In a positive sense, solitude is a peaceful, regenerating experience that comes from choosing to be alone for some uninterrupted period of time. Western culture champions individuality but, ironically, also tends to marginalize and even stigmatize individuals who prefer their own company.
It’s almost as if you’re “weird” if you don’t fit in with some kind of group—be it your peers at work, worshippers at Church, local ball team… whatever.¹
By way of contrast, saints and mystics from different world traditions contend that, as one progresses in a contemplative path toward God, direct interaction with others should be minimized. For many contemplatives, superficial talk is a distraction from the source of true happiness, which they maintain is God.
Contemplatives may engage in everyday talk. They may even be quite gregarious if they believe God wants them to behave that way. But socializing is rarely done for its own sake. And when contemplatives do socialize it apparently is in a state of spiritual detachment. Detachment in this sense is not pathological. It means being mindful that God is first and God’s creation is second. In Hinduism this is the ideal of karma-yoga.
Put differently, solitude enables some individuals to recharge their spiritual batteries. Providing that withdrawal isn’t entirely based on some unresolved psychological complex, solitude should be not only valued but treasured.
However, in the negative sense, some individuals seem to neurotically play the social role of the solitary saint or reclusive hero. They may deceive themselves (and others) into supposing they are more spiritually developed than they really are. They may also try to manipulate, exploit or cheat those gullible enough to be fooled.
We’ve probably all met these kinds of fakers somewhere along the line. Upon close inspection there is a disjoint between their words and actions. So it seems reasonable to differentiate between healthy solitude, on the one hand, and a neurotic or cultic type of seclusion that could possibly lead to insanity, sociopathy and even violence, on the other hand.
An example of positive solitude would be the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86), who withdrew from society at age 23, preferring her own company to that of others. Her outstanding verse of over 1000 poems has had a profound influence on modern literature.
Another example would be the influential Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton. Merton gained permission from his monastic order to live the simple life of a hermit. His efforts to promote interfaith dialogue have become a model for many Catholics and non-Christians. Sadly, Merton met an untimely death at Bangkok in 1968 while visiting several Asian religious leaders.
More recently, the Catholic Church has been emphasizing the importance of community. I’ve noticed that priests in different parishes are highlighting the theme of community in their homilies, which makes me wonder if some kind of internal memo from the Vatican has instructed them to do so.
Community is fine and dandy, even necessary. But of all things, a religious community should also recognize that some individuals are more sensitive than others. And these people can be just as involved in the ongoing dynamic of salvation as the big talkers and glad-handers who often dominate the scene at local Catholic parishes.
¹ Of course, being alone is officially endorsed within religious retreats, which are not seen as weird partly because people retreat in the safety of a group. The event is organized by a Church and retreatants usually pay a fee for their solitude/retreat. So buying your solitude with others within a pre-established program is okay. But just wanting to be alone, not spending money, and creating your own program is often suspect.