And when he had sent multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone. (Matthew 14:23)
“He was there, alone.” So are we. Man is alone because he is man! In some way every creature is alone. In majestic isolation every star travels through the darkness of endless space. Each tree grows according to its own law, fulfilling its unique possibilities. Animals live, fight and die for themselves alone, confined to the limitations of their bodies. Certainly, they also appear as male and female, in families and in flocks. Some of them are gregarious. But all of them are alone! Being alive means being in a body — a body separated from all other bodies. And being separated means being alone.
This is true of every creature, and it is more true of man than of any other creature. He is not only alone; he also knows that he is alone. Aware of what he is, he asks the question of his aloneness. He asks why he is alone, and how he can triumph over his being alone. For this aloneness he cannot endure. Neither can he escape it. It is his destiny to be alone and to be aware of it. Not even God can take this destiny away from him.
In the story of paradise we read — “And He created the woman from the body of Adam. Here an old myth is used to show that originally there was no bodily separation between man and woman; in the beginning they were one. Now they long to be one again. But although they recognize each other as flesh of their own flesh, each remains alone. They look at each other, they see their strangeness. In the story, God Himself makes them aware of this fact when He speaks to each of them separately, when He makes each one responsible for his own guilt, when He listens to their excuses and mutual accusations, when He pronounces a separate curse over each, and leaves them to experience shame in the face of their nakedness. They are each alone. The creation of the woman has not overcome the situation which God describes as not good for man. He remains alone. And the creation of the woman, although it provides a helper for Adam, has only presented to the one human being who is alone another human being who is equally alone, and from their flesh all other men, each of whom will also stand alone.
We ask, however — is this really so? Did not God accomplish something better? Isn’t our aloneness largely removed in the encounter of the sexes? Certainly it is during hours of communion and in moments of love. The ecstasy of love can absorb one’s own self in its union with the other self, and separation seems to be overcome. But after these moments, the isolation of self from self is felt even more deeply than before, sometimes even to the point of mutual repulsion. We have given too much of ourselves, and now we long to take back what was given. Our desire to protect our aloneness is expressed in the feeling of shame. We feel ashamed when our intimate self, mental or bodily, is opened. We try to cover our nakedness, as did Adam and Eve when they became conscious of themselves. Thus, man and woman remain alone even in the most intimate union. They cannot penetrate each other’s innermost center. And if this were not so, they could not be helpers to each other; they could not have human community.
This is why God Himself cannot liberate man from his aloneness: it is man’s greatness that he is centered within himself. Separated from his world, he is thus able to look at it. Only because he can look at it can he know and love and transform it. God, in creating him the ruler of the earth, had to separate him and thrust him into aloneness. Man is also therefore able to be spoken to by God and by man. He can ask questions and give answers and make decisions. He has the freedom for good or evil. Only he who has an impenetrable center in himself is free. Only he who is alone can claim to be a man. This is the greatness and this is the burden of man.
Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone. Although, in daily life, we do not always distinguish these words, we should do so consistently, and thus deepen our understanding of our human predicament.
In the twenty-fifth Psalm we read — “Turn thou to me and be gracious; for I am lonely and afflicted.” The psalmist feels the pain of loneliness. We do not know the character of his particular loneliness, but we know the many faces that loneliness can have. We have all experienced some of them.
Most widespread is our loneliness after those who helped us to forget that we are alone have left us, either through separation or death. I refer not only to those nearest to us, but also to those human beings who give us the feeling of communion, groups with which we have worked, with which we have had social contact, with which we have had spiritual communication. For many people such loneliness becomes a permanent state and a continuous source of profound melancholy. The sighing of innumerable lonely people, all around us and over the world, fills the ears that are opened by love.
But let us also consider those among us who are surrounded by friends and neighbors, by co-workers and countrymen, who live in family groups and enjoy the communion of the sexes — everything that those others do not have. And let us ask — are they without the pain of loneliness? Is their aloneness covered up by the crowd in which they move? If we can number ourselves among these people, we might answer the question as follows: I never felt so lonely as in that particular hour when I was surrounded by people but suddenly realized my ultimate isolation. I became silent and retired from the group in order to be alone with my loneliness. I wanted my external predicament to match my internal one. Let us not minimize such an experience by asserting that some people are simply not strong enough to obtain a significant place in the group, and that their withdrawal is nothing but an expression of weakness, that may call for counseling or psychiatric help. Certainly, such people do exist in large numbers, and they need help. But I speak now of the strong ones, who have achieved their place in the crowd, and who nevertheless experience the terror of ultimate loneliness. They are aware, in a sudden break through the world around them, of man’s real predicament. Let us also not minimize this experience by pointing out the fact that some people feel misunderstood despite their urgent desire to make themselves understandable, and therefore feel lonely in the crowd. No one can deny that there are such people, and further, that they even demonstrate a certain truth — for who is really understood, even by himself? The mystery of a person cannot be encompassed by a neat description of his character. Those, however, who always feel misunderstood confuse the mystery of each personality with imaginary treasures which they themselves believe they possess and which demand recognition from others. When such recognition is not forthcoming, they feel lonely and withdraw. They also need help. But again, there are those whose real treasures are great enough to find expression, to be understood and received, and yet who have this terrifying experience of ultimate loneliness. In such moments they break through the surface of their average life into the depth of man’s predicament.
Many feel lonely because in spite of their effort to love and be loved, their love is rejected. This loneliness is often self-created. These people may be claiming as a right what can only come to them as a gift. They withdraw into a self-chosen loneliness, taking revenge through bitterness and hostility towards those they feel have rejected them, actually enjoying the pain of their loneliness. There are many such persons, and they contribute heavily to the growth of neurotic loneliness in our time. They above all need help, for they easily become the prey of a demonic force that secludes them completely within themselves.
But there is also the genuine experience of rejected love. No special claim is made, but hope yearns towards another, and is disappointed. A community of love comes to an end or fails to exist at all. Such loneliness cuts our ties with the world. We are indeed ultimately alone, and not even love from other directions or the power of our own love can lift this burden from us. He who can endure the loneliness of disappointed love without bitterness experiences the depth of man’s predicament radically and creatively.
There are, finally, two forms of loneliness that cannot either be covered or escaped: the loneliness of guilt and the loneliness of death. Nobody can remove from us what we have committed against our true being. We feel both our hidden guilt and our open guilt as ours, and ours alone. We cannot really make anybody else responsible for what we have done. We cannot run away from our guilt, and we cannot honestly cover it up. We are alone with it. And it is a loneliness that permeates all other forms of loneliness, transforming them into experiences of judgment.
Then, there is that ultimate loneliness of having to die. In the anticipation of our death we remain alone. No communication with others can remove it, as no other’s presence in the actual hour of our dying can conceal the fact that it is our death, and our death alone. In the hour of death we are cut off from the whole universe and everything in it. We are deprived of all the things and beings that made us forget our being alone. Who can endure this loneliness?
Loneliness can be conquered only by those who can bear solitude. We have a natural desire for solitude because we are men. We want to feel what we are — namely, alone — not in pain and horror, but with joy and courage. There are many ways in which solitude can be sought and experienced. And each way can be called “religious,” if it is true, as one philosopher said, that “religion is what a man does with his solitariness.”
One of these ways is the desire towards the silence of nature. We can speak without voice to the trees and the clouds and the waves of the sea. Without words they respond through the rustling of leaves and the moving of clouds and the murmuring of the sea. This solitude we can have, but only for a brief time. For we realize that the voices of nature cannot ultimately answer the questions in our mind. Our solitude in nature can easily become loneliness, and so we return to the world of man.
Solitude can also be found in the reading of poetry, in listening to music, in looking at pictures, and in sincere thoughtfulness. We are alone, perhaps in the midst of multitudes, but we are not lonely. Solitude protects us without isolating us. But life calls us back to its empty talk and the unavoidable demands of daily routine. It calls us back to its loneliness and the cover that it, in turn, spreads over our loneliness.
Without a doubt, this last describes not only man’s general predicament, but also, and emphatically, our time. Today, more intensely than in the preceding periods, man is so lonely that he cannot bear solitude. And he tries desperately to become a part of the crowd. Everything in our world supports him. It is a symptom of our disease that teachers and parents and the managers of public communication do everything possible to deprive us of the external conditions for solitude, the simplest aids to privacy. Even our houses, instead of protecting the solitude of each member of the family or group, are constructed to exclude privacy almost completely. The same holds true of the forms of communal life, the school, college, office and factory. An unceasing pressure attempts to destroy even our desire for solitude.
But sometimes God thrusts us out of the crowd into a solitude we did not desire, but which nonetheless takes hold of us. The prophet Jeremiah says — “I sit alone, because thy hand was upon me.” God sometimes lays hands upon us. He wants us to ask the question of truth that may isolate us from most men, and that can be asked only in solitude. He wants us to ask the question of justice that may bring us suffering and death, and that can grow in us only in solitude. He wants us to break through the ordinary ways of man that may bring disrepute and hatred upon us, a breakthrough that can happen only in solitude. He wants us to penetrate to the boundaries of our being, where the mystery of life appears, and it can only appear in moments of solitude.
There may be some among you who long to become creative in some realm of life. But you cannot become or remain creative without solitude. One hour of conscious solitude will enrich your creativity far more than hours of trying to learn the creative process.
What happens in our solitude? Listen to Mark’s words about Jesus’s solitude in the desert — “And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” He is alone, facing the whole earth and sky, the wild beasts around him and within him, he himself the battlefield for divine and demonic forces. So, first, this is what happens in our solitude: we meet ourselves, not as ourselves, but as the battlefield for creation and destruction, for God and the demons. Solitude is not easy. Who can bear it? It was not easy even for Jesus. We read — “He went up into the hills to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.” When evening comes, loneliness becomes more lonely. We feel this when a day, or a period, or all the days of our life come to an end. Jesus went up to pray. Is this the way to transform loneliness into solitude and to bear solitude? It is not a simple question to answer. Most prayers do not have this much power. Most prayers make God a partner in a conversation; we use Him to escape the only true way to solitude. Such prayers flow easily from the mouths of both ministers and laymen. But they are not born out of a solitary encounter of God with man. They are certainly not the kind of prayer for which Jesus went up into the hills. Better that we remain silent and allow our soul, that is always longing for solitude, to sigh without words under the most difficult external conditions. This can give us moments of solitude that no one can take from us.
In these moments of solitude something is done to us. The center of our being, the innermost self that is the ground of our aloneness, is elevated to the divine center and taken into it. Therein can we rest without losing ourselves.
Now perhaps we can answer a question you may have already asked — how can communion grow out of solitude? We have seen that we can never reach the innermost center of another being. We are always alone, each for himself. But we can reach it in a movement that rises first to God and then returns from Him to the other self. In this way man’s aloneness is not removed, but taken into the community with that in which the centers of all beings rest, and so into community with all of them. Even love is reborn in solitude. For only in solitude are those who are alone able to reach those from whom they are separated. Only the presence of the eternal can break through the walls that isolate the temporal from the temporal. Our hour of solitude may bring us closer to those we love than many hours of communication. We can take them with us to the hills of eternity.
And perhaps when we ask — what is the innermost nature of solitude? we should answer — the presence of the eternal upon the crowded roads of the temporal. It is the experience of being alone but not lonely, in view of the eternal presence that shines through the face of the Christ, and that includes everybody and everything from which we are separated. In the poverty of solitude all riches are present. Let us dare to have solitude — to face the eternal, to find others, to see ourselves.