solitude in high places

Solitude scares me. Silence, too.

Many people think monks are experts on prayer, silence, and solitude. We aren’t. I’ve heard it said that if the Church is a hospital for sinners, monasteries are the ICU. A friend of mine says she’s a priest because she needs more supervision than the laity. I can relate. Without the structures and strictures of the monastic life, I don’t think I could be a Christian. I don’t have the discipline or the attention necessary to live a Christian life without the support of my brothers, the Office, and the rhythms of the liturgical year celebrated daily.

I remember the first retreat I ever took, which was also my first experience of monastic life. I was a junior in college and went to see the rector of my church to talk about ordination. The first question he asked me after I told him I felt called to the priesthood was “tell me about your prayer life.” I sort of shrugged and asked, “what’s that?” To that point my understanding of prayer was of the vending machine variety. You put in your quarter, ask God for a candy bar, and…nothing happens. I didn’t find that sort of prayer meaningful, so I didn’t pray.

My priest told me that he couldn’t teach me much about prayer, but he knew some folks who could. So, he sent me to SSJE for a weekend retreat. What I remember most vividly from those two and a half short days is the silence. It wasn’t just that folks didn’t talk to one another. The whole guesthouse, refectory, and chapel had a deep quiet from years and years of intentional silence. It was like a heartbeat that ran through the place.

The first afternoon and evening were marvelous. I’d come from a busy college life, surrounded at all times by rowdy college kids. I could actually hear myself breathe and think and be. The second day, I felt as anxious as I can remember. All day long the anxiety plagued me. The only two respites I had were the time I met with one of the brothers to learn about prayer and the time I spent practicing the prayer he taught me. I went to sleep in anxiety, but I woke the next morning in peace. The last day of my retreat, which was really a half-day, was profoundly still and quiet and effortless. Then it was time to return home.

Every single time I go on retreat, I have a similar experience. The first day is restful, an exhale from the busyness of the day-to-day. Then the anxiety hits. I fidget. I pace. I go for a long walk. Sometimes the anxiety abates after a few hours or a day. Sometimes it’s a recurring theme throughout the retreat. There is a very real part of me that does not want to be available to God.

I’ve been on enough retreats and had enough time with God to know by now that that’s my pattern, that it’s okay, and that God is infinitely patient with me. Whenever I can settle down, stop, and be quiet, God is waiting.

I used to only see this pattern in my retreat time, but I’ve become more and more aware of it running through my daily life. There are so many opportunities for solitude and silence that I turn away from. When I’m driving I listen to an audiobook. When I have a few minutes in my room, I check YouTube or my e-mail. I still compartmentalize my life, still feel I deserve to have times and places that are only mine, where not even God is welcome. But that isn’t real solitude. That’s isolation.

Often on Mondays, when we have our sabbath day, I get in the car about 5am and drive to the mountains for a long and strenuous hike. I love being out as the sun is rising and the world is still asleep. Usually, I’m on the trail by 6, totally alone. I pick the hikes first by difficulty rating (the higher the better) and then by scenery rating (again, the higher the better). Part of the joy of these hikes is their difficulty. I enjoy pushing my limits, feeling the heartbeat strong in my chest, giving thanks for the working of my lungs and my legs.

These hikes are some of the few times that I don’t find solitude or silence difficult. The forest welcomes me into its shady quiet, and I feel totally at home. It’s a solitude that arises not from exclusion but from welcome. There is no expectation, either from the mountain or from me. We’re all just existing in those few hours together. It’s a solitude, paradoxically, of communion. For all the physical exertion, it’s probably the gentlest time of my week.

In fact, the physical exertion is partly what makes the ease of these moments of solitude and silence possible. My body, mind, and spirit are in sync. Particularly when I’m clambering over rocky ledges in a steep ascent up the mountain, I have no spare attention to give to anxiety. I’m totally absorbed in the rush of my blood and the placement of my feet. When I finally get to the top and step out to a sweeping view of the valleys and the river beyond, I’m breathless with the joy of the view and the climb. Then, sweaty and tired out, I can actually sit still and quiet in the mountain air, God’s incredible creation spread out before me.

I can’t live on the mountain top, nor would I want to. But these moments of solitude and silence remind me that God’s quiet runs through every moment of the day. Even though I don’t often stop to recognize it, I’m always walking through some sort of woods, alone and together at the same time. Life doesn’t exist in separate compartments. It’s all one whole.

I am one whole, too. And every part of me belongs. That’s the fear, I guess, in stopping, breathing, listening. Will I find out that really there isn’t room for all of me in this world? Never yet has that been my experience. In God I have always found more space than I could have imagined existed, and every part of me welcome and loved. I’m a slow learner, though, and stubborn, to boot. So, I keep practicing, keep hiking, keep tiring myself out, and keep returning, however reluctantly, to the quiet solitude I so long for. Each time, God is already there waiting.

20 Replies to “solitude in high places”

  1. Lovely reflection. I remember one of the brothers telling me that Christianity was not so much a hospital for sick souls but a training ground for champions.

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  2. Thank you, Aidan. I’ve found that a walk in the forest keeps one sane. Not perfect silence, though. The company of wind in the trees and forest creatures (though not bears) are a constant reminder of God’s presence in all of life).

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    1. You’re totally right, Chris. Silence doesn’t mean absolutely no noise, but to be connected to the sounds around you but not overcome by them. Even the bears…though I prefer they keep their distance. 🙂

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  3. Br. Aidan,

    This was a very good post. Thank you for sharing it!
    Your comment about liking being on the mountain top reminded me of the chief lesson from the Transfiguration; which we will commemorate in a few short days.

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  4. I have spent so much time hiking and backpacking in the Catskills that when you mention, generically, entering the woods, I can smell them, hear them, sense them, feel the pain in lungs and legs at times from steep climbs (love the Blackheads, especially, but there are some tough uphill trails!), and then bursting into the scent of balsam fir as you get above the 3500′ level. So lovely for this reminder. Even on holiday weekends, there would be so few encounters with other people, though that’s 30 years ago.
    I am pondering the difference between isolation and solitude, how that feels; good distinction.
    Blessings, Aidan

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  5. Thank you, Br Aidan. Your reflections have a raw and honest quality that invites me (and others) in to join the musings. And in the joining I often find gifts that stir my heart and open my mind. I am grateful that you continue to share them in this way. Hoping you have lots of good hikes in the weeks ahead!

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  6. One of the most important points you make is that solitude is different from isolation. When I seek solitude, I am merely trying to be by myself, whereas being in solitude is still being along with God. Thank you for making that distinction clear.

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