And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost . . . was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit. (Luke 4:1, 14)
When I was nine, I read a book about a hermit who lived in a cabin in the woods all by himself. I’d never heard the word “hermit” before then, but as soon as I finished the book, I ran to find my mother to announce, “Mom, I know what I want to be when I grow up! A hermit!”
I love solitude. Even as a child, though I enjoyed playing with friends, my happiest hours were those I spent in a tree house with a book, or on my horse for a daylong ride, or writing poems in my bedroom. I am always most relaxed when I am alone. And paradoxically, as Lord Byron noted, “in solitude, where we are least alone” is when I feel least lonely.
It’s not that I don’t like people. I love a rich conversation or a holiday party as much as anyone. But what I most look forward to is the after-time, when I can be alone and reflect on the conversation, or smile at the party memories.
As a teenager, I lived in rural Sonoma County in California. I loved going to San Francisco, the big city, for outings and cultural events; I loved the lights, the bustle, the sounds and smells, the people. What I loved most, though, was coming home at night, weary and happy, to hear the owls hoot and watch the moon play with shadows in the apple orchard. Sometimes late at night, like many teens, I’d sneak out my bedroom window. But whereas most sneakers would meet up with friends, I would walk into the woods in my pajamas and sit on a log in a clearing and listen to the night. I’d often pray, or sing to the deer. I still remember those quiet, solitary nights as a highlight of my youth.
When I was twelve, I realized I had to make a choice. It had become clear to me that to be so solitary had definite social disadvantages. I wanted to be a contribution in the world; I wanted to help people. That was the year I read stacks of biographies and found my heroes: Jane Addams, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King. I could see that my dream of becoming a hermit was not the path of the hero I wanted to be. I would have to learn to be “sociable.”
So I did. I did it so well that people to this day describe me as bubbly, outgoing, warm. And the warm is real; I really do have a deep love for people, especially one on one. I can often “see” people’s spirits and I can feel God’s love for them, which allows me to be a conduit for His love. I treasure those sacred connections.
But the bubbly and outgoing? Not so much. That’s pretend, the choice I made at twelve years old. I’ve been pretending for so many years, though, that it almost feels natural, even to me. I’ve become an effective leader. Yet I still sigh with relief when the people tasks are over and stillness returns.
Some people are people people, while others, like me, are more introverted. There’s no right or wrong to it. I still need large doses of solitude to stay sane. I’m not kidding; I really lose it without it. As a mother of six, solitude is hard to come by. But over the years, I have found ways to make sure I at least get the minimum requirements. There were the many years I got up at 5:00 to grab a quiet hour of meditation and devotion before the hubbub of the day descended. I am known for my frequent “personal retreats”. I’m on one now. While my girls are away at Girls Camp this week, I am holed up alone in a friend’s second home in central Oregon. It’s wonderfully quiet and deeply restorative. Sometimes I go to the beach. Often I go to the nearby Cistercian Abbey, which offers guest housing and silence. I go to the temple every week, almost always alone. Once, at near breaking point, I left my four kids home with my husband and went to Florida for a month, staying in a relative’s empty house on the Alafia River. I lived a very disciplined life for that month, and I came home with such deep clarity and peace that it lasted for years.
It’s about balance, of course. We all need people, but that part’s easy, at least for the bulk of our years. We all need some solitude, too, and that usually requires some planning. But the spiritual benefits of solitude far outweigh the small price. It’s when we’re alone and still that we can most easily hear God speak to us. It’s our times of introspection that fuel our efforts to change. It’s those sweet hours of private prayer that connect us to our Source.
What about you? Are you a happy loner, or do you hate being alone? How do you meet your need for solitude?