We're not talking about isolation here, friends. Isolation is my oldest adversary. It is my default response to triggering or wounding. I've spent years in isolation and sacrificed relationships on its altar. So, let's start here. Isolation is not solitude.
Maybe isolation speaks to you in very convincing tones. Maybe, in your fragile moments, isolation seems like a comforting option. My personal isolation tell is when I start thinking, "Eff them. They don't know me. They don't know the details of what's going on." And then I hide. I hide long and I hide deep. Let's be real. Ain't nobody got time for that.
The first time I tasted solitude I was eight. That was a painful year for me, friends. I was wounded that year. Some very painful, ugly things happened and I didn't know where to run. My youngest brother was born that year and I don't remember feeling noticed. Having kids, I get it now. There was a lot happening. And there were things happening for me that I didn't talk about.
That year, in our small Illinois town, it rained a lot. So every time it rained, I grabbed an umbrella and I walked a field by our house. I walked circles. I walked slowly. I poured out my young heart and I listened to God whisper to me. It was my only reprieve. It was my escape.
Henri Nouwen writes about The Desert Fathers in The Way of the Heart. He says that they viewed the world as a sinking ship from which they must swim for their lives. So they swam. Like I walked. They found quiet places, namely the desert. They listened and raged and met their own hearts, face to face. They entered into what Nouwen calls "The great struggle and the great encounter."
The great struggle. Hey, have you lived that? I have. Quite a bit. I know what it is to struggle. I know what it is to suffer. I know what it is to NEED a reprieve. I know what it is to want to sink into a lonely desert space and have no one speak to me, touch me or influence me. I know what it feels like to want to escape that damn sinking ship. Don't you?
But the great encounter, ragamuffins. The dark night when the King of Glory reaches his own firm hands out to grip my shaky, fragmented soul. The quietness of that field in the rain; the sense of being completely alone with the God of Creation. The whisper that drowns out the raging. The voice that gently soothes our wild aching. The physician who uses hope like a balm. The profound understanding that we are neither alone, nor abandoned. When THAT moment comes, solitude becomes an embrace.
But the encounter never comes alone. We live our human lives, tainted by the weight of sorrow. We all grieve. We live our lives, on some level, prepared for the worst. We know that fear, loneliness, grief, abandonment, neglect, abuse, wrong doing and ugly could be around every corner. We know that people are murdered, children are hurt, spouses are cheated on, churches are betrayed, and sometimes we're deceived. We know that the kind of life that happens is not always pretty, so we lean in anyway and pray for something to be different.
And, when sorrow comes, when people experience unbelievable suffering, we wonder what to do about it. What do we do about it? What do we do when WE are the ones who are struggling? What do we do when someone we love is struggling? Isn't that THE question?
We seek solitude, friends. We get quiet. We withdraw to a hot and barren place. We lean into the weight of the struggle. We peer through that foggy glass, looking for the face of the one who will rescue, who has always rescued. We refuse to isolate. We don't go running off to feed our despair. We just go deep into the heat of the furnace and we wait. We wait because he doesn't send us in there alone. We wait because the encounter is coming.
When it comes, friends - and it will - we flourish. Something happens there. If you've lived it, you know this is true. Something happens in solitude that opens up locked and fearful places in our souls. Something breaks us open and then calls us deeper. Deeper into solitude, deeper into relationship.
Nouwen says that solitude is not a physical condition, but a spiritual one. You can be in a room full of people and be completely at rest within yourself. It isn't about how well (or often) you meditate, how deeply you pray or how long you can fast. Solitude is a condition of the heart. Solitude is an inward turning, a desire to commune with God in a soul deep way. Solitude isn't isolation, because isolation hides. Solitude is a calling forth.
If you're ready to test the waters of spiritual disciplines, start here. Disengage your heart from the world around you. Set aside the desire to be affirmed, known and accepted. Find a quiet place - a field, a hike, a closet, your car, or your living room at nap time. Allow yourself to come face to face with your own ugly - your anger, your greed, your fear. Stare that old self in the face. Acknowledge that she once was something, but now she is nothing.
And then let. her. go.
Struggle with that old self, friends. Struggle for as long as it takes. Struggle until you just can't take another full inhale.
Embrace the exhale as you embrace the desert.
This is solitude and it's worth practicing.
*Have you experienced solitude? How does it measure against isolation for you?