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by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
It is more than coincidental that in the revised liturgy for the second of January, we celebrate the combined feasts of Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzen. They are two oriental saints, both of whom died before the end of the fourth century. They were close friends. Both became bishops, and both are Doctors of the Church.
The important thing, for our purpose, is that they had both been for a long time solitaries in the desert, and only with great reluctance, on the strong insistence of the people, did they leave the desert and enter the active life of the priesthood and the episcopate. Both wrote extensively. Their writings on the beauty and importance of solitude are among the finest we have in Christian ascetical literature.
We especially desperately need to be reminded of the value and even the necessity of solitude because of the over preoccupation in a country like ours with everything and everyone except with that which really matters. It is no wonder that so many of our young people (the numbers have been counted, and some say there are several million) are literally disgusted with the materialistic preoccupation of their elders. The human heart is hungry for solitude.
What is solitude? In the Christian vocabulary, solitude is the conscious and deliberate aloneness with God. One of the problems with a word like solitude, especially in a culture like ours, is that we have practically come to identify solitude with aloofness or separateness. And a person who is alone habitually we have put down as a psychotic. We tend to think of solitude as a form of loneliness or isolation that in its extreme forms is a form of pathology. What a mistake! Of course there are people who are lonely, even pathologically lonely. Who doubts it? Some are lost for long hours, alone, lost in their own thoughts. There are also people who are afraid of others and keep, as much as they can, from being in other peoples company. But whoever said that extremes or forms of illness are normative for the rest of mankind? This is, to say the least, not Christian solitude.
As we talk about the solitude of a Christian, the first thing we must distinguish is between what for want of better words we call exterior and interior solitude. Exterior solitude implies living apart from the world, either as a complete solitary or hermit, or as those do (or should do) who belong to a religious community. And the Church has not only protected, but insisted on a greater or lesser measure of exterior solitude for those who seriously claim to be living lives of perfection. Remove some or much exterior solitude from religious communities, and you cease to have religious communities except in name.
Interior solitude, on the other hand, means as the name implies recollection and quiet attention of mind and heart to spiritual things, or more broadly, the practice of the presence of God.
These two solitudes are meant to be related as means is related to end. Exterior solitude is meant to assist and foster interior solitude. The one, then, is a condition, a means for the other. This is the real purpose of total solitariness, as among hermits, or lesser degrees of exterior solitude, both practiced in the Church since the time of Jesus, who began the salvation of the world in solitude.
Every believer and follower of Christ needs a certain amount of exterior solitude if he or she is to even remain in the state of grace, let alone grow in intimacy with Christ. And if ever a Christian begins to doubt the importance of a certain amount of even exterior solitude, he has only to reread the pages of the Gospels where the Evangelists tell that Christ often, not just occasionally, went apart alone, spent whole nights separated from His disciples alone with His Father. He did not need that exterior solitude; we do. And to teach us the importance of periodically saying No to creatures and Yes to God, He gave us the model to imitate.
What are the values of solitude? Whether of exterior separateness periodically or the interior recollection of soul, as far as possible constantly, solitude is necessary to remain and to grow as a Christian. It is first of all in solitude that we are in communion with God and not merely, which we necessarily often have to be, in communion with ourselves and with others. It is in solitude that we are able to think. The inspired writer tells us that the world is in desolation because no one thinks.
How often I have told people, good people, dedicated religious who couldnt be more committed to the apostolate, Look you mean well. But in Gods Name dont be lost in the apostolate. Remember, it is possible to lose your soul in the religious life unless you put first things first. We must be able to think and to think about that which most matters, namely, God.
Finally, and in a way most practically, the more involved we are in working with and for others, the more we are likely to make the mistake of identifying effectiveness with the amount of time we give to the work we are doing. That is not true.
In working for souls, the real measures of effectiveness is the apostles union with God. One who is closely united with God, where the union has been fostered perhaps through hours of solitary, intimate prayer, in one minute or with one sentence can do more good for thousands than someone else will accomplish with all the vocal and muscular movement that may look like apostolic effort.
If we need to be convincedand we do need to be convincedof the importance of solitude, we have it by now in the record of the saints. There is an astounding statement in the Imitation of Christ, which goes like this: The greatest saints avoided the company of men as much as possible and chose to live to God in secret. (Book I, 20) And let me emphasize, these were among the most apostolically effective saints in the Churchs calendar.
This needs to be learned by priests, known by bishops, practiced by religious, recognized and put into effect by every follower of Jesusthat we most truly imitate Him when we first imitate Him in His solitary, quiet, peaceful, intimate communion with the Almighty. Then we are ready, as the greatest saints were, to meet the world. And the world will listen to us because, whether we realize it or not, the world will know: this is a man or woman who has spoken to God.
And then they wont be listening to uswho are we worth paying attention to anyway? They will be listening to Jesus speaking and acting and witnessing through us. We can win more souls to God by our silence (provided we have learned the deep, secret power of solitude) than we could with all the speeches of all the preachers of history, if we are preaching and teaching only ourselves. The solitary is not a queer; he is not strange. He or she is a person who has learned the secret of life, which is being with others indeed, but always being united with God.
Transcription of the Homily
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