“The movement from loneliness to solitude is not a movement of growing withdrawal but is instead a movement toward a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time. The movement from loneliness to solitude can make it possible to convert slowly our fearful reactions into a loving response.” - Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out
I’ve just arrived back from a planned three-day retreat, which I cut short by a day and a half. Personal retreats are a part of my “rule of life” and a way I’ve found to reconnect with my true self and True Self.
In the past I’ve entered retreats how one may enter an air conditioned grocery store on a humid Summer day, but this retreat I entered how I enter the dentist - I need to be there, but I don’t want to be there, and how numb will I be when I leave?
Being back from my retreat, it is clear that I have been existing for months more in a state of loneliness than in solitude. Most of my days are spent alone, yet I end each day feeling as though I’ve been present to everyone’s needs except my own.
Loneliness is not simply a state of being separated from others, but essentially a state of being separated from oneself. Solitude is conversely similar - one can be separated from others, but entirely with oneself.
In our loneliness we anxiously search for presence to arrive externally in the form of a friend, a guide, a new boss, a new job, a second messiah or the same a second time. However, in our solitude we descend into our lives, into our realities, and into an eternal moment where True Presence awaits.
Loneliness and solitude have less to do with external relationships and everything to do with the primary internal relationship.
Engagement with the “burning issues of our time” is necessary. To be ignorant of injustice and apathetic toward those who suffer the effects, has certainly been an option in the past—I know because I chose that path for much of my life.
But, now, I can’t unsee or unfeel what my eyes and heart now testify.
I cannot unsee the poverty of former logging towns like rural Willamina, Oregon, or the gentrification of my hometown, Knoxville, Tennessee. I cannot unsee the segregation of church communities I’ve attended or pastored. I cannot unfeel the sadness for my LGBTQ sisters and brothers who’ve had to hide, repress and deny much of themselves in order to belong to a faith community. And I cannot unsee the white supremacy in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor.
These realities and many more disrupt and unsettle me. They initially prod me into loneliness because I have not known how to be present to them and stay connected to myself.
This has brought me to these questions:
What does contemplation have to say about injustice?
Where does the contemplative stream and the social justice stream converge, and if they were to meet, what would they have to talk about?
Contemplative spirituality is my oldest friend, and social justice is a new friend I’m only now getting to know. They are very different friends so how can I live in relationship with both and stay true to the person God created me to be?
As Henri Nouwen expressed it in Reaching Out, “The movement from loneliness to solitude should lead to a gradual conversion from an anxious reaction to a loving response. Loneliness leads to a quick, often spastic, reaction which makes us prisoners of our constantly changing world. But in solitude of heart we can listen to the events of the hour, the day and the year and slowly ‘formulate,’ give form to, a response that is really our own.” (Nouwen, 34)
Actions birthed out of loneliness and solitude can look identical on the surface, but have very different impacts both internally and socially.
Loneliness seeks to fill its lacking with action, while solitude acts out of the overflow from its center. Loneliness seeks acceptance, and avoids rejection through shallow exterior displays of solidarity, solitude moves from its internal solidarity into long term action. Loneliness manufactures the image it wants others to perceive, solitude is not concerned with perception, because it lives congruently from within on behalf of others.
Last, we must create space to enter solitude, which may very simply be space to feel the superficiality of our loneliness. As I packed up to come home, I wondered what good my retreat had been.
Was I unable to be by myself? Was I able to exist in a space with no output? Why was I not able to complete the full retreat?
I can see it was enough for me to feel the crushing weight of my loneliness, and meet myself again. You see, when we live from the place of solitude and presence, our protests can come from our gut and not just our throats, our stances can be rooted in the earth rather than the changing of the winds, and our actions toward justice will beget justice. Like a tree planted near a constant stream, bearing fruit, giving shade, and providing rest for others in season and out.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Nouwen, Henri, Reaching Out. Doubleday & Company (Now owned by Penguin Random House) Garden City, NY. © 1975, 34.
Rohr, Richard, Adam's Return. The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York. © 2004, 51-107.
Michael is a spiritual director, shadow work facilitator, and writer. He is ordained in the Free Methodist Church, and holds a Doctor of Leadership from Portland Seminary. If you’d like to connect with Michael for spiritual direction or shadow work, visit Innerworkcommunity.org, or email him at [email protected]. You can also check out his Patheos.com column, Transgressive Spirituality: Life Through the Lens of Jungian Psychology. Be sure to check out his latest work and upcoming courses here.