Published on April 6, 2020 by Stefana Dan Laing  
People on Rocky Desert Pass
Stefana Laing's photo

This post follows Dr. Laing's first post, Desertscapes.

Solitude: Retreating from the Crowd of our own Thoughts
“…the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places (Gk. erēmois) and pray.” (Lk 5:15-16) 

“After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone (Gk. monos)…” (Mt 14:23)

Involuntary Solitude in the Time of COVID-19
In an unexpected twist this year, solitude is being imposed upon us as a compulsory Lenten practice in the form of quarantine and social distancing. Some are finding it a relief with shifted deadlines and canceled obligations, while others struggle with isolation and loneliness, an expansive and unsought silence, breeding emptiness, depression and despair. 

As a spiritual discipline, solitude has established itself as one of the most vital. Being alone, apart from noise and others’ presence, yields the fruit of spiritual, emotional and mental recalibration and rejuvenation. Solitude alerts us to issues of dependency, pointing out our insecurities. Frequently, we depend on others’ voices because that is easier than doing the difficult, introspective work of self-examination, of soul searching and discerning God’s voice. As we allow others’ voices in our lives to be amplified, the voice of God gets crowded out and grows faint. The discipline of solitude provides a space for the hard work of interior listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to our own souls, as we connect with God personally in deep, contemplative prayer. 

Solitude in the life of Jesus
Jesus frequently practiced this discipline, seeking solitude even during the height of his ministry (Lk 6:12). Perhaps the temptation accounts are not the only times Jesus spent in the desert. Even before the intense period of ministry, as he was growing up (Lk 2:52), Jesus must have spent periods of time in solitude, communing with his father, seeking to understand his identity and mission. Perhaps he sought out wilderness spaces—“desolate places” (erēmois, from which our word “hermit” derives)—in the quiet hills, to pray and meditate, since we observe the regularity of this practice during his ministry. For Jesus, solitude was an intentional, regular retreat to pray, discern, and recharge spiritually and emotionally after literally being crowded and thronged in his teaching and healing ministry. 

Amma Syncletica: “The crowd of his own thoughts”
An ancient desert mother, Syncletica (ca. AD 380-460), offers an insight into true spiritual solitude. Syncletica lived in Alexandria, a bustling port city in Egypt. Wealthy and well-educated, she sold her possessions and distributed them to the poor after her parents’ death. She moved to the edge of the desert with her blind sister, practicing the ascetic life, living simply in some caves, as was common among eremitic monks. Her reputation as a wise spiritual director grew, and eventually a community of women gathered around her. Of her teachings, precious few sayings remain, but one gem in particular concerns a balanced Christian understanding of solitude. 

“Amma Syncletica said, ‘There are many who live in the mountains [of the desert] and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.’” 

Syncletica referred to men and women of her era who made a permanent commitment to desert solitude, because that outward show of strength—of drastic renunciation of community—commanded admiration. Yet Syncletica shrewdly observed that many were only fooling themselves because their mindset was still worldly, crowded by their own thoughts. Their location held so much potential for spiritual refining; yet their inner space was crowded so that they were essentially “wasting their time.” On the other hand, as she understood life in the city, she remarked that even while “living in a crowd,” a person whose mind was truly attuned to God and free of “the crowd of his own thoughts” could be considered a solitary. 

What Solitude is Not
Solitude is not loneliness, and for the Christian, solitude is never loneliness or abandonment, because God is always present—even when it may feel otherwise. In those times, we can rest in the knowledge of his omnipresence and his abiding, unchanging love mediated to us by his Spirit through the Scriptures. Desert solitude can point out loneliness, emptiness, or spiritual and emotional vulnerabilities (from Lat. vulnus, “wound”), and if solitude is practiced properly, our “wounds” can be truly transformed by God’s Spirit into fruitful growth, strengthening and preparing us to return to the work God has given us in our world, to face its realities. 

Solitude is not selfish, but rather a necessary discipline modeled by our Lord and taught to his disciples. We are social beings, created in the image of God who is a Trinitarian community of love; but at the core of evangelical Christianity is each individual’s accountability to, relationship with, and personal redemption by our Creator. Intentional and regular time alone with God demonstrates loving devotion, to both God and the church. Loving God with all we are is the greatest commandment, and only as an outflow of that personal relationship is neighborly love possible.

In this Lenten “desert” space—involuntary as it is—allow Amma Syncletica’s words to prompt and challenge you to discern the many thoughts crowding your mind and to engage in purposeful, voluntary solitude, even in small ways and for brief periods. Listen intently to those thoughts—confusing, chaotic, alarming, destructive, exhausting, sinful—and shed all voices that crowd out the clear and loving voice of God, like a spiritual spring cleaning. Let us center our thoughts on God, so we may act consistently out of that center rather than in accord with insistent, imposing voices that come to us from the world. Perhaps we can even embrace this moment of temporary social distancing to practice closer socializing with the divine, so that we may effectively engage the issues facing us with agency and clarity.

Dr. Stefana Dan Laing is assistant professor of divinity, teaching in the area of spiritual formation.

Syncletica. Sayings, in Ross Shepard Kramer (ed). Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 409-413.