Introductory Note:

Today, we continue our look at the discipline of solitude and its companion practice of retreat with an enchanting translation of Thomas à Kempis’s views on the whys and hows of this spiritual formation tool.

Renovaré Team

Excerpt from Spiritual Classics

Solitude and Silence 

Plan to take some time off, and give some thought as to what you’d do with that time; hopefully, you’ll spend part of it reviewing God’s favors to you in the past. What else? Lock up ye olde curiosity shop. Devote more time to reading your spiritual books than your survival manuals. Withdraw from casual conversations and leisurely pursuits. Don’t contract for new ventures, and don’t gossip about old ones. All these having been done, you’ll find more than enough time to undertake a program of meditation. Most of the Saints did just that, avoided collaborative projects whenever they could, choosing instead to spend some private time with God. 

Leave the crowd behind 

Seneca, that old pagan philosopher and playwright, had it right so many centuries ago. When he went out with the intelligentsia or hung about with the entertainment crowd, he returned home utterly talked out and terribly hoarse, or so he said in one of his letters (Letter 7). Quite often we have the same experience when we horse around with our friends and associates for hours, even days, on end. 

What’s the remedy for a talkathon? It’s easier to cut out the conversation altogether than it is to cut it down. What’s the wisdom? It’s easier to stay at home alone than to stroll the rialto with a bodyguard. What’s certain? The person who wants to arrive at interiority and spirituality has to leave the crowd behind and spend some time with Jesus. 

Nobody’s comfortable in public unless he’s spent a good deal of time in the quiet of his home. Nobody speaks with assurance who hasn’t learned to hold his tongue. Nobody’s a success as general who hasn’t already survived as a soldier. Nobody respects decrees who hasn’t already obeyed writs. 

Feeling anything but secure 

If a person wants to feel secure, then he has to have a good conscience. That’s how the Saints did it. Virtue and grace shone from their very faces, but the fear of God ran in their very veins; even then they were subject to fits of spiritual anxiety and secular stress. 

As for the depraved, what security they do feel in their being rises from a swamp of pride and presumption resolving itself into a pool of despond. 

What’s the moral? On the outside you may appear modest as a monk or holy as a hermit; but on the inside, at least while you’re on this earth, you’re seething and insecure.

Temptation helps

More often than they might suspect, people of reputation have been in grave danger and didn’t know it; they’re good people, but they’ve extended their self- confidence beyond its natural limit. From this one could draw the conclusion that it’s helpful to be tempted from time to time. One might even say that to be tempted to the point of endurance could help deflate interior desolations and deflect exterior consolations. 

Who doesn’t seek transitory joy? Who doesn’t occupy himself with the world! We all do, but the one who has a good conscience, severs all tentacles to attachment, and meditates on divine and salutary things, he’s the one who places his whole hope in God. He’s the one who sails his boats on a sea of calm. 

Sorrow helps

No one can ascend to heavenly consolation. That’s because there’s no sure stair. One solid step, though, is our heart’s true sorrow. And where else can this sorrow be found but in one’s cubicle; there you can shut out the hubbub of the world. In your cubicles, work out your sorrowful contrition,” says the psalmist (4:4). More often than not, you’ll find in your cell what you lost in the streets. 

A cell that’s much prayed in is a pleasant spot. A cell that’s rarely prayed in is a forbidding place. In the first blush of your conversion, you did what you were supposed to do, cultivate the solitude of your cell, and guard against the invasions of your quietude. Now you find it comfortable, welcoming, like an old dog or an old shoe. 

Silence and quiet 

In quiet and silence the faithful soul makes progress, the hidden meanings of the Scriptures become clear, and the eyes weep with devotion every night. Even as one learns to grow still, he draws closer to the Creator and farther from the hurly- burly of the world. As one divests himself of friends and acquaintances, he is visited by God and his holy angels. 

Two courses of action. Better, to lie still in one’s cubicle and worry about one’s spiritual welfare. Worse, to roam the streets a wonderworker for others to the neglect of one’s own spiritual life. Laudable it is for the religious to go to market only rarely. Laudable too is that, even when the religious goes, he refrains from meeting the eyes of others; from his very mien they know that he lives in another world. 

Sickness and sadness 

Why do you want to go out and see what you really shouldn’t need to see? The world passes, as does its concupiscence,” wrote the Evangelist John (2:17). Our sensual desires promise us a promenade, but deliver us only a dragonnade. A sprightly step in the forenoon turns into a draggled tail in the afternoon. All-nighters of roister-doistery lead only to mornings of huggermuggery; that is to say, of sickness and sadness. Need I speak it? Every carnal joy begins with a caress, but in the end curls up into a ball and dies. I ask the question again. What can you see outside the monastery walls that you can’t see inside? Behold heaven and earth and all the elements; from these all things are made.

Peace and quiet 

What can you see on the outside that will survive the sun? Perhaps you believe you can find satisfaction out there somewhere, but truth to tell, you still can’t reach it. If you were to cram all the things of the world into one still life, no matter how large the canvas, you’d still be no better off. 

Raise your eyes to God in the highest,” says the psalmist (122:1). Pray for your own sins and negligences. Forgive the vain things the vain people have done. 

Look to the precepts God gave you. Shut the door behind you,” wrote the Evangelist Matthew (6:6). Call Jesus, your beloved friend, to join you. Remain with him in your cell because you won’t find such peace elsewhere. 

As for the common wisdom, if you hadn’t gone out, you wouldn’t have heard the disturbing rumors; better for you to have stayed at home in blissful ignorance. From which it follows that you may delight in hearing the latest news on the strand, but you’ll surely have to deal with the sense of dislocation that results. 

Excerpts taken from Spiritual Classics: Selected Readings on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines (Richard Foster and Emilie Griffin, Editors. Harpercollins, 2000.)