A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Pain of Loneliness and the Glory of Solitude

Twice a year I take a week's study leave at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. There I do sermon planning and work on my latest writing projects. I enjoy the time alone studying, but, of course, I miss my family and I am always glad to return home.

The theologian Paul Tillich wrote many years ago, "Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone."

When I spend the week alone in study, I have experienced both the glory of being alone with my thoughts and my books, and I have experienced the pain of being alone away from my wife and children.

Both the pain of loneliness and the glory of solitude are fleeting for me. I am no longer lonely when I return home to be with my family and with others who make my life such a joy. Of course, I no longer have the glory of solitude as I did for most of the week when I am back at it again attempting to fulfill the demands of pastoral ministry and teaching at the seminary. The pain of loneliness and the glory of solitude will, once again, be scarce in my life.

There is too much loneliness in our world. My loneliness will pass, but there are those who are lonely day after day, experiencing desolate pain, some in their old age, others in mourning, and still others in places far away. The pain found in silence is the most severe. We spend much time emphasizing our physical pain while failing to address the kind of emotional and psychological pain brought on by the silence of our lonely moments.

At the same time, there is not enough solitude in our world. Our society is too noisy, and I suspect the reason is that too many people fear solitude; we fear being alone with our thoughts, reflecting on the meaning of our lives, and thinking about the future. We are afraid of the silence of solitude, for in that context the profound moments of reflection may reveal things about ourselves we prefer to bury under the clamoring hustle and bustle of our lives. So we keep busy and we make sure there is plenty of noise, which we cannot even get away from in the bars and restaurants, offices and factories. If our world is so loud that we cannot hear ourselves think, then maybe we can avoid asking the all important question of our God-given purpose in this life, and perhaps we do not have to confront the possibility that we are squandering that purpose in our noisy living.

There is too much loneliness and not enough solitude. Perhaps if we placed more emphasis on the importance of individual solitude, then, in discovering who we are in the silence, we might be willing and able to do our share in diminishing the loneliness of ourselves and so many others in this world.


John B said...

I admire you Allen. Two weeks a year for quiet and solitude is incredible. I haven't taken a total of two weeks of renewal time in my 25 years of ministry. I don't know how you do it. I've never been able to justify getting paid to simply be by myself. Part of me knows it's important, that's why I admire you, but a bigger part me just can't bring myself to going to the SPRC and saying, "I'm leaving for a week to spend some time alone."

Allan R. Bevere said...


Your conference may have a study leave policy. East Ohio allows ordained elders to take two weeks a year. Plus the Book of Discipline provides for four weeks every Quadrennium.

John B said...

Yes it does, though I think it's one week a year. But that's not the issue for me. I feel like I'd be cheating the church if I took the time.

Allan R. Bevere said...

John, then you need to get over that feeling. Renewing yourself and spending time in study and spiritual formation benefits your church.