Solitude or Isolation?

Atop Gleouraich in Scotland in 2009

Do you enjoy being alone?

Many people’s favorite hobbies include time spent alone: curling up by the fire with a good novel, going for a long walk, building model trains, cooking a gourmet meal, or entering into the silence of prayer.

For me personally, hours or days spent alone have been some of the best and some of the worst moments of my life.

I’ve had profound experiences of peace, joy, or even exhilaration amidst solitude: making a 30-day Ignatian retreat, stumbling on deeper truths while researching or writing, hiking up a mountain in Scotland, or walking on a 120-mile pilgrimage. Each of those experiences were challenging, even demanding – but always rewarding in the end. They yielded personal growth and left me feeling more fully alive, more truly human, and more truly myself.

I’ve also spent many thousands of hours of my life in self-isolating and fruitless pursuits. They gave a momentary reprieve from my burdens, but left me feeling empty and disconnected. In my adolescent years it was endless hours of video games. Later in life, it was time wasted on the internet, creature comforts like food and drink, or long hours spent being busy, working and toiling in the pursuit of “success” in a way that brought no real joy or peace, no lasting fruit.

Is it good to be alone?

Our Christian Faith offers both sides of the coin. On the one side, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). We are made for communion – with God, with others, with ourselves. Sin is a rupture of that communion. As a consequence of that rupture, isolation and loneliness become truly hellish experiences. Indeed, authors like C.S. Lewis (in The Great Divorce) or his friend Charles Williams (in The Descent into Hell) have offered chilling literary depictions of how those who “go to Hell” begin the experience of isolation and alienation and misery here and now. On the positive side of the “alone” coin, we see Jesus spending long hours in solitude, whether fasting for forty days in the desert or spending the whole night in prayer. We see godly men like Benedict or Anthony of the Desert spending entire years in solitude, and bearing abundant fruit in the lives of others.

There is an important distinction between solitude and isolation. The one actually connects us with God and others and self, heals us, refreshes us, restores us to communion, and bears much fruit. The other isolates and ruins and rots, becoming a foretaste of Hell.

To turn to movie imagery, we can contrast the “Fortress of Solitude” in Superman with Elsa’s ice palace in Frozen. Superman withdraws into his fortress to reconnect with his roots, to think and meditate, and ultimately to re-emerge with clarity of vision and an eagerness to serve. Elsa spends years trapped in isolation until her heart finally melts, and she re-discovers the beauty of vulnerability, communion, and love.

I find the story of Saint Benedict especially captivating. His three years of solitude in the cave at Subiaco changed his life. It set the stage for him finding true peace in healthy relationships with God, others, and self. The Benedictine way of life went on to have a 1,000-year impact on Europe and ultimately on the United States. Thanks to the monks, the wisdom of the ancients was saved and preserved; barbarian tribes became civilized Christian peoples; universities and human learning flourished; lasting and stable democracies emerged.

I remember my pilgrimage to Subiaco in 2012, kneeling in that cave and pondering how many millions of lives were impacted because of one man’s fruitful solitude in that place. I love the description written a century later by Gregory the Great: “Then he returned to his place of beloved solitude, and was alone with himself in God’s sight.” This was no flight from reality into isolation, no numbing of emotional pain or escape into fantasy. He abided in God’s presence, and he abided “with himself.” It was a spiritual battle that God helped him to win. The end result was a superabundant fruitfulness when he lived in community with others.

Authentic solitude is an essential part of the human experience – whether we are introverts or extroverts! Only when we have periods of silence and solitude can we get in touch with our deepest desires and deepest fears.

Indeed, solitude is a chance to face our loneliness rather than flee from it. We experience loneliness by feeling overwhelmed and unsupported in a new and scary situation, feeling misunderstood or unappreciated, feeling excluded or rejected or left out.

I have felt all of those things in my own life. It is painful. I spent far too many moments in my life trying to self-isolate or numb my pain. A wise man that I know likes to say, “isolation is the first drug.” Different people turn to different drugs: gambling, marijuana, pornography, sexual affairs, food, alcohol, shopping, etc. Each is ultimately an attempt to isolate and escape, to distract and divert, a flight from communion with God, running away in shame and self-disgust, rather than facing the messiness of our heart.

It doesn’t have to be that way. God made our hearts, and made them good and beautiful. We are beloved sons and daughters of God, and profoundly connected with the other members of the Body of Christ – both those still fighting here on earth and those already victorious in heaven. We are never truly alone. Authentic experiences of solitude serve to heal and restore our communion with God and others and self. They help us abide in love and truth and to bear fruit.

Abiding in Love and Truth – First Post

Love is the true purpose of our human existence. Love is our origin and our destiny. Love is what nurtures us. Love is our deepest desire. Love is what sustains us along the arduous path. In love we grow; in love we are perfected and become who we are. Those who experience authentic love experience an amazing and unshakable joy, even amidst the hardest circumstances. Those who experience a lack of love languish, even when others are eager to help and heal. Devoid of love, human existence becomes meaningless and miserable.

But what is love? That is the real question.

Many people across the spectrum would agree with the statements I just made about love. Whether male or female, young or old, believers or unbelievers, conservatives or liberals, most of the people that I meet would like their life to be about love. Even the most jaded or cynical, beneath their façade, are protecting a tender heart that desperately yearns for love but is too terrified to seek it.

If virtually everyone believes that human existence is supposed to be about love, why so much misery and brokenness? Why so much confusion and chaos? Why so much polarization and hatred? What has gone wrong with the world today?

We have forgotten the connection between love and truth. It is impossible to abide in love if we do not also abide in the truth. “Love rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

We’ve all heard those famous words of the apostle Paul, repeated at so many weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated…” Perhaps we are so familiar and so sentimental in hearing the words that we tune out by the time he speaks that crucial phrase: Love rejoices in the truth.

Love and truth are inseparable. Love is only love if it is ordered to the truth. If we are living a lie, love will not last.

“What is truth?” The words of Pontius Pilate echo through the centuries. We live in an age of relativism. We delude ourselves with the notion that we can create our own truth. We think we can make life mean whatever we want it to mean. This was, in fact, the original diabolical temptation to the first humans: “You will be like gods…” (Genesis 3:5). Each of us faces that decision at each moment. Do I open my heart in receptivity to all that is true and good and beautiful? Or do I assert my own ego, grasping and seizing and controlling, creating my own version of reality?  Relativism has given so many people just the leeway they need to indulge selfish desires or avoid doing the difficult thing. Pope Benedict XVI aptly exposed it as the “Dictatorship of Relativism.”

Truth and goodness and beauty were once delighted in and pursued by the greatest human minds. Whether philosophers or poets, architects or astronomers, many of the intellectual giants of the ancient and medieval world yearned to give themselves over to the truth. The more they did so, the more they perceived a mystery that was beyond their own limited experience. They saw themselves as stewards, not masters of the mystery.

The truth is objective and transcendent. We do not “create” it, even though our human creativity may unleash a deeper experience of it. Rather, “conversion” is a much more suitable word. If our hearts are sincere and receptive, truth or goodness or beauty will sometimes break through like a shaft of light. We discover that our approach has been incorrect or incomplete. We let ourselves be changed.

Or perhaps we don’t. Perhaps we harden our heart and stay the same. That is where misery and chaos and destruction enter into the human story.

Relativism is a threat to the truth, which means that it is ultimately a threat to love and to human flourishing. In this blog I will call upon my expertise in philosophy and theology to reaffirm objective truth.

However, I will also talk extensively about the subjective dimension of truth. Knowing the truth is one thing; internalizing it is another! Most of us can relate painfully to the experience of Paul: “I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19). Like him, we have much need of the healing and integrity that Jesus Christ brings.

The truth is not relative, but it most certainly is relational. Love and truth are inseparable. God is love, i.e., God is an eternal communion of persons in relationship. We have been created in God’s image and likeness. We are destined to see God face to face and become like him. Therefore, we will only discover the full truth of our human existence in healthy relationships with God, self, and others.

Like so many today, I have experienced a great deal of brokenness in my own heart. My intellectual and spiritual beliefs have not always matched up with my emotional or physical experiences. I have received much healing in Christ. With help from some great friends, he is teaching me how to abide in love and truth. Therefore this blog will also share personal lessons learned.

Abiding in Love and Truth. That is what each of us truly desires. It is the exhortation that Jesus offered us the night before he died. He proclaimed himself to be the way, the truth, and the life. And he called us to abide in his love as branches on the vine, bearing fruit together in him.

I look forward to sharing more soon.