March 1, 2017
I would like to begin Lent with some reflections on Solitude and Communion from the thought of St. John Paul II as presented recently by Mother Martha. Solitude in his thought is our relationship with God and Communion happens when, in union with God, we relate to others. When I consider solitude I find in it two levels, one which I would call The Delightful Solitude and the other The Terrible Solitude.
1) First the delightful solitude. I think immediately of two passages that bring to mind the meaning of this aspect of solitude. The first is from St. Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” God is the only absolute one, the source of all that is. Thus, solitude is finding our rest in the only one who can sustain and satisfy us fully; in the only one who can know us, love us, care for us completely. The second passage is from Julian of Norwich: “God wills to be known, and it pleases him that we rest in him, because nothing less that he can satisfy us…For he is endlessness, and he has made us only for himself, restores us by his blessed passion and keeps us in his blessed love.
2) Secondly the terrible solitude. For me the best passage is this little quoted one from St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 1: “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves by on God who raises the dead.” THAT WAS TO MAKE US RELY NOT ON OURSELVES BUT ON GOD. The terrible solitude involves learning through trials and anguish an absolute dependence on the only one on whom we can absolutely depend. With others it will always be interdependence, a mutual give and take of gifts in light of each one’s limitations, but with God it is total dependence that is called for. Again and again we are put to the test. God will have us lean on him, trust him, rely on him not simply theoretically but really. Only struggles, deprivation, difficulties give us the opportunity to learn how he will come through for us when we are most helpless. He is the only absolutely reliable one. No one can care for us so deeply and so completely as he.
Probably the most instructive biblical image for this is that of the desert which we now enter with Jesus for forty days and forty nights. In Deuteronomy 8: 2-3, 15-16: “You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth to the Lord…he (who) led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, he brought you water out of the flinty rock, he fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.” Here Moses instructs the Israelites to rely on God, to trust him completely, seeing all the ways he cared for and delivered them from dangers and difficulties. Now in today’s Gospel we watch Jesus, the true Israel, enter the desert of struggle and temptation, of hunger, thirst and, finally, of encounter with Satan himself. He enters before us to show us the way of total reliance upon God in trials.
In Dom Augustine’s vow book there is a sentence that describes this aspect of solitude powerfully: “Jesus consecrated this life of solitude and silence when he ‘was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.’ After Jesus, solitude’s richest fruit is the inner identity of the one who has embraced such a life. The crucible of the desert experience, with its dryness and lack of human support, becomes a mother’s womb in which the human person is made anew, thanks to the spiritual stamina and interiority which it stimulates. Through this interiority, monastic solitude becomes a special form of presence in the world, putting the monk or nun in a new relationship to the entire universe.”
Basically solitude is not physical aloneness but interiority, that is, an interior adherence to and reliance upon God. It involves becoming one spirit with him. Once we grow in this depth of interiority born of resting in God and relying on him in all circumstances, once this spiritual stamina develops in us, we can relate to others in a true interdependence, a true communion, because we have found ourselves and need not dominate others by our independence nor depend on them in an unhealthy way. Then Jesus can become very powerful in our lives, and our hearts, through him, are open to communion with all whom we meet.