The Challenge and Promise of Solitude

“Solitude, like all of the disciplines of the spirit,” philosopher Dallas Willard explained, “carries its risks.” “In solitude,” he went on to say, “we confront our own soul with its obscure forces and conflicts that escape our attention when we are interacting with others.” Quoting Louis Bouyer, Willard added, “Thus, ‘Solitude is a terrible trial, for it serves to crack open and burst apart the shell of our superficial securities. It opens out to us the unknown abyss that we all carry within us… [and] discloses the fact that these abysses are haunted.’”

“We can only survive solitude” Willard concludes, “if we cling to Christ there. And yet what we find of him in that solitude enables us to return to society as free persons.”

We find ourselves in a unique and historic moment. While the emergence of this pandemic has given us many reasons to mourn, there are also opportunities for us to seize. I’ve found that focusing on the possibilities for growth and maturing in Christ has given me a telos or aim for this season that’s been forced on us all. As the manager of Pascal’s Coffeehouse, I am privileged to lead a group of kind and thoughtful baristas in a shared reading program called Barista Society. We’ve been discussing Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines, and, with those meetings on hold, I am happy to share something that’s been so helpful for me in this new normal we find ourselves in.

For some, this quarantined life has created a lot of space for new hobbies, anxious conversations about health and safety, or just plain boredom. For others, this time has meant too little space for time apart from small children or for play dates to get time with other adults and the encouragement that brings. For others still, this time has been riddled with sickness, loss, and grief that can’t always be placed.

No matter what life looks like right now, more chaotic than usual or eerily calm, there is this strange abyss staring at all of us asking, “So, what will you do with the time you've been given? Will you let yourself feel empathy and mourn for those most in danger from this pandemic? Will you look for gifts and little graces in all of the monotony? Will you find small ways to help? Will you try five new recipes in one day because you just can’t stop? Will you lose your actual mind?”

Solitude is making some of us squirm as we quickly move from over-committed and under-rested to having nowhere to go and no-one to see. I’ve been noting the gentle support we’ve offered one another to “be patient with ourselves” and “do things that bring us joy.” Even still, that seems to be finding expression in dance videos, craft projects, and lots and lots and lots of technological devices lighting our way.

While there is always goodness in these things, my solemn prayer for my family, friends, baristas, and myself has been that we would let the silence come in. That we would even guard it if it isn’t coming easily. That we would meet the solitude with a knowledge of its purposes. That we would confront the conflicts in us that escape our attention when we're interacting with others. That we would face ourselves and reckon with the rhythms that have been undermining our desire to become the human beings we’d ultimately like to become.

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Rilke said, “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.” In reading scripture, what has been apparent to me is the repeated observation that Jesus went away to find quiet communion with God and that this allowed him to be all that he was meant to be for those around him: patience in persecution, light in darkness, hope in hopelessness, strength in weakness, peace in anxiety, love in abundance. In our modern culture, as we measure our value by how full our schedule is or how much we’re accomplishing, are we losing something far more valuable? How often do we guard each other's solitude so that we can become who we ought to become for those around us?

As Willard says, solitude carries its risks as it opens up a world of inner dialogue that is normally drowned out by outside voices. In “Making All Things New,” Henri Nouwen states it this way:

“This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distraction manifests themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.”

Its importance is found in the way it calls us to pay attention. As we practice the discipline of solitude we attend to the fears we’ve ignored, the lies we’ve believed, and the desires we’ve allowed to become disordered. We pay closer attention to the realities we often see right past, such as our lost appreciation for the gift of food or our apathy toward our grocery clerk. Our eyes are opened to seeing the gaps between our intention to be good and our actual goodness. Simone Weil puts it wisely as she describes our heightened attention as the beginnings of drawing the soul toward the good it seeks. She says, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer. If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.”

As Jesus taught us through his example, by guarding one another’s solitude, we are reminding each other that the spiritual disciplines enable us to pay better attention so that we might see rightly, act rightly, and love our neighbors rightly. This discipline allows us to re-order our desires towards Christ and go back into society as free persons. Free to be all we were meant to be. Free to feel confident that, as quarantine is making your kids mad with boredom, you have support from God in every moment. Free to know that no matter how distanced you’ve been from friends and family, you are never alone. Free to trust that we can only survive solitude if we cling to Christ there and that he is our ever-present friend. I believe God is creating an inheritance of hope in us that we can pass down to future generations so they might find hope in any unknown darkness to come. Our current darkness is revealing something important about what it means to be human. We just need eyes to see it.

Lauren Babb
Manager, Pascal’s Coffee House


For further reflection on the theme of solitude:

― Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island:

“The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God. Such a one is alone with God in all places, and he alone truly enjoys the companionship of other men, because he loves them in God in Whom their presence is not tiresome, and because of Whom his own love for them can never know satiety.”

— Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus's Essential Teachings on Discipleship:

“Solitude well practiced will break the power of busyness, haste, isolation, and loneliness. You will see that the world is not on your shoulders after all. Your will find yourself, and God will find you in new ways. Silence also brings Sabbath to you. It completes solitude, for without it you cannot be alone. Far from being a mere absence, silence allows the reality of God to stand in the midst of your life. God does not ordinarily compete for our attention. In silence we come to attend.”

— C.S. Lewis, “Membership”:

“We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.”


Study Center Resources

Our Dante reading group began this past Wednesday. In our first session, we provided a brief introduction to Dante and discussed the first canto of the Inferno. In our next meeting, we will be covering cantos 2-4. If you would like to join the group before we get any further along, please email Mike Sacasas at mike@christianstudycenter.org. He will be emailing a links to the Zoom meetings on Monday morning.

For those of you in the Gainesville area, Pascal’s is now open for online ordering and curbside pickup.

Associate director Michael Sacasas’s latest essay in The New Atlantis, “The Analog City and the Digital City: How online life breaks the old political order,” is now available online.


Recommended Reading

— Drawing on Wendell Berry, Jeff Bilbro reflects on embodiment and its technological substitutes upon which we now depend:

“And perhaps when we are able once again to gather in a classroom, a sanctuary, or a front porch for embodied conversation, this season dominated—for some of us at least—by digitally-mediated conversations can serve as a reminder that even these good communities are partial and flawed. Even they are substitutes for that eternal wholeness for which we hope.”

— Adam Garber explores what we can learn about worship from the experience of “livestreaming church”:

“Church livestreaming, for all its technical features, will struggle to open our hearts to grace like this. Even so, in this moment of anxiety and danger, the creative energy animating churches around the globe inspires me and gives me hope. Most of all, I am excited for how our collective experiences with church livestreaming will hold up a mirror for churches “in real life” to see what they’re doing in a new light.”

— Tara Thieke reflects on the morally and spiritually formative power of good children’s literature:

“Wonder is the first language of the soul: the baby wonders to see his mother’s face; his joy spills over into transcendent laughter. She wonders at her first taste of ice cream and then, ah, the ecstasy of enchantment. This is our birthright. This pattern is repeated, and for many a century we nurtured our children with fairy tales and folklore which guided our children into the world and instilled caution and reverence. There may be dragons, but that well-cared for babies live in a perpetual state of wonder is a sign that all of this, your toes and the tree which looms over the toddler, all this is a gift; and this awe, as the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel emphasized repeatedly, is how we learn to know and love the Lord.”