Most of us live lives in which solitude is difficult, and in a society in which solitude is viewed negatively. Solitary people are thought of as being alone, being lonely, being anti-social, being “withdrawn”. There are depressing studies of the adverse effects of loneliness, of social isolation, even of solitary confinement in prisons. The adverse effects, however, derive from enforced, not chosen, solitude.
A desire to be alone is likely to be viewed by most other people as eccentric, or even pathological. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you like me anymore? Don’t you like people? Are you depressed?” Someone may even sarcastically quote the famous line attributed to the Swedish actress, Greta Garbo, in the 1920s: “I want to be alone”.
While the Christian spiritual life does not require permanent solitude, and such a state (like that of the Hermit) is really an exception, even an aberration, some solitude – the equivalent of going into the wilderness, or going into “the garden” [Matthew 26:36] or onto “the mountain” [Luke 6:12; Matthew 14:23 ] or into the “desolate places” [Luke 5:16; Marv 1:35] to pray – is necessary for spiritual health and growth. It may a few minutes in a day, or perhaps an hour or two during a week, or perhaps a day a month. The time must be realistically decided; anyone unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with solitude needs to begin with short periods, and anyone with personal responsibilities needs to take those into account. Christian solitude cannot be self-indulgent or a means of escaping responsibilities.
It can be beneficial to have “planned solitude” – that is, to set aside a regular period of time to withdraw and be alone. Each individual will have to discover what appropriate solitude is for herself or himself. One may really require physical withdrawal to some remote and isolated place; another may be able to experience it in an inner city park or sitting in a bedroom. Some may find “walking solitude” beneficial. Some who work in cities may find sitting in an essentially deserted church (of which here are now many!) appropriate.
The essential characteristics of such solitude are the absence of actual or potential distraction or interruptions (including internal ones, like anxiety about time or worry about things not being done); relative silence; and stillness. This requires, for those living in relationships or with family responsibilities, a mutual agreement with others as to the time of solitude.
We need to be physically and psychologically alone, without the presence of the “ghosts of our minds” or “electronic intruders” (such as radio or television).
In solitude we seek to simply “be” – not to be in a role or a relationship, or to be defined by what we are doing or saying or how we appear or how we want to be seen, or what we regard as appropriate behaviour or how we want others to treat us. We are not essentially seeking solitude to study or to pray or to meditate or to write, although solitude may facilitate or even be necessary for all those activities.
We seek solitude to be alone in the Presence of God.
For readings on solitude, see: https://citydesert.wordpress.com/?s=solitude