Silence and Solitude

“We are all solitaries even if we do not realize it. It is basic and inevitable to being human, for it fundamentally as an individual that we meet God and it is alone that we die. To be human is to be alone and it is only a state of inner solitude that leads to spiritual maturity and a realization of this actuality. In years gone by, there have been those who went out into the desert places, literally to the demon-possessed wildernesses of Egypt to live as hermits. There is also a metaphorical reality with those who have sought God from wherever their desert may be, perhaps in the quiet of the forest or in the chaos of the city.
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To be alone in silence and solitude is to live in poverty and to be empty to all that is important to this world. It is to seek God above all else and also to know one’s sinfulness and finally to be reduced to silence in the presence of the living God. It is to come to a place where prayer and contemplation are no longer measured or realized but life is lived when we are liberated by the silence.
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The Desert Fathers have led the way and it is their writings that inspired Thomas Merton in his own pursuit of solitude and silence amidst the busyness of monastic life. It is this long tradition of solitude that our generation is now a part of and it is writings and wisdom of those who have gone before us that can speak into our lives today.
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It is in silence and the solitude of the desert places that we might know God and it is where we can know ourselves. It is where we are able to escape the decadence of the world around us and even within the Church itself. It is where we might find emptiness and in doing so, find fullness in Christ. It is from the desert that we might speak prophetically to a society that desperately needs to hear the voice of the solitary…
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The Desert Fathers came to the desert in order to be themselves. It is the decadent world around them that divided their wills, their lives and took them away from seeking after the things of God’s Kingdom. For the Fathers, there is no other valid reason for going to the desert and seeking solitude then to forget the world that seeks to divide them. The goal of solitude is purity of heart in which one can see the true state of their own affairs apart from the toxic influence of the culture of the day. The desert is where it becomes readily apparent whether or not one is anchored in, or lost to Christ. The silence is where we are able to listen to the depths of our own being.
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However, this solitude and forgetfulness of the world is paradoxically not an exclusion of outside reality but instead a way in which to love it. It is in accepting oneself in poverty and despair that one might truly love because unless one really knows themselves in light of Christ, they have nothing to offer the world.
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It is in this state of poverty and solitude that one is able to deal with a sinful heart. This is often in opposition to those who remain in society and who deal instead with the sins of the world around them. To be a solitary means to seek after the redemption of Christ, whether in the deserts of Egypt or the hills and mountains of the USA. In solitude, the incomprehensible uncertainties of life, of one’s own existence are faced instead of ignored. However, this path to redemption through solitude and silence in the desert places has no place for the rebellious that looks at the world around them with condemnation. It is only when the hermit withdraws and is first of all hard on them self, that they might have anything to offer to the world from which they have withdrawn and by which God might be known. Solitude is the means by which we are able to be truly human.
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The purpose of knowing one self is not to transcend reality or have some sort of supernatural power over the world around us but it is to know God. The result of knowing one self in the silence and solitude is salvation. Salvation is a state in which God is nearer, not through words or images or the Church but His very presence is unmistakable. The desert Fathers are silent because they want to hear God in the silence……
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The hermit in the desert is called to a life of death, poverty and suffering. It is a life of impracticality and uselessness according to the standards of the world. The solitary is inferior on all levels, even the spiritual and yet it is precisely in this state of emptiness and inferiority that the ultimate goal of unity with God is achieved. For when one ceases to strive for the things of this world, to honor the social conventions of society, to be reduced to nothing in the eyes of the world around them and to choose silence and solitude that the point of the hermit’s life is actualized. In poverty so great and deep, one is surrounded by God in a way that the affluent are not. To cease to regard self as poverty stricken is to simply exist in a way that is authentic. In nakedness and hunger, one is a stranger to this world, a wanderer in the desert and yet this is perhaps a more authentic and honest condition of the human soul than to remain in the world and be engaged actively in community. The spirituality of the desert, with its doubts reduces the hermit to silence and it is in this state that God is ever-present despite uncertainty and nothingness.
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This emptiness and nothingness that is found in solitary places is not without purpose. To escape into the silence is not selfish but is actually the very opposite in that it is a death of self, a forgetfulness of striving. It is a death of our very person and identity. This death is to die to self and to live for Christ alone. To be a solitary is to be a brother of the martyr. One does not become a solitary in order to heighten self-consciousness or to find pleasure in self but it is the opposite. It is possible to turn our backs on society without hating it and perhaps it is even a greater form of love for it than remaining in it would be. Without this emptiness and death of self found in the silence we are unable to love because we will not possess a self that is deep and realized, empty and without motives or strivings of our own. This is the only gift that we are able to offer someone in love….
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It is in this state of emptiness realized in solitude that the Desert Fathers are able to act as prophets to their contemporaries and to the generations that will follow…
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Solitude, almost by its very nature offers deeper communication with the self as the countless contradictions within our life can finally be reconciled. It is in silence that we know of something deeper, the presence and self-emptying nature of God. This knowing of God and self, the emptying nature of solitude and the escape from a decadent state is a sign of contradiction to the world. The solitary is like John the Baptist, one crying in the wilderness with a message that few will embrace but that many will reject. The solitary is a prophet who speaks a message that the world does not want to hear because it has nothing in common with the one who is truly alone and not part of this world. But in this act of dying to the world and being rejected by it, the silent solitary perhaps speaks more loudly than any words could. For it is this person who knows the true nature of God, His transcendence, His otherness and a nature that is beyond catchphrase or slogan and that it is why the world hates the solitary for the same reasons they hate God. It is impossible to make this transcendent God into our own image and the solitary is a harsh reminder of this….
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The Desert Fathers escaped into the desert, seeking God and self-understanding, fleeing from the compulsions and conventions of the day and emptying themselves in order that they might be united with God. Their writings live on, prophetically speaking to us today in a society just as consumed with decadence as the world which the Desert Fathers left.
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From Jackie Bolen “Silence and Solitude of the Desert Fathers and Thomas Merton”

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