11 January 2010

The Silence of Solitude (#2)

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, When you write about the silence of solitude it sounds pretty grim. Do you mean to give that impression? Also, where does the term come from? I also thought Canon 603 specified silence AND solitude and was surprised to read that you thought the silence of solitude was something different.]]

Dear poster,
I suppose that the two times I have written about "the silence of solitude" it has seemed a pretty negative reality, mainly because of the contexts. However, I carefully qualified the negativity in the last post (and may have done in the other) by referring to the richness of this reality. Anyway, let me try to be a little clearer because "the silence of solitude" embraces the gamut of experiences and realities involved in everything from profound unitive experiences with God to the physical isolation and challenges one faces as one comes to terms with one's own sinfulness without distraction, or even the desolation one may feel from the relative absence of others in one's life or from the felt absence or withdrawal of God. One really cannot point to a wider range of experience.

It seems to me that Jesus' own life was one which, despite the activity and contact with others, was consistently marked by the silence of solitude --- whether we are speaking of the times he was off alone praying, ministering in crowds, talking or disputing with Jewish officials, teaching his ordinarily obtuse disciples, standing before Pilate (a particularly poignant moment revealing the silence of solitude), or facing betrayal by his followers and "abandonment" by God in the passion. All of these moments and his whole life was lived for God alone and with a sense that God alone was enough. Similarly every moment was lived with a profound sense of God's presence and power within and without him. (The single exception was, I would suggest, the experience of abandonment on the cross.) Even while this united him with all of humanity it separated or marginalized him as well. Jesus' grounding in and relationship with God related him intimately with everyone God loved, and at the same time set him apart as a complete and unique individual --- in many ways incommunicable to them. To the degree he was embodied Word he, modelled "the (paradoxical reality we call) silence of solitude." (Another dimension of this I have to wonder about here is Jesus's ability to share with others. He gave of himself completely, and it is clear he had those who loved him especially and whom he loved as friends, but generally, I wonder how much sharing of his own deepest self he could do. That inability is a piece of the silence of solitude I think.)

The term, "the silence of solitude," so far as I know, is a Carthusian one, coined by Carthusian hermit monks to describe a reality which includes both silence and solitude and yet goes beyond both of them. (Sorry, despite having read a number of books by and about Carthusians, I cannot refer you to the text where this phrase occurs, nor can I explain what the author himself meant by it therefore with the following exception. Apparently "the silence of solitude" was meant to distinguish it from the physical silence of cenobitism, and was to be ensured through physical isolation.) However, Fr Jean Beyer, sj, a canonist, writes, "It unites these values. . . referring not merely to the external [physical] silence of the desert but to a profound inner solitude found in communion with God, who is the fullness of life and of love. It implies a lifetime striving towards union with God, a state which causes the one who becomes silent in this divine solitude to be alone with God alone. Such silence of solitude requires other silences --- of place, of surroundings, of action --- all that furthers the solitude and distances one from anything which could disturb it, from all which does not enhance the solitary mode of life." (Beyer, The Law of Consecrated Life: Commentary on the Canons 573-606)

Note that because solitude is defined in terms of communion with God both as goal and reality, Beyer affirms that other silences are required which support and flow from this communion. The other silences are usually what we are thinking of when we suggest the Canon is speaking of silence and solitude. Really though, Canon 603 spells out the goal and essence of eremitical life in this phrase, whereas silence and external or physical solitude are means to achieving this. Genuine solitude is always a communal reality because true individuality is always such a reality. We are constituted as human beings by our relatedness with God (and so with those he loves --- especially as we come to know them in him). We are not unrelated or isolated monads, but instead are "dialogical" at the very core of our being. Physical silence serves the realization of this nature. So does physical or external solitude. But they are not to be mistaken for it. For this reason among others I suggested in my earlier post (Prisoner Hermits) that the "silence of solitude" was a reality even when in the midst of a noisy crowd. This is somewhat different than Beyer describes, and it differs from the narrower Carthusian sense, but I think it is in line with these as well.

The heart of "the silence of solitude" is communion with God. Nothing grim about that! At the same time, while this communion is wonderful and sustaining (even when we don't experience ecstasy or some remarkable prayer experience), and while it unites us to those God loves in mysterious and real ways, it establishes us more fully as individuals and wraps our lives in silence at many levels. Consider how it fosters one's need for environments most people shun. Consider how it sets one's life apart from the normal rhythms, values, and activities of most lives. Consider how incommunicable it truly is, and how truly incommunicable it makes our authentic individuality --- our solitude. So, no "the silence of solitude" is not a grim reality; is a wonderfully, ineffably, positive experience, but it carries with it dimensions of suffering and marginalization as well.

I only just began really thinking about this element of Canon 603 in a conscious way this Summer so I doubt this is really clear yet.(Until then I spent more time thinking about silence AND solitude.) However if it raises questions for you, do get back to me. The questions help me think through what I often know on a more intuitive level. Thanks.