30 November 2013

Questions on Solitude: Both a Universal and a Rare Vocation?

[[Dear Sister, you write about eremitical solitude being a rare vocation. yet you also said that it is the most universal of vocations. So which is it? How is it that human beings can be such social animals and yet you can talk about solitude as a universal call. It sounds confused to me.]]

Three Main Forms of Solitude:

Thanks for your questions. The answer to your, "Which is it?" is not either/or but, as with so many things in Christianity, both/and. Part of what seems confusing is the use of the term solitude. It has a variety of meanings and these can especially differ if one is using it to speak of solitude in a world where the Christian God is real. Three main meanings in particular are important here. I therefore refer in a lot of posts here to physical solitude, existential solitude, and eremitical solitude. In the statement you are referring to I said that solitude itself was the most universal of vocations but it is the call to eremitical solitude which is very rare.

"Solitude" can first of all be used to speak of physical solitude, the state of being physically alone. I think this is often the meaning most folks attribute to the word. A hermit, who distances herself from so much sometimes called "the world" of people and events is certainly usually alone in this sense, but so are many others.

Secondly, "solitude" can be used to speak of the individual' s relationship to the world and its creator in the more existential sense; that is, it can point to the fact that we are each and all of us ultimately alone in this life and isolated from all others despite there being many people in our lives. Theologians speak of one aspect of solitude in this sense as the result of human sinfulness and therefore, as a result of estrangement or alienation from our deepest selves, from God, and so too from others. However, another, more positive side of it is our call to grow as individuals; especially in community we are not spared this call to individuation, this call to stand as integral and independent human beings. Still this existential solitude can be painful for it highlights both our most fundamental potential and deficiency.

Each of us knows this kind of solitude which is most intense when, for instance, we have acted wrongly, we are misunderstood, have been betrayed, feel alone or separate in a crowd, or simply have something too deep, or wonderful, or simply too difficult to share with anyone else; we know it especially when we consider death and the inevitability of dying alone. Even those we love profoundly and by whom we are are loved in the same way cannot entirely relieve us of either the challenge or the burden of this kind of solitude. In fact, the paradox of this kind of solitude --- whether as a call to individuation or as the burden of separateness --- is that it is often set in most vivid relief when we are with and are loved by others. In other words, this form of solitude is both most challenging and most painful because we are made for communion with others but are ultimately separated from them.

There is a third sense however which both includes these first two forms and mitigates the ultimacy of the second meaning. It is the notion of solitude which witnesses to the fact that we are not truly (or ultimately) alone because we are made for and in fact most essentially ARE a relationship with a God who is part of us and will never forget or abandon us. While one part of the paradox of eremitical life is that we are each ultimately alone with this God and called upon to live our lives in light of this foundational "transcendental" of our existence, the other is that this ultimate communion for which we are made is the reason for our community with others. Others, as well as our solitary prayer, mediate the love of God to us and in various ways introduce us to this ultimate form of communion.

Hermits especially, embrace a life of  physical solitude which sharpens our existential solitude so that we may live a contemplative life in the eremitical solitude of conscious communion with our God; the hermit knows this form of solitude as one which encompasses, but also transcends, and finally makes an ultimate sense of the first two senses of the term solitude. Because the hermit knows union with the God who grounds the existence of all creation, she also exists in communion with all those others in some incomplete or proleptic sense. When I have written about this before I have spoken of it as a solitude which redeems isolation and which provides hope to others that their own isolation can be transformed and transfigured, and so forth.

Communion is always implied by solitude and vice versa in human relatedness:

I would ask that you notice in each of these forms of solitude the reality of community exists at least implicitly --- even if it is present as an inescapable longing and potentialilty in loneliness. Similarly, in each experience of community that we know this side of death, there is also separateness we often call "solitude." Both poles are present in every experience of relatedness or unrelatedness we know. (Communion without solitude dissolves into a loss of identity; solitude without communion is isolation. Both are inhuman.) In physical solitude community exists as something from which we are separated for whatever reason. In existential solitude community is something we yearn for, something the memory or promise of which inspires and strengthens us in our aloneness, something to which we look forward to achieving or returning to, etc. The point is that in all human relatedness community exists even in its relative absence just as while in community we stand in a kind of solitude as individuals nonetheless.

Vocations accent either side of the paradox of human solitude/communion:

The Church has a number of vocations each of which highlights a side of our call to community (as you say, our social nature) and our solitary nature as well. Marriage and most forms of Religious life point primarily to the importance of community in coming to human wholeness. Each, however also witness to the fact that ultimately it is the human relationship with God which is of deepest significance. In marriage it is the case that each person is meant to bring the other to union with God; each person mediates the Love of God to the other in ways which allow them to come to human fullness and fruitfulness together. (This is why sexual intercourse is the ultimate symbol of marital love and is open to procreation.) In religious life community exists only to the extent that each Sister or Brother is faithful to prayer and all of the other things required by a solitary relationship with God. Moreover, community empowers faithfulness to this solitary relationship. The Church herself is this kind of reality of course. She is not simply a group of people brought together in some sort of club because of similar interests. She is Church only to the extent each of her members fulfills his or her own vocation to life with God just as she is Church only to the extent she empowers and inspires this. In each of these realities community and solitude exist but the accent in each is on community.

In vocations to eremitical solitude the focus is different. It is on the solitary side of the equation. Most human beings are called to achieve human individuation and wholeness in communion with God through community with others. While hermits have already achieved an essential individuation before becoming (or even seeking to become) hermits (they could not embrace such a vocation otherwise) their growth in human wholeness and holiness occurs in eremitical solitude --- a solitude lived in communion with God for the sake of others. Very few human beings are called to achieve human wholeness and holiness in this way. Even so, they remind all persons of 1) their existential solitude, 2) the foundational communion with God which grounds and completes all human existence, 3) the place of community in even the most solitary of lives, and 4) the possibility of the redemption and reconciliation by and to God of even the most marked isolation or estrangement. At bottom then, this will always be a rare vocation and certainly always much rarer than vocations to marriage and community life.

While this answer may be longer than you expected, it is still quite a simplified presentation of the nature of solitude and especially of eremitical solitude. I hope you find it helpful in answering your question.