I want to be honest with you: solitude can be rough. I’ve spent a lot of time by myself; it’s life-giving for me, most of the time. But it’s normal for it to also be very very hard, even for a solitude-loving, part-time hermit like me.
I got an email a week or two ago from an old friend who is reading my book, Holy Solitude for Lent. She was attempting solitude and getting worried:
What if I spend some time in Lenten solitude trying to feel the love of God and end up wondering if it's there and having a little crisis? Is that part of the Lenten journey in the desert? Do you just wait for that to go away??
The thing about solitude and the desert is that crises tend to happen. Also, you’re stuck with yourself. The second full week of my book is called “Solitude and Struggle”, or as I like to think of it: “learning to endure yourself.” We have to face the good and the bad in us, without distractions. This can get complicated. Also, crazy-making. This painful, inner struggle happened even to the desert mothers and fathers, the consummate professionals when it came to solitude and hermit life, back around 300 AD, in the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa. They called the bad stuff that bubbles up inside of us: “demons.”
You may or may not be comfortable with that term. I also think of demons as “bad thoughts,” if that helps. Or the inner critics, the inner distractors – the voices or feelings that pick at or get to you, keeping you from living the life you want, keeping you from feeling the love of God.
C.S. Lewis wrote some things about demons / the devil that I find helpful. Take what works:
From The Grand Miracle: (underlining mine): “No reference to the Devil or devils is included in any Christian Creeds, and it is quite possible to be a Christian without believing in them. I do believe such things exist, but that is my own affair.” -p. 31
From the short preface to his famous novel, The Screwtape Letters:
"The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." (Martin Luther)
"The devill . . the prowde spirite . . cannot endure to be mocked." (Thomas More)
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which [we] can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”
“Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar.”
Lewis, Martin Luther, Thomas More, and the desert mothers and fathers give us some advice for dealing with the demons, bad thoughts, hard knocks, and crises that can come with solitude. Here are my own, modern interpretations of their traditional remedies: (I regret that I didn’t put this in the appendix of the book.)
1. Talk back to your "demons" (or bad thoughts) and tell them they're wrong or to leave you alone. Make fun of them - “mock” them! (This truly works, although sometimes you have to do it over and over).
2. Use your favorite lines of scripture as retorts. (This was Jesus’ preferred method.)
3. Do something with your body: do some manual labor, take a walk, fold laundry, etc.
4. Reconnect with your people, with nature, or your community in some way; remember you're never alone or abandoned, even if you're in solitude.
5. Reconnect in your heart and mind with the communion of saints: the holy people who've gone before. This is also why I wrote Holy Solitude – as a kind of scrapbook of people who dealt with the ups of downs of their solitude and emerged stronger for it.
6. Sing hymns or other songs, or otherwise make music or some noise.
7. Speak aloud the name of Jesus or words that are meaningful to you. (God is love. I am enough. Jesus loves me. Come Holy Spirit.). (Hopefully that's not too corny, because it works.)
8. Remember: The devil is a liar.
Or maybe you have other ideas or variations of these things that will work better for you?
As we mark a full year of the pandemic, solitude may seem like something most people never want to try again. The thing is, forced or unwanted solitude is not an anomaly on this side of the kingdom. Yes, it’s unusual to face a global pandemic, but there are many ways we can end up alone in this life: illness, chronic pain, undesired singleness, divorce, the death of a loved one – even just being stuck in a line, on a long trip, or facing a task on our own. Solitude can be hard. That’s normal. And the desert and the wilderness are places where crises tend to happen. But they are also where transformation can happen – or that’s what I tell myself since that seems to be where God is always leading people, before God calls them to deeper, greater acts of calling, love, and service, anyway.
Interesting to notice, huh? Is this time of pandemic preparing you for some greater act of love or leading other people?
We can’t choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond. (Durn it all!) Being alone with ourselves and with God can be a practice that teaches us peace, healing, and a deeper understanding of our identity, even when we’re sick of it.
Blessed middle of Lent to you - this frustrating time of waiting for spring and Jesus to overthrow all that dead stuff.
Things I’m reading and watching:
Nomadland – (see photo above) starring Frances McDormand, directed by Chloé Zhao. A movie about solitude and community. A culture of (mostly white) people living out of vans, most cut off from the lives they left behind, who find ways to be networked and support one another, all the same, as they migrate and work tough jobs (some are just enjoying retirement). In the story, the main character, Fern, chooses this independent life – and yet, her hand is forced. There are veins of grief and anger in her solitude. At the end of the movie, the splashing of great ocean waves on rock seems to celebrate the freedom of her solitude, but I don’t know. It seemed to me she was choosing separateness rather than solitude, rejecting the chance she could become dependent on the people who love her. What does self-sufficiency in America demand of us? Is there a tension between love and freedom in solitude? Things I am thinking about.
The Cloud of Unknowing — C’mon, Heidi - isn’t this a bit stereotypical? A hermit / whatever / contemplative reading one of ye olde mystic classics? Well, to be honest, I’ve tried several times and was never able to get through the darn thing before, but a new translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher is making more sense. Also, reading some Buddhist teachings (mostly Thich Nhat Hanh and Jack Kornfield) this past year has made the language about unknowing and spiritual battle more accessible to me. I’m reading it very slowly, all the same.