Friday, March 2, 2012


I've been drawn back time and again this week to thinking about Jesus in the desert, back to the Gospel from the 1st Sunday of Lent (Year B - St. Mark) and especially to the first two sentences:

"The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him."

This propensity of mine was propelled, you might say, in part by a couple of chance discussions with friends and acquaintances in these days. What they shared and in two cases who they are have me thinking about "solitude", not loneliness, not isolation, but solitude. The older I get, the longer I live, the more often I experience older people suffering from loneliness. Experience has taught me even before death separates life-long partners in marriage and dear friends, that younger people can find themselves very much alone in the midst of life. There is just too much good video or film imagery out there of the man or woman very much alone in the crowd for me to want to elaborate any more. Struggling with loneliness, however, is not my interest today, but rather solitude as part of life, as an occasion, an opportunity for growth and self-realization.

"He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him."

Decades ago TWA advertised travel packages know as "TWA Get Away Tours". They were terribly popular once upon a time and I can remember any number of Americans traveling to Europe who went that route. The name of the tours took its cue from a kind of existentialist or dreamy wish to escape the hectic and get away from it all. I still know people who try to "get away from it all", that "all" certainly being the pressures of work, but often also general responsibilities including theirs for family. It's a mentality which can help explain the popularity of Las Vegas, I guess. In this expression the "no to whatever" seems to dominate, whereas solitude is something different and I think also fundamentally positive.

In my childhood and youth I was always puzzled by the life-style of holy hermits. They did not necessarily live the life of a recluse. Invariably they spent much of their time counselling other people and even directing the spiritual life of others. Even so, they enjoyed what I understand to be solitude. They alone before God struggled with Satan, as Jesus had in the desert, and like him they were exposed to the wilds, beast or otherwise of this world, and could count only on the ministrations of angels. Solitude is indeed being alone, but being alone with God; it is an essential and active aloneness which may be filled with work and people, not as distraction but as mission and purpose toward/unto God Himself. Solitude is not a virtue or a strength, but rather a condition, an essential part of the Christian life as trajectory toward the fullness of life and grace in the glory of the Resurrection.

Take a walk around the busy center of Kyiv or any major city where people are still out walking from here to there and you'll find out what a rare commodity solitude is. Bluetooth, ear-buds, or cell phone up to their ear and talking to someone, most people are not even alone or quiet with their own thoughts for the time from point A to point B, from the office door to the subway or bus-stop. I can remember from talks with people my age and older in Trinidad, or more often as I had occasion to meet people who were home visiting Trinidad from points north, their fond memories of something their children and grandchildren may never have known, as the joy they had known at home as small children in the presence of mommie's homespun oneness with God, her quiet humming or singing as she went about her house chores. A personal resource or richness has been supplanted in the best of scenarios by stereo recordings, but in most cases by radio and TV, banal sound and even worse advertising. 

Devout folk nowadays go on about taking a day of recollection as their day in the desert. Most good spiritual directors plead for quiet time in our lives, of fasting from phone, internet, TV, radio, facebook (need I continue the litany?). I think Jesus' forty days in the desert were something more and in the very midst of life. St. Francis de Sales was very clear on the difference in the spirituality proper to a monk or a hermit, a ruler or a family person. All, in Francis' design and each in the way proper to his or her state in life, need that alone, that solitude, which makes room for God and a coming face to face with the essential issues in struggling to establish His rule in our lives. 

In my own experience, blessed solitude is there in my life whenever I let it be. My fault and I think it a common one among folk and even priests is that we flee solitude, we fill God's chosen space with all sorts of distractions. I don't think that the remedy is to be found either in some sort of yoga or centering prayer. Truth to be told, if we were to pull the ear-buds, to stow the phone, to turn off all the image makers and sound boxes, solitude could and would come rushing into our lives, allowing us time for the ultimate and before God. I'm not recommending mental hygiene but rather really living, life with all its components, a life which enjoys solitude. 

My childhood definition of prayer is lifting heart and mind to God. The Scriptural exhortation to pray unceasingly, as St. Paul teaches and St. Augustine illustrates, is a matter not of the lips but of the heart set night and day on God. For all who believe, for all whose heart is right, all is possible if we would but renounce sin and then seek perfection by simply stepping out of the thicket of distractions, by pulling a few plugs.

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