Moving Today’s Church from Loneliness to Solitude
A paper written for worship schooling.
Born of an era in which godly reverence and reservation stifled Christian liberty and declaration, a trend of transparency has charmed the American church in escaping an age of opacity. As the patterns of a pendulum, the Bride reacts to her former movements by listing hard in the opposing direction. This is true of the Church because it is true of the individual hearts with which she is comprised. In recognizing “a just balance is of the Lord,” the course is corrected with sincere severity. The unfortunate consequence of momentum, though, is its independent nature. What begins as a leading of the Spirit garners velocity beyond its intended target, thus the oscillation. This trend of transparency, then, is sure to drift beyond its original call, to which Nouwen refers to as a “false form of honesty” in which “nothing should remain hidden […] everything should be said, expressed, and communicated.” This is a ring in the Church today in which loneliness is found in the blue corner and solitude in the red.
False forms of honesty promise grandeur of acceptance in illusions of value. Under masks of maturity and cloaks of confidence, souls are laid bare complete with compulsive confessions and daring depravity. Yet both transparency and opacity are often wrapped in the same insecurities — each a scheme for the affirmation of others. This is the lot of loneliness. It is both a dependency and expectancy of fulfillment from the relationships within grasp. Solitude, however, frees the heart and makes room for fellow beings. In its sufficiency, solitude expands its view of community from resources to be tapped toward reservoirs to be poured into. It is the deeper well within, quenching the parched need for satisfaction from others. For it is in solitude the heart can become “present to others by reaching out to them, not greedy for attention and affection, but offering our own selves”. Indeed, it is the only way the overflow of true fellowship is even made possible.
Solitude must not be misunderstood as a recluse personality or state of isolation, as that would render the pursuit incompatible with the mission of the Church, but rather an inner calm and collection that can be had and offered in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Solitude is celebrated free of external influence and therefore free of fear. There is nothing to guard against or watch for. When a satisfied soul engages opposition, it is neither throttled nor threatened, but instead able to love — sincerely and selflessly love. It is the reason Jesus was able to recline with rabble, sing with sinners, and dine with the debased. This movement from loneliness to solitude enables the Church to convert her “fearful reactions into a loving response.” While loneliness generates an anxiety and frustration toward a dissatisfying dialogue, solitude enables a careful contemplation and generosity toward a continued conversation.
All too soon, though, the pendulum patterns endanger the lessons learned. For by the impetus of inner solitude being both fearless and unthreatened, the Church will soon swing just beyond her aim, growing calloused, unresponsive, and often fatalistic. Wars, famines, and moral atrocities are not meant to roll down the raincoat of the redeemed, but rather summon the saints to unprecedented depths of compassion. And this compassion is born not of a religious obligation, but of an arresting realization that the human condition is one of loneliness longing for solitude. The Church will begin to grow into health and harmony as she begins to recognize and recover from her trends and tendencies.
Indeed, this movement from loneliness to solitude is pregnant with promise and eternal implications as it begins within, then reaches out, and finally reaches up. When the heart encounters the Spirit’s leading, it longs for explicit instruction in as much as it longs for independence. It also avoids muddled ideas in as much as it avoids dependency. For it is not the known, but the unknown that keeps the Bride on her knees. The restless heart of loneliness demands clarity of calling in exchange for continued trust while the restful heart of solitude is content to “cease striving and know that [He is] God.”