Social Distancing as a Spiritual Discipline: Finding Freedom In Solitude

Amid increasing calls for social distancing, many are concerned about people feeling isolated. No doubt, forced isolation does real harm. One study shows one-third of prisoners subjected to solitary confinement develop acute psychosis. Yet, while humans are social through and through, and though Christians are uniquely social as the communion of saints, not all solitariness is harmful. Rather than lamenting the need for social distancing, what if we sought to find some freedom through it?

Desert monks deliberately sought to leave behind cities to socially distance themselves. For some monks, solitude was the way to salvation. Listen to this story about a desert father named Arsenius.

Arsenius, when he was still in the palace, prayed to God, saying, “Lord, show me the way of salvation.” A voice came to him, saying, “Arsenius, flee from men, and you will be saved.” As he left for the monastic life, he prayed again, saying the same words; and he heard a voice saying to him, “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the roots of sinlessness.”

From Desert Fathers edited by Benedicta Ward. See the end of the post for other sources used in this post.

For others, quiet and solitude created space for acquiring wisdom. When one monk came to another monk named Moses to ask for advice, Moses said, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” I can’t wait to use that the next time a congregant asks me for advice. “Go sit in your basement, and your basement will teach you everything.”

This “desert lifestyle” is a response to the passages in Scripture about Jesus going away to solitary places to pray. Jesus made it a habit to seek God’s will in lonely places. Especially during Lent, we remember Jesus’s forty days and nights in the wilderness before he overcame Satan’s temptations and launched headlong into his ministry. “Jesus returned again and again to solitude,” writes Adele Calhoun, “where the rush of attention and the accolades of the crowds could be put into their proper perspective. Solitude with God was a way Jesus remained in touch with his true identity in God.” Jesus pursued solitude to “remain in touch with his true identity in God.” 

Self-discovery is one of the recurring themes of those who write about solitude as a spiritual discipline. Another saying from the monk named Moses: “One who avoids others is like a ripe grape. One who stays in company is like a sour grape.” We become the sweetest version of ourselves when we find quiet places to dwell with God. In another monastic proverb, two Christians come to a man living in solitude and ask how he’s faring. He pours water into a glass and has them look at its haziness. Several moments later, he has them look again at its clearness, in which they can see their own reflections. Then he said, “So it is with anyone who lives in a crowd; because of the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognizes his own faults.” Solitude creates space for seeing ourselves clearly and for recognizing our sins. Social distance can provide a context within which we discover our true selves.

Solitude creates space for seeing ourselves clearly and for recognizing our sins. Social distance can provide a context within which we discover our true selves.

But solitude is not a good in and of itself. As amma Syncletica said: “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of personal thoughts.” Solitude does not make saints. The Holy Spirit does. So, the one seeking to practice the discipline of solitude must remember that the goal is not loneliness or isolation. In fact, it is the exact opposite. The purpose of solitude is to discover a profound connection. Social distancing creates a unique situation within which a person can seek to connect with God without any social pretense, pressure, or protection. “When no one is there to watch, judge, and interpret what we say,” suggests Calhoun, “the Spirit often brings us face to face with hidden motives and compulsions. The world of recognition, achievement, and applause disappears, and we stand squarely before God without props.”

Standing before God in this kind of way is risky. We may well realize how far we are from who we are meant to be. We will likely identify the many idols we’ve made, and feel the pain of trying to let them go. But it’s worth the risk because of what else we find. Thomas Merton once prayed, “In solitude I have at last discovered that You desire the love of my heart, O my God, the love of my heart as it is—the love of my human heart.” When we distance ourselves from the complicated social and interpersonal demands that shape how we think about relationships, we will find that God does not desire from us productivity or timeliness so much as the simple, devoted love of our hearts. Solitude should not be understood as solitary confinement in a prison. It is more like those formative moments we share alone with someone we love. Calhoun compares it to lovers who long to be away from the crowd, to focus for a time only on one another. You may also know this from one-on-one time enjoyed with a parental figure when you knew you were loved but also sensed your parent’s desire to be loved by you. Solitude leads to freedom when it enables us to discover that our longing for God’s love is reciprocated.

When we distance ourselves from the complicated social and interpersonal demands that shape how we think about relationships, we will find that God does not desire from us productivity or timeliness so much as the simple, devoted love of our hearts.

Yes, social distancing may lead to isolation. Guard against the detrimental forms of isolation! During these times, social solidarity matters. Keep in contact with others. But, maybe, we should all take social distancing as a chance to discover God’s desire for us anew, and learn to see ourselves more clearly along the way.

Sources

Desert Fathers edited by Benedicta Ward / Forgotten Desert Mothers by Laura Swan / Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun / Dialogues with Silence by Thomas Merton

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3 thoughts on “Social Distancing as a Spiritual Discipline: Finding Freedom In Solitude

  1. Pingback: Living Room Liturgies: A Liturgy of Laughter – Theology Forum

  2. Great word! We seem to avoid being alone with God and ourselves at all costs. One quote in The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry has haunted me for weeks on the subject of silence and solitude: “We trade a life with God for a life with a Netflix account.” Thanks for the reminder of the unique opportunity this season affords.

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