This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on for March 31rd, 2017.
“Deep Lent” is upon us. We’ve not quite arrived at Holy Week, but those who have “given up” something for Lent are beginning to feel a bit strained by whatever discipline may have been assumed in preparation for Easter! To make the most of Lent, to make the most of any human life, one more thing is needed: a bit of intentional solitude.
Every culture evolves an idealized way of life, a “path of salvation” if you will. For all of our putative emphasis on individuality in American culture, we idealize to a very high degree material success and interpersonal relationships. This keeps us quite busy, and doesn’t allow for much time alone. Yet it is the nurture of an interior life that is the font of much creativity, individuation and mystical experience. “Conversation enriches understanding, but solitude is the school of genius,” wrote Edward Gibbon.
The traditions surrounding Jesus’ solitary prayer life and his regular practice of withdrawing to a lonely place strongly affected early Christianity. A strand of autonomous God-seekers withdrew to caves and deserts, evolving a monastic system to balance social needs in service to the solitary spiritual quest.
Monasticism doesn’t appeal to many of us these days. We find God more in the rough and tumble of daily life, punctuated perhaps, by a trip to the Anza-Borrego after a good spring dousing when blooms run high! Yet Christ’s practice of solitude is meant as much for us as for the cenobites of yore. In silence and in solitude the interior self is given space to weave warp to woof in an integrated tapestry. We muse, pray, sort ideas, make right judgments, and allow deep waters to well-up within; still, calm, and un-troubled.
“When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.”
-William Wordsworth; ‘The Prelude’
Having decided to lay siege to some time alone is only the first-half of the battle for hard-driving folks in metropolitan LA. We have to make time and take time with at least as much intention as Jesus, for whom, in more sparsely settled terrain, an empty grove of olive trees was likely only a determined sprint away. I strive to calendar hikes up into the San Gabriel mountains, grab twenty minutes alone in Church, forgo electronics for a morning. Seizing the grace of solitude doesn’t require that one be absolutely alone; the healthiest marriages often manifest a high degree of differentiation between spouses, in which individual pursuits play a great part.
Deep Lent is as good a time as any for an intentional withdrawal from the haste which occupies so many of our hearts. Surely we are meant for more than productive hustle, and the way to best come to know this is to learn to be alone, and quiet, where, as for Elijah (1 Kings 13 11: 1-13) the still, small voice of God speaks more loudly than in earthquake, wind or fire.