All human beings are alone. No other person will completely feel like we do, think like we do, act like we do. Each of us is unique, and our aloneness is the other side of our uniqueness. The question is whether we let our aloneness become loneliness or whether we allow it to lead us into solitude. Loneliness is painful; solitude is peaceful. Loneliness makes us cling to others in desperation; solitude allows us to respect others in their uniqueness and create community.
Letting our aloneness grow into solitude and not into loneliness is a lifelong struggle. It requires conscious choices about whom to be with, what to study, how to pray, and when to ask for counsel. But wise choices will help us to find the solitude where our hearts can grow in love.
Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
Finding my own way between solitude and loneliness has been an interesting journey, these past few years. I am coming to realise just how important solitude is to me; and yet I often don’t use it as well as I should. Solitude, it seems to me, is a priceless gift, a thing one should not take for granted. Like all spiritual gifts, it is all to easy to waste…
So long as one is not lonely, there is an immense freedom in solitude. The heart expands, somehow, in this unaccustomed space, and thought becomes free and spacious too. Somehow I find myself able to think recklessly about, feel for, love, people against the mere thought of whom I’d have felt I had to defend myself had I not had this marvellous freedom.
Our Lord knew all about the power of solitude—it was why he “would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (Luke 5.16) It seems to me that if we follow him, we must follow him here, as the disciples were often invited to do. (Mark 6.31)
Perhaps this is a very tiny reflection of the sort of thing that used to happen to the Desert Mothers and Fathers. Those who sought them out (at least the ones who sought them out for more than mere curiosity) found in them an extraordinary openness and love, and an ability to see and hear their visitors more clearly than anyone they met in the normal course of events in the city or wherever. Needless to say, my solitude, and my faithfulness to it, are insignificant compared with theirs; yet this freedom, this willingness, eagerness even, to be vulnerable, grows in me daily—and all the more as God sets me, in prayer, increasingly free from the past.