Editor's 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. 

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