Heartless Solitude

“Solitude is the furnace of transformation.”
Henri Nouwen

The day began at 4:00 am with a five-hour bus trip to the state capital, Albany, NY, with 70 other people. By 10:00 am we joined close to 1,000 other activists, allies, and survivors pursuing justice for those placed in solitary confinement up to 24 hours a day, for weeks or years at a time. Throughout the day we pressured the NY State Legislature to pass the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which would put an end to the long-term (and internationally unlawful) practice of solitary confinement in New York State.

Complete solitude—a contemplative’s dream; solitary confinement—a complete nightmare.

Solitude and Solitary Confinement

Solitude, the choice of creating time, space, and intentional seclusion, is one of the pillars of walking the contemplative way, but it must be seen in its proper context. Solitude is not a good in itself but is a means towards a greater end: creating the external and internal spaciousness to completely open to God.

The true power of solitude is in the power of consent, the ability to desire and choose for one’s self the amount and quality of solitude one needs. Solitude with consent also means the ability to leave solitude to rejoin the community at will.

Solitude, when chosen and consented to, creates the external space for personal transformation and intimacy with the living Presence. However, solitude, if unchosen and without consent, is no holy or sacred space but a living nightmare: the movement from solitude to isolation.

This movement towards isolation is the living reality for all those held, against their will, in solitary confinement. For the men, women, and developing babies in the wombs of pregnant mothers who are placed in solitary confinement, their solitude is unchosen. It is forced solitude.

For weeks, months, years, and in some cases decades, humans in New York (and throughout the states) are caged in complete isolation, in a room the size of an elevator for 22-24 hours a day, a practice out of compliance with international law, which deems it torture.

Without access to other inmates, phone calls, or therapy, solitary is a place of complete isolation, leading to tremendous psychological damage and trauma. Today, about 80,000 people are held in long-term solitary confinement throughout the United States. That is 80,000 souls tormented in isolated confinement.

Among the many reforms our prison system so desperately needs, this is one of the more obvious because it’s so clearly inhumane. The reality of solitary confinement is that it strips the human of their humanity. It is a heartless way of pure punishment and legalized torture.

The beauty of chosen solitude is the careful tending to one’s interior landscape and relationship to God. Chosen solitude is, as Henri Nouwen wrote “the furnace of transformation.” The horror of forced solitude is the brutal tearing down of a human’s basic dignity. A furnace not of transformation but of torture.

Dedicate Your Practice

Solitude is not an end in itself. God is the end. Solitude is as good as the quality and clarity of your intention. It is as sacred as your ability to be present, in body, mind, emotion, and soul. But without consent, solitude can be a nightmare.

In your next sit of solitude, be it on your prayer stool, meditation cushion, or in a beautiful retreat house, I invite you to remember those who have not chosen their solitude, but for whom that is the norm of 24 hours a day, for weeks, months, and even years. Consider what it means to remember them in your mind and heart and dedicate the good of your practice to them, that their soul may be warmed in some way and their burden lightened.

March 03, 2020 by Keith Kristich 2 Comments
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4 years ago

I have read many of the Shalem blog posts and always come away enlightened and informed by the information and teachings. This is the first blog I have read that feels dark and heavy. I’m left wondering what the intent of the post was ?


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