Excerpt from The Spirit of the Disciplines

We have… seen what a large role soli­tude played in the life of our Lord and the great ones in His Way. In soli­tude, we pur­pose­ful­ly abstain from inter­ac­tion with oth­er human beings, deny­ing our­selves com­pan­ion­ship and all that comes from our con­scious inter­ac­tion with oth­ers. We close our­selves away; we go to the ocean, to the desert, the wilder­ness, or to the anonymi­ty of the urban crowd. This is not just rest or refresh­ment from nature, though that too can con­tribute to our spir­i­tu­al well-being. Soli­tude is choos­ing to be alone and to dwell on our expe­ri­ence of iso­la­tion from oth­er human beings.

Soli­tude frees us, actu­al­ly. This above all explains its pri­ma­cy and pri­or­i­ty among the dis­ci­plines. The nor­mal course of day-to-day human inter­ac­tions locks us into pat­terns of feel­ing, thought, and action that are geared to a world set against God. Noth­ing but soli­tude can allow the devel­op­ment of a free­dom from the ingrained behav­iors that hin­der our inte­gra­tion into God’s order. 

It takes twen­ty times more the amount of amphet­a­mine to kill indi­vid­ual mice than it takes to kill them in groups. Exper­i­menters also find that a mouse giv­en no amphet­a­mine at all will be dead with­in ten min­utes of being placed in the midst of a group on the drug. In groups they go off like pop­corn or fire­crack­ers. West­ern men and women, espe­cial­ly, talk a great deal about being indi­vid­u­als. But our con­for­mi­ty to social pat­tern is hard­ly less remark­able than that of the mice — and just as deadly! 

In soli­tude we find the psy­chic dis­tance, the per­spec­tive from which we can see, in the light of eter­ni­ty, the cre­at­ed things that trap, wor­ry, and oppress us. Thomas Mer­ton writes: 

That is the only rea­son why I desire soli­tude — to be lost to all cre­at­ed things, to die to them and to the knowl­edge of them, for they remind me of my dis­tance from You: that You are far from them, even though You are in them. You have made them and Your pres­ence sus­tains their being and they hide You from me. And I would live alone, and out of them. O bea­ta solitudo!

But soli­tude, like all of the dis­ci­plines of the spir­it, car­ries its risks. In soli­tude, we con­front our own soul with its obscure forces and con­flicts that escape our atten­tion when we are inter­act­ing with oth­ers. Thus, Soli­tude is a ter­ri­ble tri­al, for it serves to crack open and burst apart the shell of our super­fi­cial secu­ri­ties. It opens out to us the unknown abyss that we all car­ry with­in us … [and] dis­clos­es the fact that these abysses are haunt­ed” (Louis Bouy­er, The Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty of the New Tes­ta­ment and the Fathers). We can only sur­vive soli­tude if we cling to Christ there. And yet what we find of him in that soli­tude enables us to return to soci­ety as free persons. 

Excerpt­ed from Dal­las Willard’s The Spir­it of the Dis­ci­plines, pub­lished by Harper­One in 1988, whose per­mis­sion to print we grate­ful­ly acknowledge.

PC: Rud­mer Zwerver

Starting Soon: The 2020-21 Renovaré Book Club

An inten­tion­al way to read for trans­for­ma­tion not just infor­ma­tion. Runs Sep­tem­ber 2020 through May 2021.

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