Solitude by Henri Nouwen
The passage below is taken from Father Henri J M Nouwen’s writings in the book “The Road to Peace,” edited by a Jesuit Priest, John Dear and published in 1998.
Solitude comes from the word solus, meaning to be alone. People have an enormous number of things to do in life. Many of us are driven. Solitude pokes a hole in that drivenness and helps us stop for a moment and ask: “What is it all for?” It means spending a little time with God to listen to the voice who says, “You are mine, I am yours, I love you. You don’t have to prove yourself. You are fine.”
One simple way to practice solitude is to take a simple prayer like, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Sit down, light a candle, look at an icon, be in front of the blessed sacrament or the Bible, depending on your tradition. Simply be there and repeat the prayer for five minutes. Let each word sink from your mind into your heart and then carry all of them through the day.
Or take a simple sentence like, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Repeat it very quickly so that gradually it is no longer an intellectual statement but becomes a truth for the heart. Some people can do this for five minutes, ten minutes, or even half an hour. Or before you go to work, spend a few moments with a book of meditations. Read the text for that day, so that the word stays with you when you go into your office, your work place, and throughout your day. It’s like a painting that remains in your inner room and reminds you, “The Lord is my shepherd” or “God is my rock” or “You are my beloved.” These words are not just thoughts. They create an interior space.
People who do this discover that they can discern what they can let go of and what they have to do. It’s a way of sorting out the garbage with which we fill our minds. We think we are busy, but if we look closely, we find we spend hours doing useless things that are not at all critical.
Solitude is a way to get a little control over our inner life. It’s not easy. Once we start spending time alone, we discover how chaotic our minds are. We start thinking about thousands of other things—what we should do, whom we are mad at. If these thoughts come up, gently return to the center. Gradually if you really discover, for instance, that the Lord is your shepherd, you might be able to let go of a few things and be a lot more at peace. You don’t have to be filled with garbage. You can be more centered.
From time to time we may want to do this discipline with someone else. Sometimes I spend a half hour with one person. We sit there and don’t say anything, but we support each other’s solitude. So, if there’s something there that attracts you to practicing solitude, try it out. (pg 218)
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Making all things New” published in 1981:
Solitude (pg 69-80)
Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. Solitude begins with a time and place for God, and Him alone. If we really believe not only that God exists but also that He is actively present in our lives—healing, teaching, and guiding—we need to set aside a time and space to give Him our undivided attention. Jesus says, “Go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place.” (Matthew 6:6)
To bring some solitude into our lives is one of the most necessary but also most difficult disciplines. Even though we may have a deep desire for real solitude, we also experience a certain apprehension as we approach that solitary place and time. As soon as we are alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distractions, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. It is thus not surprising that we have a difficult time being alone. The confrontation with our inner conflicts can be too painful for us to endure.
This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important. Solitude is not a spontaneous response to an occupied and preoccupied life. There are so many reasons not to be alone. Therefore we must begin by carefully planning some solitude. Five or ten minutes a day may be all we can tolerate. Perhaps we are ready for an hour every day, an afternoon every week, a day every month, or a week every year. The amount of time will vary for each person according to temperament, age, job, lifestyle, and maturity. But we do not take the spiritual life seriously if we do not set aside some time to be with God and listen to Him. We may have to write it in black and white in our daily calendar so that nobody else can take away this period of time. Then we will be able to say to our friends, neighbours, students, customers, clients, or patients, “I’m sorry, but I’ve already made an appointment at that time and it can’t be changed.”
Once we have committed ourselves to spending time in solitude, we develop an attentiveness to God’s voice in us. In the beginning, during the first few days, weeks, or even months, we may have the feeling that we are simply wasting our time. Time in solitude may at first seem little more than a time in which we are bombarded by thousands of thoughts and feelings that emerge from hidden areas of our mind. One of the early Christian writers describes the first stage of solitary prayer as the experience of a man who, after years of living with open doors, suddenly decides to shut them. The visitors who used to come and enter his home start pounding on his doors, wondering why they are not allowed to enter. Only when they realise that they are not welcome do they gradually stop coming. This is the experience of anyone who decides to enter into solitude after a life without much spiritual discipline. At first, the many distractions keep presenting themselves. Later, as they receive less and less attention, they slowly withdraw.
It is clear that what matters is faithfulness to the discipline. In the beginning, solitude seems so contrary to our desires that we are constantly tempted to run away from it. One way of running away is daydreaming or simply falling asleep. But when we stick to our discipline, in the conviction that God is with us even when we do not yet hear Him, we slowly discover that we do not want to miss our time alone with God. Although we do not experience much satisfaction in our solitude, we realise that a day without solitude is less “spiritual” than a day with it.
Intuitively, we know that it is important to spend time in solitude. We even start looking forward to this strange period of uselessness. This desire for solitude is often the first sign of prayer, the first indication that the presence of God’s Spirit no longer remains unnoticed. As we empty ourselves of our many worries, we come to know not only with our mind but also with our heart that we never were really alone, that God’s Spirit is with us all along. Thus we come to understand what Paul writes to the Romans, “Sufferings bring patience. . . and patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope, and this hope is not deceptive, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (Romans 5:4-6) In solitude, we come to know the Spirit who has already been given to us. The pains and struggles we encounter in our solitude thus become the way to hope, because our hope is not based on something that will happen after our sufferings are over, but on the real presence of God’s healing Spirit in the midst of these sufferings. The discipline of solitude allows us gradually to come in touch with this hopeful presence of God in our lives, and allows us also to taste even now the beginnings of the joy and peace which belong to the new heaven and the new earth.
The discipline of solitude, as I have described it here, is one of the most powerful disciplines in developing a prayerful life. It is a simple, though not easy, way to free us from the slavery of our occupations and preoccupations and to begin to hear the voice that makes all things new.
Let me give a more concrete description of how the discipline of solitude may be practiced. It is a great advantage to have a room or a corner of a room—or a large closet!—reserved for the discipline of solitude. Such a “ready” place helps us set our hearts on the Kingdom without time-consuming preparations. Some people like to decorate such a place with an icon, a candle, or a simple plant. But the important thing is that the place of solitude remains a simple, uncluttered place. There we dwell in the presence of the Lord. Our temptation is to do something useful: to read something stimulating, to think about something interesting, or to experience something unusual. But our moment of solitude is precisely a moment in which we want to be in the presence of our Lord with empty hands, naked, vulnerable, useless, without much to show, prove, or defend. That is how we slowly learn to listen to God’s small voice. But what to do with our many distractions? Should we fight these distractions and hope that thus we will become more attentive to God’s voice? This does not seem the way to come to prayer. Creating an empty space where we can listen to God’s Spirit is not easy when we are putting all out energy into fighting distractions. By fighting distractions in such a direct way, we end up paying more attention to them than they deserve. We have, however, the words of Scripture to which to pay attention. A psalms, a parable, a biblical story, a saying of Jesus, or a word of Paul, Peter, James, Jude, or John can help us to focus our attention on God’s presence. Thus we deprive those “many other things” of their power over us. When we place words from the Scriptures in the center of our solitude, such words—whether a short expression, a few sentences, or a longer text—can function as the point to which we return when we have wandered off in different directions. They form a safe anchoring place in a stormy sea. At the end of such period of quiet dwelling with God we may, through intercessory prayer, lead all the people who are part of our lives, friends as well as enemies, into His healing presence. And why not conclude with the words that Jesus Himself taught us: the Our Father?
This is only one specific form in which the discipline of solitude may be practiced. Endless variations are possible. Walks in nature, the repetition of short prayers such as the Jesus prayer, simple forms of chanting, certain movements or postures—these and many other elements can become a helpful part of the discipline of solitude. But we have to decide which particular form of this discipline best fits us, to which we can remain faithful. It is better to have a daily practice of ten minutes solitude than to have a whole hour once in a while. It is better to become familiar with one pasture than to keep experimenting with different ones. Simplicity and regularity are the best guides in finding our way. They allow us to make the discipline of solitude as much part of our daily lives as eating and sleeping. When that happens, our noisy worries will slowly lose their power over us and the renewing activity of God’s Spirit will slowly make its presence known.
Although the discipline of solitude asks us to set aside time and space, what finally matters is that our hearts become like quiet cells where God can dwell, wherever we go and whatever we do. The more we train ourselves to spend time with God and Him alone, the more we will discover that God is with us at all times and in all places. Then we will be able to recognise Him even in the midst of a busy and active life. Once the solitude of time and space has become a solitude of the heart, we will never have to leave that solitude. We will be able to live the spiritual life in any place and any time. Thus the discipline of solitude enables us to live active lives in the world, while remaining always in the presence of the living God.
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Bread for the Journey,” published in 1997.
All human being 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. (Jan 18)
2.The Voice in the Garden of Solitude
Solitude is the garden for our hearts, which yearn for love. It is the place where our aloneness can bear fruits. It is home for our restless bodies and anxious minds. Solitude, whether it is connected with a physical space or not, is essential for our spiritual lives. It is not an easy place to be, since we are so insecure and fearful that we are easily distracted by whatever promises immediate satisfaction. Solitude is not immediately satisfying, because in solitude we meet our demons, our addictions, our feelings of lust and anger, and our immense need for recognition and approval. But if we do not run away, we will meet there also the One who says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you, and I will guide you through the valley of darkness.”
Let’s keep returning to our solitude. (Jan 21)
3.Community supported by Solitude
Solitude greeting solitude, that’s what community is all about. Community is not the place where we are no longer alone but the place where we respect, protect, and reverently greet one another’s aloneness. When we allow our aloneness to lead us into solitude, our solitude will enable us to rejoice in the solitude of others. Our solitude roots us in our own hearts. Instead of making us yearn for company that will offer us immediate satisfaction, solitude makes us claim our center and empowers us to call others to claim theirs. Our various solitudes are like strong, straight pillars that hold up the roof of our communal house. Thus, solitude always strengthens community. (Jan 22)
4. Being Mindful with Ourselves
We need silence in our lives. We even desire it. But when we enter into silence we encounter a lot of inner noises, often so disturbing that a busy and distracting life seems preferable to a time of silence. Two disturbing “noises” present themselves quickly in our silence: the noise of lust and the noise of anger. Lust reveals our many unsatisfied needs, anger, or many unresolved relationships. But lust and anger are very hard to face.
What are we to do? Jesus says, “Go and learn the meaning of the words: Mercy is what pleases Me, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). Sacrifice here means “offering up,” “cutting out,” “burning away,” or “killing.” We shouldn’t do that with our lust and anger. It simply won’t work. But we can be merciful toward our own noisy selves and turn these enemies into friends. (Feb 2)
5.What is Most Personal is Most Universal (Feb 23)
We like to make a distinction between our private and public lives and say, “Whatever I do in my private life is nobody else’s business.” But anyone trying to live a spiritual life will soon discover that the most personal is the most universal, the most hidden is the most public, and the most solitary is the most communal. What we live in the most intimate places of our beings is not just for us but for all people. That is why our inner lives are lives for others. That is why our solitude is a gift to our community, and that is why our most secret thoughts affect our common life.
Jesus says, “No one light a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it o the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house.” (Matthew 5:14-15) The most inner light is a light for the world. Let’s not have “double lives”; let us allow what we live in private to be known in public.
6.Creating Space for God (Feb 27)
Discipline is the other side of discipleship. Discipleship without discipline is like waiting to run the marathon without ever practicing. Discipline without discipleship is like always practicing for the marathon but never participating. It is important, however, to realise that discipline in the spiritual life is not the same as discipline in sports. Discipline in sports is concentrated effort to master the body so that it can obey the mind better. Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our master and where we can respond freely to God’s guidance.
Thus, discipline is the creation of boundaries that keep time and space open for God. Solitude requires discipline, worship requires discipline, caring for others requires discipline. They all ask us to set apart a time and a place where God’s gracious presence can be acknowledged and responded to.
7.Ordering Our Desires (April 21)
Desire is often talked about as something we ought to overcome. Still, being is desiring: our bodies, our minds, our hearts, and our souls are full of desires. Some are unruly, turbulent, and very distracting; some makes us think deep thoughts and see great visions; some teach us how to love; and some keep us searching for God. Our desire for God is the desire that should guide all other desires. Otherwise our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls become one another’s enemies and our inner lives become chaotic, leading us to despair and self-destruction.
Spiritual disciplines are not ways to eradicate all our desires but ways to order them so that they can serve one another and together serve God.
8. A Still Place in the Market (March 20)
“Be still and acknowledge that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) These are words to take with us in our busy lives. We may think about stillness in contrast to our noisy world. But perhaps we can go further and keep an inner stillness even while we carry on business, teach, work in construction, make music, or organise meetings.
It is important to keep a still place in the “market-place.” This still place is where God can dwell and speak to us. It also is the place from which we can speak in a healing way to all the people we meet in our busy days. Without that still space we start spinning. We become driven people, running all over the place without much direction. But with that stillness God can be our gentle guide in everything we think, say, or do.
9. The way to Self-Knowledge (March 22)
“Know yourselves” is good advice. But to know ourselves doesn’t mean to analyse ourselves. Sometimes we want to know ourselves as if we were machines that could be taken apart and put back together at will. At certain critical times in our lives it might be helpful to explore in some detail the events that led us to our crisis, but we make a mistake when we think we can ever completely understand ourselves and explain the full meaning of our lives to others.
Solitude, silence, and prayer are often the best ways to self-knowledge. Not because they offer solutions for the complexity of our lives but because they bring us in touch with our sacred center, where God dwells. That sacred center may not be analysed. It is the place of adoration, thanksgiving, and praise.
10. Sharing our Solitude (March 23)
A friend is more than a therapist or a confessor, even though a friend can sometimes heal us and offer us God’s forgiveness.
A friend is that other person with whom we can share our solitude, our silence, and our prayer. A friend is that other person with whom we can look at a tree and say “Isn’t that beautiful,” or sit on the beach and silently watch the sun disappear under the horizon. With a friend we don’t have to say or do something special. With a friend we can be still and know that God is there with both of us.
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Show me the Way,” published in 1992.
1. Thursday of the Second Week in Lent (pg 53)
To live a Christian life means to live in the world without being of it. It is in solitude that this inner freedom can grow. . . .
A life without a lonely place, that is, a life without a quiet center, easily becomes destructive. When we cling to the results of our actions as our only way of self-identification, then we become possessive and defensive and tend to look at our fellow human beings more as enemies to be kept at a distance than as friends with whom we share the gifts of life.
In solitude we can slowly unmask the illusion of our possessiveness and discover in the center of our own self that we are not what we can conquer, but what is given to us. In solitude we can listen to the voice of Him who spoke to us before we could speak a word, who healed us before we could make a gesture of help, who set us free long before we could free others, and who loved us long before we could give love to anyone. It is in this solitude that we discover that being is more important than having, and that we are worth more than the result of our efforts. In solitude we discover that our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared. It’s there we recognise that the healing words we speak are not just our own, but are given to us; that the love we can express is part of a greater love; and that the new life we bring forth is not a property to cling to, but a gift to be received.
In solitude we become aware that our worth in not the same as our usefulness. (Out of Solitude 21-22)
2. Fourth Sunday in Lent (pg 81)
It is not so strange that Anthony and his fellow monks considered it a spiritual disaster to accept passively the tenets and values of their society. They had come to appreciate how hard it is not only for the individual Christian but also for the Church itself to escape the seductive compulsions of the world. What was their response? They escaped from the sinking ship and swam for their lives. And the place of salvation is called desert, the place of solitude. . . .
Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus Himself entered into this furnace. There He was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (“turn stones into loaves”), to be spectacular (“throw yourself down”), and to be powerful (“I will give you all these kingdoms). There He affirmed God as the only source of His identity (“You must worship the Lord your God and serve Him alone”). Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter—the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers Himself as the substance of the new self. (Way of the Heart 24-26)
The passages below on solitude are taken from Robert A. Jonas’ book, ”Henri Nouwen” published in 1998, on Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s writings.
1. In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding (pg 17)
In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me—naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken—nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. But that is not all. As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkey in a banana tree. . . .The task is to persevere in my solitude, to stay in my cell until all my seductive visitors get tired of pounding on my door and leave me alone.
It is the struggle to die to the false self. But this struggle is far, far beyond our own strength. Anyone who wants to fight his demons with his own weapons is a fool. . . .Only Christ can overcome the powers of evil. Only in and through Him can we survive the trials of our solitude. . . .As we come to realise that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that He is our true self, we can slowly let our compulsions melt away and begin to experience the freedom of the children of God. .
We have to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw every day, shake off our compulsions, and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord.
Solitude is not simply a means to an end. Solitude is its own end. It is the place where Christ remodels us in His own image and frees us from the victimising compulsions of the world. Solitude is the place of our salvation. (The Way of the Heart, 14-17)
2. Solitude and Community (pg 18)
Solitude is not private time in contrast to time together, nor a time to restore our tired minds. Solitude is very different from a time-out from community life. Solitude is the ground from which community grows. When we pray alone, study, read, write, or simply spend quiet time away from the places where we interact with each other directly, we enter into a deeper intimacy with each other. It is a fallacy to think that we grow closer to each other only when we talk, play, or work together. Much growth certainly occurs in such human interactions, but these interactions derive their fruit from solitude, because in solitude our intimacy with each other is deepened. In solitude we discover each other in a way that physical presence makes difficult if not impossible. There we recognise a bond with each other that does not depend on words, gestures, or actions, a bond much deeper than our own efforts can create. . .
Solitude is essential for community life because there we begin to discover a unity that is prior to all unifying actions. In solitude we become aware that we were together before we came together and that community life is not a creation of our will but an obedient response to the reality of our being united. Whenever we enter into solitude, we witness to a love that transcends our interpersonal communications and proclaims that we love each other because we have been loved first (1 John 4:19). . . .Solitude creates that free community that makes bystanders say, “see how they love each other.” (Clowning in Rome, 13-15)
3. A Family Vocation (pg 20)
The first and perhaps most mysterious vocation of the family is to offer solitude. Solitude is the first gift of man, woman, and children to each other: “Never try to suppress the Spirit,” says Paul. In solitude the Spirit reveals itself to us, and it becomes possible to “pray constantly and be joyful at all times.” In solitude we discover the inner space where our creativity finds its roots and from which our real vitality springs. . .
We live in a world where we are made to believe that we are what we do. We are important if we do something important; we are intelligent if we do something intelligent; we are valuable if we do something valuable. Therefore, we are very concerned to have something to do, to be occupied. And if we are not occupied, we are usually preoccupied, that is, busy with a worrying mind. But when we live as if as are what we do, we have sold our soul to the world. We have allowed the world to determine who we are. We have, in fact, become lonely people, always anxiously looking around and wondering what other people think about us, always needing people to consider us nice, intelligent, and worthwhile. . . .
Therefore, the first gift of the family members to each other is the gift of solitude in which they can discover their real selves. A family built on false selves, selves put together from occupation and preoccupation, judgements and opinions, is doomed to failure. Only to the degree that the members of a family allow each other to discover their real selves in solitude can real love exist. The family is the place where solitude kisses solitude, where, as Rilke says, “Solitudes salute each other.”(“Spirituality and the Family,” pg 7)
The passages below are taken from John Garvey’s book, ”Circles of Love” published in 1988, on Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s writings.
Secularism and Solitude (pg72)
The religious secularism that I have described has entered so deeply into our way of being in the world that it cannot be made subject to simple accusations. But it can be made subject to reflection, because it not only shows how closely we, as religious people, have become part of our emergency-oriented world, but it also explains why it has become difficult for our contemporary religious communities to be unambiguous witnesses to the living God.
It is in the context of this religious secularism that solitude receives its deepest meaning. . .Solitude indeed is the place of the great encounter, from which all other encounters derive their meaning. In solitude, we meet God. In solitude, we leave behind our many activities, concerns, plans and projects, opinions and convictions, and enter into the presence of our living God, naked, vulnerable, open and receptive. And there we see that He alone is God, that He alone is care, that He alone is forgivingness. . . .I am not saying this to suggest that there is an easy solution to our ambivalent relationship with God. Solitude is not a solution. It is a direction. (Clowning in Rome, 27-28)