Solitude is a blessing with purpose. Retreat is necessary and refreshing, but in excess becomes a denial of our nature that diminishes the soul and starves us of purpose.
During the 19th century, naturalist John Muir spent inordinate amounts of time in the wilderness of America’s West and Alaskan coasts. His writing betrays an overly pronounced inclination toward the beauty, awe and mystery of creation. Muir and his liberal contemporaries would ultimately deify nature itself, pushing beyond traditional Christian thought. So overtaken by the general revelation of God in nature, the specific revelation of Christ is neglected in Muir’s writings. Muir loved the outdoors and didn’t look favourably on cities, feeling that their occupants were beaten and weighed down by society’s obsession with industrial pursuit.
Yet even the fiercely reclusive and wild Muir loved company. Unable to deny his innate personhood, he talked with anyone willing to share a campfire. One biographer notes that Muir’s love of solitary wilderness wandering was rivalled by just one other affection – colloquial companionship.
Consider a more orthodox and ancient example. In monastic life the communal essence of an abbey’s daily and weekly rhythm is central to the health and growth of seemingly reclusive monks and nuns. Solitary prayer is coupled with communal meals and mass, all autonomy ultimately engulfed by these expressions of oneness. And so a balance is struck.
So where do we truly find God? Alone or together? Isolated, in the stillness of a mountainside, or surrounded by friends at a crowded, feast-laden table?
For the rushed and toxic soul solitude in nature becomes God’s instrument of woo and a blessing. Created beauty and stillness can point to him, a general revelation of God is found in the world around us. For blind eyes to behold previously unseen or ignored shades of glory is a good thing. God uses creation to quiet us and bless us with perspective. Jesus’ teachings on anxiety demonstrate this. “Are you anxious? Look at the birds and flowers. See how God provides.” But creation is a path leading not simply to someplace, but to someone. Not just to a plateau, but a person. Thusly, reflective solitude in nature is good, but not good enough.
In the gospels we notice Jesus constantly pairing private retreat with communal engagement. John tells us – one who was thoroughly shaped by Jesus’ way of life – that to love others is to love God. That God cannot be loved without loving others. If love is central to God’s nature, then this nature (or image) we also hold demands that we love as well. We are created, or purposed, to love. One cannot love alone, a theology derived from our understanding of God’s Trinitarian make-up.
Only through this cycle of personal nourishment and predestined purpose are we satisfied, and is God satisfied with us. Jesus’ rhythm of retreat and engagement (of being filled and poured out) not only models for us a healthy dependence on God, rooted in a fundamental understanding of where Godly will and power springs from, but personally blesses and fulfills us. This allows us to enjoy a child-like dependence on our heavenly Father who generously bestows gift after gift on us, all the while transfiguring us into useful regents in his emerging Kingdom of selflessness and humility.
Solitude is sacred. Through it we can commune with God the person who subsequently fills us with love, but it is a love intended to spill over to others. When communing rightly, we love one another. And what is love if not putting the other before oneself as Jesus taught? Selflessness, it then follows, is also sacred.
What a lovely and hopeful thought – in Christ we are both loved and purposed to love. We were made to both receive from God and to give to one another. I gather this is why the monks and Muirs of the world can never fully vanquish an ache for both solitude and solidarity.