Alone Among Many

Author: Larry S. Cunningham

Editor’s Note: In 2004, Notre Dame theologian Larry Cunningham wrote, “To rupture human community is such a blow to human contentment that we use it as a punishment.” Cunningham explores the differences between loneliness and solitude — the former to be assuaged, the latter to be cultivated — in a Magazine Classic all too relevant to this time of ruptured community.

There is something magical about how the mind works. Not only can I recall the opening refrain of Duke Ellington’s moving song “In My Solitude” at will, but I can hear it in my head in the haunting vocal version of Billie Holiday. When recalling that music I often simultaneously think of a scene from a long-forgotten movie in which a man sits alone in a bedroom of a cheap hotel in the evening, smoking a cigarette near an open window while, across the street, a red neon sign announces a “café.” The café, I am sure, would look exactly the way Edward Hopper would paint it (as in his famous “Night Hawks”).

This complex mental picture, complete with specific music, works of art and lyrics, does conjure up aloneness and longing and interminable times of waiting. What is implied in this solitude is the yearning for another—a lost or not yet found lover. My mind goes back to a poignant line from Genesis: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” For many, solitude turns into loneliness.

Since solitude and loneliness are often confused, it would be useful to disentangle the terms. My inspiration for thinking about this subject is Jesus. Jesus was a man for others, whether it was the crowds upon whom he had compassion or the sick and the lame who crowded around to see him or the audiences to whom he addressed his words. That same Jesus, however, as the Gospels frequently note, also went off alone to a solitary place to pray before the dawn broke. Jesus lived for others, but in that living he also sought solitude.

Loneliness is a great cross to bear. “All the lonely people!” the Beatles sang of that quintessentially lonely woman, Eleanor Rigby—another song I can hear in my head. As a kid growing up in Saint Petersburg, Florida, it was always a treat to go to the downtown cafeterias for dinner. Our family would pack into the old Plymouth and try to catch the early bird specials so as not to strain the tight budget of my school teacher father. I do not know when it first struck me that many of the tables were occupied by one person (usually a woman) who ate alone while sometimes slipping packets of crackers in a purse for a later snack. Widows and widowers, hanging on to life with tiny pensions and social security checks, headed back to tiny efficiency apartments for evenings of listening to the radio or just looking out into the Florida dusk, thinking of families up north and children who called too infrequently. Solitude may be something desired, but loneliness is a soul destroyer.

After three decades working on university campuses I can sometimes spot the lonely student on campus. Overwhelmed by a large institution, they are the ones who seem not to have made a friend or who are awkward in social settings or seem not to fit in. The youngest of them pine for the shelter of home; others are tortured by the pain of the casual, often unthinking, cruelty of their classmates or the seeming indifference of the group. Unlike those who thirst for a solitary walk around the lake, these lonely students burn for a friendly face or a casual exchange in the dining hall. What they need is a friend or, to use that other rich word, a companion —one with whom to “share bread.”

It is difficult to teach young people that solitude is a valuable thing. It is especially difficult if they experience pangs of loneliness. They are gregarious by culture and instinct. Young people want to belong; they most definitely do not want to stand out from the crowd in a negative way. They follow fashions in clothing, music and movies not because they are shallow but because they do not want to be excluded. They confuse solitude with loneliness, and they dread loneliness.

While loneliness is a curse; solitude can be a gift. The curse of loneliness is that it militates against something that is basic to humanity, namely, the instinctive desire of everyone to be in communion with others. To rupture human community is such a blow to human contentment that we use it as a punishment. We condemn people to solitary confinement or shun or ex-communicate. Dante, condemned to death in absentia by his beloved city of Florence, laments his self-imposed exile in Paradiso: “Thou shall prove how tearful is another man’s bread/ how hard is the way up and down another man’s stairs.” That kind of loneliness is both intensely personal and patently social. It is the loneliness of those who are refugees or exiles or prisoners who pine for home.

Loneliness may be understood as being a prisoner of one’s self without the comfort of others, whereas solitude is better conceived of as a healthy possession of the self. Loneliness is the self in exile from others while solitude, to borrow a phrase from the great mystic Meister Eckhart is “living in the desert in the middle of the market place.” Loneliness is to be assuaged, but solitude is to be cultivated.

At its most fundamental and attractive level, to be solitary is to allow oneself a walk around a lake, an hour in the quiet of one’s room, a moment sitting in the pew of a church, a gentle slipping away from an overly noisy party. At that somewhat superficial level, solitude is nothing more than regaining possession of one’s own self. At a deeper level, to be solitary is to take the first step towards the contemplative life.

For a few years I have been teaching a course on prayer on Sunday evenings. One thing I have learned from the paper students write for me is that many of them experience God at a deep level. If they knew the vocabulary they could begin to call themselves contemplatives. The trick is to show them that if they become contemplative enough not only will their prayer be enriched but they will see the world with fresh eyes, they will read more deeply and they will love more fully. To accomplish that they need to savor some solitude.

That turning aside which is solitude has been held up as a spiritual value in the Catholic tradition of spirituality. Over the gates of some Carthusian monasteries one finds the Latin tag Beata Solitudo/ Beatitudo Sola (Blessed solitude is blessedness alone). But is there not something contrary to the Catholic ethos when we hold up solitude as a spiritual ideal? Does not solitude cut across the Christian ideal of the community of the faithful? Is it not common for people to grouse that monks would be better off serving the poor than leading solitary lives? What is the rich potential of solitude?

As solitude became institutionalized in the monastic way of life in early Christianity, a curious paradox emerged. As men and women fled into the desert to live a life of solitude they found that people were attracted to them. In other words, when solitude is held up as a value people find it engagingly attractive. That curious fact helps explain why people have to reserve well in advance to stay at the guest hostels of monasteries today. Solitude, paradoxically, creates community.

At another, more personal level, solitude is attractive because sometimes we need a bit of time to be alone. What mother has not complained that she cannot even go to the bathroom without a child banging at the door? What person in business does not need a time to get away from it all? Who does not look forward to a quiet walk along the shore? In our frenetic lives, some solitude is desirable. Beyond that, however, what is the spiritual value of solitude? How does it help cultivate the Christian life?

People, if they are fortunate enough, can go on holiday to “get away from it all,” but such holidays frequently become frenetic chases after activities unless one has a spirit of solitude that allows for self-possession. That kind of interior solitude is authentic leisure as opposed to “leisure activities” (an oxymoronic phrase). Years ago, Josef Pieper wrote Leisure, the Basis of Culture. In this classic little book he drew on a tradition that goes back as far as Aristotle and argued that some leisure is the necessary re-condition for serious thought and for that kind of making which we call art. Students who have not cultivated the spirit of solitude may complete homework; real students possess the gift of solitude.

Nearly a half century ago, Thomas Merton wrote “Notes on a Philosophy of Solitude,” an extended essay in which he pointed out that a person who enjoys solitude, by which he meant the quiet possession of the self, is the one less likely to be beguiled by mass movements, collective passions, the false siren of advertising and the lust for the ephemerally fashionable. True solitude (as opposed to individualism or “going it alone”) is the cultivation of the sense of the self that permits us to adjudicate the cry of the mob and resist the lure of the moment.

Such self-possession is both a gift and a risk. It is most often a risk when acting against the consensus; such acts can earn scorn or, at worst, actual physical harm. Decades ago Ignazio Silone, the Italian political novelist, said that the first lethal blow against fascism came when the first brave person in a village chalked a large NO on the wall of the town square. Interior solitude has always been the mark of the true revolutionary. It was the inner force of Gandhi’s resistance; it was the inner strength of a Solzhenitsyn whose inner life could not be broken by the horrors of the Gulag.

At a deeper spiritual level the cultivation of solitude is a necessary matrix out of which comes authentic prayer. By that is not meant that one must seek a solitary place (even though that may be a good thing to do on occasion) or go to a monastery for a retreat (also a good thing) or give up one’s ordinary pattern of living. What it does mean is that if we are to pray, as opposed to saying prayers, we need the capacity to slow down, get in focus and become re-collected, albeit for a short period of time. The Bible describes that capacity as watchfulness, the alertness that brings our interior attention toward a single One. God says, through the psalmist, that we are “to be still and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:11). That stillness is the defining element of solitude.

The philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said that religion is what a person does in his solitude. That is both true and misleading. Christianity, after all, is constituted a community of believers. We use all kinds of community language to describe being a Christian: the Body of Christ, Pilgrim People, Community. When the celebrant prays the eucharistic canon he does so with the plural “we.” We say “Our Father,” not “My Father.” To say that we belong to a believing community, however, does not mean that we are mindless cogs in a vast machinery (even if we are treated as such at times) since everyone must take possession of faith as a separate conscious person. It is in community that we say the Credo—I believe. In the final analysis we all must take responsibility of that which makes us responsible persons, namely, our capacity to utter “I.”

That tension between community and solitude must be just that: a tension. To be totally solitary, accepting no responsibility for others or for the Other who is God, is solipsistic. To submerge oneself in the community without responsibility is conformism. The first attitude produces selfishness; the second is irresponsible.

Christianity offers a great paradox: To know oneself in the depth of one’s solitude is a path to discover the reality of the other who is God. “I would know myself,” Augustine writes tellingly in the Confessions, that “I might know Thee.” What do we know in the depths of our solitude? We learn that we are made in the image and likeness of God. When we grasp that fact, we also implicitly know that everyone else in the world shares in that same image and likeness. To know oneself, under the impulse of grace, is to know everyone else.

Solitude, even when the solitude is enforced, brings us close to the deepest truths about ourselves and our relationship to the world in which we live. That is why so much great literature comes from people who languish in prison. That was certainly true in antiquity (Boethius wrote The Consolations of Philosophy while waiting execution in Pavia, Italy) or in the Renaissance (Thomas More, Sir Walter Raleigh, Cervantes), but it is even more true in our own day. The literature of the Gulag comes to mind as do such spiritual classics as the prison letters and diaries of victims of Nazism by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Alfred Delp.

It is not easy to be alone today. Students seem incapable of walking across campus without a cell phone attached to their ear. We live in a matrix of white noise emanating from instant messages, elevator music, voice mail and overstimulation from headphones. Is this all an evasion of some sorts? Are all of the stimuli aimed at us, often at our own instigation, a sort of penumbra that we throw up to protect us from . . . what? Boredom? Our selves? Silence?

This is not a Luddite diatribe against modern communications. It is meant only to indicate that such sense assaults may block us off from the solitude where we might grasp our own interior depths. In that solitude we might begin to hear something quite different, namely, that “silent music” about which John of the Cross speaks so eloquently in his poetry. That “silent music” is the stillness which allows us to hear something in the silence, namely, the voice of God. John puts it this way: “When . . . souls are conscious of being placed in solitude and in the state of listening, they should even forget the practice of loving attentiveness I mentioned [previously] so as to remain free for what the Lord desires of them.”

John is speaking about mystical prayer, but he makes a point that is crucial for every person of pray: Prayer is first of all an act of listening before it is an act of speaking. All authentic prayer begins with an act of putting oneself in the presence of God. It is simultaneously an act of faith and a gesture which says, in effect, that we have turned toward God and away from that which is not God. The great Christian poet of solitude, T.S. Eliot, understood that well. In Four Quartets he imagines himself coming to a place hallowed by saintly people (Little Gidding) not as a tourist but in order to pray. He comments that prayer is not only “an order of words, the conscious occupation/ Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.” It is, rather, the act of turning to God.

To cultivate solitude is not to fall in love with oneself— that is egoism—nor is it shunning or resisting others or an act of self-indulgence. It is to grasp who we are as distinct from how society, the reigning culture or others see us. If we find true solitude we not only discover that we are contingent upon something greater (that something will eventually reveal itself as Someone), but in that discovery we will learn about our solidarity with all others who are contingent and, finally, be able to praise the One in whom we have our being. That is why Bonhoeffer, the great modern martyr who lived his last days in a solitary Gestapo cell before his execution, could write these words in a little book (Life Together) in which he sketched out an ideal Christian community for those who wished to resist the power of the Nazi state: “Let the one who cannot be alone beware of living in community.”

Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O’Brien professor of theology at Notre Dame.