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