The predominant experience for us currently is one of separation. Because of the COVID restrictions, we can’t be with one another as we would like. We need to stay home to prevent the transmission of the virus. We cannot mix with our friends and our colleagues as we wish. A solitude has enveloped us. We are forced by circumstances to take things more quietly. Many of struggle with this: it’s very hard to stay within a very small circle. And yet this time of separation is also perhaps an opportunity for us to consider in a deeper way the importance and opportunity of silence and solitude in our life. I think, too, it is the invitation at the heart of the gospel for this Sunday.
As many of you would be aware I was ordained a priest as a Trappist monk so the call to silence and solitude has been a very significant part of my life and it remains very strong in me. As many of you would also be aware, however, my life now can from time to time become pathologically over-extended, (as the writer Ronald Rolheiser once wrote to me describing his own life), and it’s not often that I get to enjoy such time alone. Life is full of many different commitments and there never seems to be enough hours in the day to achieve all that I would like to. I am sure that this experience is a common one for many of us.
Not all of us, of course, do have a deep yearning for solitude and silence as I might. Rather, many of us find our life in a full involvement of partnership and family, and all of us do live very busy lives in which the opportunity for time alone, let alone time for prayer, does not present itself easily for us. We struggle to get any time for ourselves. I remember one person describing that the only time for prayer that she could find was in the shower each morning because this was the one time, the only time, that she knew she would not be disturbed. I am sure this is not uncommon experience.
And yet, we know that a healthy sense of our self as unique and grounded is critical for a good life and, indeed, for the health of our relationships and for our capacity to reach out to others genuinely. As the German poet, Rilke wrote once over a hundred years ago, “Love consists in this: that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” He went on to say,
I am standing quietly and full of deep trust before the gates of this solitude, because I hold this to the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognise no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.”
Simone Weil, a spiritual writer in the 1930s commented too somewhere that friendship is that “miracle by which a person consents to view from a certain distance, and without coming any nearer, the very being who is necessary to them as food.” More recently, yet another writer, Roger Shultz underscored these kinds of insight when he observed:
Any probing of one’s own depth leads one to observe that every intimate relation, even for the most united couple, implies limitations. Beyond, there is human solitude. Anyone who refuses this order of nature will know revolt, as a result of their refusal. Consent to this fundamental solitude opens up a way to peace.
And so, whatever our opportunity for silence and solitude, all of us have to negotiate this tension about being alone and being with others in some way in our life. Our current context brings this to the fore, but so, too, do situations of disappointment in our relationships, failures in our marriage, times of separation in our most important relationships through misunderstanding, sickness and death. It is the very tension that Jesus himself faces in his own life as the gospel this Sunday records.
But how are we to gain a sense of solitude when our commitments and our obligations seem to be all consuming? I was helped a great deal in this myself by a study of John Barbour on how we might best understand the nature of solitude.
The breakthrough insight that Barbour gave me was that solitude is not necessarily an experience of being alone. We think of solitude as about being solitary, about being alone. But Barbour suggests that solitude is much more profoundly the experience of stepping aside from normal social consciousness, the roles and routines that can leave a person feeling trapped, bored, or overwhelmed by the demands and expectations of others. Experiences of true solitude are those that “allow a person to focus on certain experiences and dimensions of reality with a fuller attention, a more complete concentration, than is possible when one must also attend to the reactions of other people” – particularly from the perspective of one’s role and obligations. 
He says, “We need a balance between the active and contemplative, between encounter with another person and the need to recollect one’s sense of selfhood apart from others. Few would quarrel with this generalization, but the details about how we each do this in our own live are as interesting and various as our differing temperaments and needs.” This is where Barbour’s perspective becomes interesting because for some of us going out to dinner with our wife or partner might be the best form of solitude we can enter, or going out to see a film with friends, or going on a bushwalk with a friend. In each of these kinds of experiences we may not necessarily be alone but we have stepped aside from our normal roles and routines and stepped into a space where we can simply be ourselves. It is this space, however it might present uniquely for us that for Barbour constitutes the experience of genuine solitude. It is these experiences we need to build into our lives to, as he says, “avoid the dangers of either self-absorption or the diffusion of selfhood in the various social demands and commitments that claim a person.”
We can only truly enter into all our various commitments and obligations from this perspective of solitude. But when we do, then we realises our solitude is in fact at the service of being present to others. It does not cut us off form others, but enables us to see and hear them more accurately and to respond to them more genuinely. Our sense of solitude and our immersion into our commitments and obligations are not therefore mutually exclusive but are very much at the service of one another. They set up a rhythm in our life from which we can enter into life in the richest was possible. We might well remember how Bonhoeffer put it, “Let them who cannot be alone beware of community. Let them who are not in community beware of being alone.” And so, let us all come out of this time of solitude occasioned by the current COVID restrictions, stronger and more capable of community.
 “Letter 12 February 1902,” In Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited by J. Greene and M.D Herter (New York: W.W. Norton Co, 1945), 65-66.
 Roger Shultz, Unanimity in Pluralism, (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1967), 69-70.
 Barbour, John D. The Value of Solitude: The Ethics and Spirituality of Aloneness in Autobiography, (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2004).
 Barbour,The Value of Solitude, 5
 Barbour,The Value of Solitude, 5.
 Barbour,The Value of Solitude, 9.
 Barbour,The Value of Solitude, 9.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (London: SCM Press).
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