There is often a tension between solitude and community; we need both at different times and in different degrees but we can’t always choose and that can be a real challenge. It can be difficult to give up treasured times of solitude and it can be difficult to find quiet and stillness amid the bustle and noise of the world, and also sometimes within our families and communities.
Sometime we want to be alone, sometimes we run away from our solitude and sometimes we run right into it. We know there is also a great deal of loneliness and isolation in our society for all age groups. It can be difficult sometimes to balance our desire for individuality and solitude and the need to belong to communities where people can grow and flourish and connect with others.
Henri Nouwen wrote about a spirituality of living whereby solitude is the start of community which implies that it is necessary, perhaps even essential for community. St John Henry Newman wrote that we are all links in a chain, that we have a connectedness with each other. Real solitude runs deep, down to the heart of us, down to the essence of ourselves with God, as we really are, accepted and ultimately at peace.
Some people have a serenity and a quiet joy that they carry around with them, it is reflected in their face, in their eyes, in their smile, in their bearing-a visible and tangible grace that they carry and which radiates to others. We all know people like that, people who are not embittered or afflicted by life events but are clearly able to accept the grace given by God. Mary shows us the sublime example of acceptance and grace with her fiat, her generous obedience to God leads us all to community.
St Benedict’s rule has a huge amount of wisdom for living in community which encompasses the ability to make allowances for one another and have consideration for one another’s frailties at all stages of life, which both develops and sustains community life.
There is an art to community and an art to solitude. Thomas Merton wrote “the world of men has forgotten the joys of silence, the peace of solitude, which is necessary to some extent for the fullness of human living. Man cannot be happy for long unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of his own soul.”
I once walked up Croagh Patrick in County Mayo where St Patrick spent time in solitude. Many people follow in his footsteps, on pilgrimage. It is hard going up the mountain and even harder going back down! I was fortunate to share my time with another lady, we encouraged each other up the mountain just a little at a time, with poetry and laughter and struggle. We shared the solitude of the mountain and the islands spread out in the bay below us, conscious of people travelling to and fro and yet oblivious to them at the same time, content in the solitude of the mountain, in the enveloping peace which surrounded us.
I saw a girl coming slowly and awkwardly down the mountain, barefooted, joy on her face. And I saw people wanting to support her, reaching out to help her, caring for her. My heart went out to her.
DH Lawrence describes the effect of encounter: “And if tonight my soul may find her peace in sleep, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower, then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.”
Solitude creates community, wherever we are, and in community we can happily carry our solitude and our freedom.
WB Yeats beautifully describes this freedom: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”