude. How not to despise time alone in my apartment. How to not fill up every night of my week with new and old friends to somehow guarantee that I'll never have to live alone.

Here are a few ideas from The Way of the Heart that I'm trying to allow to sink in:

Changing my thinking about my apartment and my time living alone
We say to each other that we need some solitude in our lives. What we really are thinking of, however, is a time and a place for ourselves in which we are not bothered by other people, can think our own thoughts, express our own complaints, and do our own thing, whatever that may be... We have come to the dubious conviction that we all have a right to privacy... solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion... the place where the emergence of the new woman occurs.

On solitude as a discipline
We have, indeed, to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw every day, shake off our compulsions and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord.

What we can expect in the desert of solitude
It is the struggle to die to the false self... The wisdom of the desert is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Why solitude is important to cultivating compassion for people in my life
Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it... It is in solitude that this compassionate solidarity grows... In solitude our heart of stone can be turned into a heart of flesh.

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