The 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal in his Pensées famously stated: “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of people arises from one single fact: that they cannot stay quietly in their own room.” Solitude can be daunting, even terrifying … especially the solitude without Christ: “Without Christ, solitude does not signify to be alone, but the absence of meaning” (L. Giussani).
But the solitude that Jesus asks of us — When you pray, go to your room, close the door, and pray to your Father (Mt 6:6) — is the exact opposite because he is there with us in our temporary solitariness. We place ourselves in the solitude of prayer precisely to discover the meaning with which God desires to invest our life.“It is in silence and solitude that one rediscovers oneself, rediscovers the truth about oneself, and it’s through this truth that one gains access to that of others” (G. Bernanos).
But how can busy people, enmeshed in the affairs and preoccupations of daily life, withdraw to a place of solitude? It does not mean becoming a hermit or following the desert fathers and mothers out into the wilderness. Solitude is the conscious decision to be apart for a while in order to be together in the most authentic way. Madeleine Delbrêl, Servant of God, reflected much on this:
It would seem that this solitude is something that those who live among the people of the world have to forego. True solitude is not the absence of people, but the presence of God. To place our lives before the face of God, to surrender our lives to the movements of God, is to roam free in a space in which we have been given solitude. If the eruption of God’s presence in us occurs in silence and solitude, it allows us to remain thrown among, mixed up with, radically joined to all of the people who are made of the same clay as we are.
And once we return to the mix, after having been apart for a given time to pray in private, we in turn become a kind of leaven for those in our community.
If we imagine, in our solitude, a life in perfect harmony with ourselves, with the universe, and with all people, it is our return to the world which, by a sort of paradox, gives reality to this solitude and enables it to bear fruit (L. Lavelle).
We each of us know that we possess a kind of solitude that “encloses something of our essential person” (M. Delbrêl). Even Adam knew it in his longing for Eve. We cherish this essential solitude, which keeps leading us back to the loving Presence of God. “God is the only friend who does not abolish essential solitude. He is the friend, rather, in whom solitude as such becomes fulfilled” (Von Balthasar).
Follow Fr. Cameron’s series on prayer here.