Solitude

(March 11, 2002)

 

 

The great Indian thinker and patriot Mohandas Gandhi once wrote that "He who would be friends with God must remain alone ... or else make the whole world his friend." Gandhi, of course, was reflecting first of all on the age-old experience of his own Hindu tradition, but he was not unaware that this same paradox is found in the Bible and in other religious traditions. Solitude is one of the surest paths to God. But so too is the service of one's fellow human beings perhaps the more the better.

But need this paradox express an either/or choice? The first Christians who left the world to live in the desert or the wilderness (heremos in Greek, hence our word "hermit") did so to be entirely alone with God. Yet soon others joined them in great numbers, so many in fact that some of the first monasteries were more like rather large villages than the kind of walled-in enclosures we think of today. So too the later abbeys in Europe, with their extensive land holdings, industries, hospitals, and schools.

Yet no doubt a tension remains within this paradox. The heart of monastic vocation is still to be found in solitude. The term "monk" (monachos in Greek) means someone who, even though he may live in a community, still essentially lives alone. And even though there also began to be small communities of hermits, the model remained that of the anchorite the true solitary, the one who literally lived apart.

Why is this? Could it be that despite all the pitches on "community" and "fellowship" and "communion" that, when one finally reduces it to its essence, as did the philosopher A. N. Whitehead, religion is "what one does with one's solitude." What each one of us is, as an individual, is ultimately between us and God and that no amount of "do-gooding", however wonderful, can make up for it if that direct connection between ourselves and our Creator is lacking. Even the "communion of saints" whether here or in heaven first of all depends on our personal union with God.

This is not to say that in some way the fruits of this personal union with God can be hoarded for one's own exclusive use. Quite the contrary, they must be shared in one way or another. The reclusive John the Baptist became the public witness to Christ. The hermit Benedict became the "Father of Western Monasticism" and (through his many followers, as well as through the efforts of the many missionary monks from Ireland) became the preservers of European civilization at a time when the barbarian invasions plunged that continent into the "Dark Ages".

So when it comes down to Gandhi's paradox maybe it's not an either/or proposition. Instead, it is only when one learns to live solely for God that one becomes truly capable of befriending all.