“The Three Hermits,” a short story by Leo Tolstoy, tells of a priest who is traveling on the ocean. He sees a deserted island and wants to visit it. While there he meets three hermits who of their own will came to the island to pray and find God. The priest asks them if they pray the “Our Father.” Shocked at the fact they don’t know it, he teaches them. The priest leaves the island and is back on the boat when they commence to praying. They forget a part of the prayer, so they run across the ocean to ask the priest to help them remember the part they were forgetting. The priest suddenly realizes that they’re doing all right on their own.
It’s a classic tale. Tolstoy reminds us that there are many ways to pray and no way is right or wrong. When you open your heart to loving intention and gratitude, the free form flow of prayer tends to find its way to what you need. Solitude lends itself to educating the heart in extraordinary ways. Time away, time apart, time to contemplate a day penetrates the interior experience like a soft wind on a sunny day.
There is a difference between being alone and solitude. Some seek aloneness to escape the world. Many monks desire to be alone but are not engaging in the act of solitude. As the famous monk Thomas Merton once said in criticism of his fellow brothers. “You are not contemplatives, you’re introverts.” It didn’t sit well in the monastery.
Merton recognized that we all want to escape the world in our own way, but there is a difference between escaping and establishing solitude in order to face the day anew.
Far be it from me to judge anyone and his intentions on being alone with God. Suffice it to say, we arrive at our own conclusions for our needs as they arise in life, but a daily intention to refresh in a spiritual way by seeking shelter in quiet with thoughts and feelings can reinvigorate a fatigued being.
This pandemic has brought us closer together, but in other ways we’ve stepped on the toes of those we love. Finding a space to call your own can be difficult. One natural distraction leads to deceptive thinking. Losing ourselves in the vacuum of hustle can leave us spinning our wheels. Indecision, cluttered thoughts due to distractions, the imposition of noise all play with the senses in ways that take us out of ourselves.
In seeking solitude, we are seeking a way to commune with the depths of inner being. This intentionality can inspire a greater sense of awareness. Scripture refers to this in making our prayer lives richer. Regarding prayer, scripture says, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:6
Another great Russian writer, Fydor Dostoyevski experienced solitude in an extraordinary way. Jailed for “subversive activities,” he spent a full year in forced solitary confinement. His jailers rarely heard him behind those closed doors. One documented that he could barely here a peep out of the man and rarely even heard his feet shuffle to get his food. It begs the question, “What did this extreme form of isolation do for him?” For some it would have driven them mad, but for Dostoyevski his sense of clarity was heightened.
There is a clarity to his writing that is second to none. This clarity can only come from attuning to a place within and stirring the imagination to action. Closing the door primes the pump, the imagination is truly triggered into action when the sediment from the day settles in the slow murky waters of the mind and the feisty spirit of wonder comes to filter.
Solitude opens us up to rewards in ways we cannot fathom. Being alone inspires depths of exploration. When confronted with dealing with people all day, it takes time for me to unwind. I escape to my room and recharge by reading or listening to books on tape in solitude. It’s become quite a stimulating experience for me. I find myself digging in deeper and preparing more meaningfully for the next day.
There is wisdom in a day. You have to sift through the little things that get in the way to pick out the treasures you can keep. That’s why a short retreat makes a world look fresh. Look upon your day and look for the priceless nuggets of peace and goodness that inspired you. They are there. We just can’t always see them. We lose track of a day so quickly, time in solitude helps reclaim them.
A little solitude goes a long way in making a day rich, but carrying that solitude in your heart and being mindful that there is a place to go to reach in the reserves and empower you is an energy unmatched in managing a way through life.