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Engaging Solitude

“I realized that solitude was not a disconnection from the rest of the world but instead a necessary recalibration for more meaningful connection with the world.” -Phileena Heuertz

We live in the oddest and most uncertain of times. On the one hand as I read the news I get the sense that the world is slowly falling apart, and on the other, I look out the window at a brilliant sun in a luminous sky, bearing witness to the sheer beauty of our shared world. We live in both an awful and awe-filled moment.

The coronavirus has brought our global community to a screeching halt, forcing us to withdraw into physical isolation by way of “social distancing.” Many of us find it difficult to slow down, to be still and be alone. We may be feeling “cooped up” at home with a sense of cabin fever, loneliness, or isolation. In the morning, our bodies may lock up in dread knowing that the people we live with will be the only people we will interact with today. Or, we may be slowly adjusting to a sense of a “new normal.”

There is another side to this separation and solitude, something Henri Nouwen spoke of as the Spirit’s invitation to move “from loneliness to solitude.” This physical distancing, this space between people is baked into the contemplative life. Solitude has been a sacred practice among all the world’s contemplative traditions as the space for confronting the entirety of our being. In the midst of COVID-19, we are now presented with an opportunity to engage this solitude as a season for personal exploration, healing, and intimacy with God.

As one meme that came by my Instagram feed said, “You can not go outside, so go inside.”

Engaging solitude can be both enlightening and unnerving. In the spaciousness of true solitude we are confronted with the whole of our being—the good and the bad, the light and the dark—the entirety of ourselves.

In everyday life, we live as fragments of identity: here a mother, there a sister, at work a professional, sometimes the boss and at other times a subordinate. Rarely are all of these fragments woven together. But solitude is a unique space where, with no one to impress, to take orders from, or to make demands, we can pull the fragments together. We may even come to terms with the reality that most of our identities in life are non-essential to our deeper being. They are roles we play and are the things that pass away with time.

Solitude offers access to encounter the Deep Self that lies beyond these roles. Yet, in solitude, it is not uncommon for challenges to emerge: memories of pain and trauma; unprocessed emotions; a seemingly untamable mind; anxieties and insecurities that have been in the background; unaccepted truths about ourselves; the shame of not being able to be alone; and much more. What was lurking in the attic of our mind now sits at our kitchen table!

Thus it’s natural to approach this season of “social distancing” with resistance or dis-ease. If this is what happens when I am alone, why in the world would I ever choose solitude? The first major task may simply be surrendering to the resistance; accept what is. We may be helpless over the coronavirus, but we are not helpless in our response. We can choose to truly engage this season of solitude. We can make a choice of how we want to approach the things that emerge. Of this pandemic, Cynthia Bourgeault encouraged “turning into—not away from—our own loneliness, our own fear, our own disconnection.” These are hard tasks, especially when everything in us wants to run away from loneliness and turn away from fear and disconnection.

We may feel compelled to write an email, make a phone call, or schedule a Zoom call. We are, after all, social beings in deep need of authentic connection. But if these desires are arising out of compulsion, out of a resistance to confronting our own sense of loneliness, fear, and disconnection, then might we instead turn into these experiences. Look at them as if looking in the mirror. They are a layer of being to which we must attend if we want to become a self that has taken this season of solitude and transmuted it into a season of transformation. It is my hope that we can, individually and collectively, engage this season of solitude as an invitation for recollection, reflection, prayer, and meditation.

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[…] This blog originally appeared on the Shalem Institute weekly blog. […]