"Being alone is a difficult discipline: a beautiful and difficult sense of being solitary is always the ground from which we step into a contemplative intimacy with the unknown, but the first portal of aloneness is often experienced as a gateway to alienation, grief and abandonment. To find our selves alone or to be left alone is a deep, fearful and abiding human potentiality of which we are often unconsciously, deeply afraid." (David Whyte, "Alone" in Consolations)
Being alone is a requirement for becoming human. Whether we call it “solitude and silence” or “being alone,” we have a particularly desperate need to quiet ourselves and separate ourselves from other people, activities and all the noise that comes from both. This is especially true in our day when we live and move in a noisy carnival of masks where “we are what we do” and “we are what we have” and “we are what others think of us.”
“There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality, for life is maintained and nourished in us by our vital relation with realities outside and above us. When our life feeds on unreality, it must starve. It must therefore die. There is no greater misery than to mistake this fruitless death for the true, fruitful and sacrificial ‘death’ by which we enter into life.
The death by which we enter into life is not an escape from reality but a complete gift of ourselves which involves a total commitment to reality. It begins by renouncing the illusory reality which created things acquire when they are seen only in their relation to our own selfish interests.” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, 19, emphasis mine).
If we're never willing to be alone with ourselves, to quiet our hearts and minds for extended periods, we shall never learn that in our aloneness we are never alone, for God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Not even our aloneness can separate us from the love of Christ! Very few people are willing to discover this, convinced by fear that if we get alone and quiet we shall discover the worst thing of all – there is nothing to us but emptiness. We must persevere in pressing through our unrest, anxieties and fears; if we do, we will find that in silence we can be safe and solid as we are upheld by God alone.
This is one reason why the desert has held such a place in the history of spirituality. The desert epitomizes the emptiness of being alone and the great gift of what this brings us in our relationship to God.
“The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.
The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself - that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.” (Thoughts in Solitude, 21)
It is good to occasionally retreat from our familiar geography and re-locate ourselves in a quiet secluded spot for extended periods. We can also create little “mini-retreats” throughout our day as we break apart for 2-5 minutes and seek to be alone with God (e.g., The Daily Office). I tend to simply hijack what I’m already doing (like restroom breaks) and make them into “desert time” where I simply become aware of God with me and in me and seek to surrender afresh. Slowly, gradually, I am finding my life taken up into the life of God as I do so.