The Solitary Witness
In 21st century America, the spiritual lives of most Christians take place in the context of gathered community, and are filled with the bustle of sound and activity. We are encouraged to talk to God, talk to each other, make a joyful noise, join up, be together, engage in activities, accomplish things. For most, togetherness and activity are the essence of Christian life; silence is merely the absence of sound, solitude is a problem to be solved, and stillness is a void to be filled.
But some few people seem to be called by God to another experience. For them, the noisy activity of community life, while valued, may be distracting. In silence, they listen rather than speaking. In solitude, they give their entire attention to God. In stillness, they are content to rest in the awareness of the presence of Love.
The Bible gives us glimpses of this ancient, alternative calling; even Jesus sought God in solitude. Following his example, in the 3rd century, Anthony went into the desert, and Christian monasticism was born. In medieval times hermits were respected and sought for spiritual counsel. Although over the centuries modern monasticism has become less eremitic and more focused on community and charitable service, some few are still called to an eremitic life. Some still live enclosed in monastic communities; some live independently in private houses or even city apartments. Because of the quiet and solitary nature of their spiritual lives, few know about them.
The vocation of the Solitary is, in many ways, a hidden vocation. It is a call to withdraw from the world, to live on the margins, within the apophatic and unknowable, forsaking the comforts of social lives and accomplishments. Apart from prayer, the Solitary vocation contemplates no visible ministry, no work, no productivity, no service to the Church. The Solitary is a failure by the world’s standards, cast upon divine mercy, empty, waiting, thirsty for God’s grace.
Most people find their greatest fulfillment in relationships with lovers, family and friends, who are (usually) a source of joy. For solitaries, that same joy is found in relationship with the Holy One, and in devoting one’s life completely to continually deepening that relationship. Our aim is to discover the perfection of Divine Love, removing all barriers to intimacy with God.
Becoming a Solitary means restructuring one’s life and priorities. Most people seek relationships with loved ones, or personal achievement, and structure their lives to provide what is needed to sustain those priorities. By contrast, Solitaries structure their lives to sustain their relationship with the Holy One, above every other interest. Given this re-prioritization, one’s life takes on a different shape. The Solitary withdraws from the world’s values to immerse herself totally in God.
The praxis of the Solitary, which nurtures and nourishes this relationship, is a diet of prayer and contemplation, supplemented by reading and study, and tempered with work. For me, the vocation to be a Solitary is a particular focus of contemplative spirituality, a love-driven way of knowing God that is centered in constant awareness of the Divine presence. In the silence of contemplative prayer I focus my mind and heart totally on God, not to ask for anything, not to say anything to God, but to open my heart to listen and simply rest in God’s presence. I seek to quiet all distractions, the better to be open to God’s voice. The highest experience is simply to be aware of God’s presence and delight in it. There is no agenda other than: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
An essential part of the Solitary vocation is to pray for the Church and the world. In union with God’s desire, I see others through God’s loving gaze and face, with him, toward our suffering world in love and compassion.
God calls some people to activity, service, intellect and study. But the Holy One calls the contemplative Solitary to seek the Divine in an interior landscape, in a cloud of unknowing, in love and by faith. I do not necessarily know how or even whether God will use this vocation to the benefit of the Church, nor do I feel a need to know. Others seem to benefit from reading my journal reflections, though that is not why I write them. I am confident that God has some reason for calling me to this vocation, and will reveal it in his own time.