There is privacy and there is solitude. We seek each of them for very different purposes.
Privacy is frequently sought as an end in itself, an escape from people, situations, anything that impinges on our self-controlled choices. Privacy was not something expected of life in earlier centuries. People lived together for survival, slept together for warmth, turned work together into community affairs and even play at times. People traveled together for security, listened to one another for news and knowledge. But progress and technology have made these ends achievable without others. Privacy is highly sought after and valued in our country, but is not a friendly word. Most frequently, privacy means ”Keep Out!” Even the fact that most houses built within the last 30 years have back patios and porches but no front porches suggests a great preoccupation with privacy.
Solitude, on the other hand, is time away from people to gather oneself together, to think and pray. Solitude is for the sake of renewal, for the sake of the future. Solitude sees oneself as related to society. The purpose of solitude is rest, reflection, perspective, a chance to listen to God in the stillness. People tell of healing or wisdom achieved when silence and solitude are embraced.
I think of Jesus in this context. He was a public figure who sought solitude to be with His God in prayer.
But Jesus always came back. He did not retreat from people, but accepted them, encouraged, healed, taught and questioned them. People were most often better because they had experienced Jesus.
People enlarged Jesus, too. The woman with the hemorrhage who touched Jesus enlarged Him (Luke 8. 40-48). Because of His interaction with her, He had to comprehend what it meant that the power went out from Him to strangers who were not His own fellow Jews.
Like Jesus, you and I are called to be public people – giving and receiving life in mutuality. The temptation is to dismiss this person, this group as having nothing to do with me. It’s much more human to say that this person, this group and I have a chance to create a better, loving world, because we are doing at it together, sometimes without knowing it. We need solitude to stoke our fires for the work of building society and life. “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers and sisters.” (Thomas Merton)
I can’t help thinking of those of you in our world who are homebound or who have limited energy to be out in public. You, too, like the rest of us, have to struggle against being totally private people. That means welcoming and calling the neighbor, sharing stories of the day. It means phone calls, letters, electronic reachout. To borrow from Henry David Thoreau, in each of our houses we need three chairs: one for solitude, two for friendship and three for society.
~ Sister Joan Sobala