Solitude: A View from Religious Studies

“Christian tradition contains many points of view on how to balance solitude with the claims of other people. Some advocates of solitude made extremely harsh judgments about social existence and justified total withdrawal. Other desert fathers spoke powerfully about the importance of human communion and fellowship in the spiritual life. Critics of solitude seized upon hermits’ most antisocial statements as evidence of their inconsistency with basic tenets of Christian faith. From the early centuries until today, Christian opponents of solitude assert that since the essence of Christian life is love of the neighbor, a hermit turns his back on a crucial duty and joy of a life grounded in faith.
Basil of Caesarea (329–379) was one of the most outspoken opponents of Christians living a solitary life. He made two criticisms of solitude that recur through the ages. A Christian needs other people to protect him from the dangers of pride and self-delusion by pointing out error. And the Christian life necessarily demands communion with and service of the neighbor, concrete opportunities to practice the law of love. The mainstream of Christian tradition discerns a combination of benefits and dangers in solitude. The desert fathers soon discovered their need of each other for practical necessities and religious guidance. Colonies of hermits, sometimes called sketes or lauras, developed, where periods of solitude alternated with communal worship, conferences, and shared labor. In the evolution of Western monasticism, eremitical isolation became rarer. Most of the monastic tradition affirms cenobitical (communal) existence as normative while acknowledging solitude as a valuable although minor part of a Christian life. When cenobitical monasticism became the norm, the monk became the model not of solitary life but of the ideal of fellowship and communal religious living. In Saint Benedict’s Rule, for instance, the common life is the normal one for monks, although Benedict grants the possibility of becoming a hermit after many years of formation by group discipline….
Just as solitude has its biased detractors, some of its advocates, both religious and secular, are unbalanced in their refusal to consider how solitude can be integrated with social concerns. Wisdom about solitude involves understanding both the spiritual value of experiences of aloneness and the dangers when solitary pursuits are severed from the relationships, social activities, and contexts that give solitude much of its meaning and value. Solitude helps certain people to understand and feel connected to the fundamental sources of meaning and value in their lives. Alone, they may better study ancient texts, examine conscience, discern God’s will, create works of art or literature, appreciate the natural world, or forge a distinctive identity. Some people explicitly correlate their view of solitude with a conception of God and find a religious community that supports their aloneness, while secular solitaries do not link their ultimate values to the divine or an institutional tradition. The spiritual but not religious person usually seeks contact with transcendent meaning, but does not affiliate with a community, and often understands experiences of solitude as confirming his/her sense of estrangement or detachment from the official institutions of religion.
Sometimes aloneness is primarily an escape from the negative aspects of social existence: the boredom, conflict, or anxious striving to please that drain one’s energy and spiritual vitality. More positively, solitude allows a person to focus on some dimension of reality that is better appreciated or engaged when one is not distracted by the need to attend to others. Thus, solitude can be both a retreat from unwanted social interactions and a commitment to positive values and dimensions of reality that are more fully experienced alone. From some points of view, the very idea of spiritual or religious solitude is an oxymoron. If religion is understood as a matter of self-transcendence or commitment to a religious community, then aloneness seems the antithesis of genuine spiritual development. This perspective however fails to grasp how the purpose of solitude is not necessarily attention to oneself. In solitude some persons practice a certain kind of attentiveness that they cannot achieve when distracted by the presence of other people. For these individuals, solitude is a necessary condition of meditative awareness or full concentration on something beyond the self that connects them with the world and often with what they believe to be sacred, divine, holy, or most valuable. Solitude at its best – when it realizes its fullest ethical and spiritual value – is not oriented toward escaping the world, but toward a different kind of participation in it, as made possible by disengagement from ordinary social interactions. Solitude is a return to the self, but it is not necessarily narcissistic; it may also be a return to what is most important in one’s life and an encounter with sources of meaning and truth beyond oneself.
From John D. Barbour [Department of Religion, St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN, USA] “A View from Religious Studies: Solitude and Spirituality” in “The Handbook Of Solitude Psychological Perspectives on Social Isolation, Social Withdrawal, and Being Alone” Edited by Robert J. Coplan and Julie C. Bowker [Wiley Blackwell, 2014] pp:547-571


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