Friday, June 12, 2009

Seasons of Solitude

Superman had his Fortress of Solitude; Henry David Thoreau had his Walden Pond; Alexander Selkirk had his solitary island for a kingdom (cf., William Cowper, The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk). Sometimes solitude is to be sought after, sometimes it is thrust upon us. To every thing there is a season. And while man is a social creature, and is not meant to be alone always, and there are times when company is needful, seasons of solitude, rightly employed, are desirable, and may be improved upon. Solitude is scary to some who are never alone -- we get antsy when there is silence, when all background noises have ceased -- yet we ought not to fear it, but embrace it, seasonably.

Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections in Works, Vol. 1, 311-312:

Some are greatly affected when in company; but have nothing that bears any manner of proportion to it in secret, in close meditation, prayer and conversing with God when alone, and separated from the world. A true Christian doubtless delights in religious fellowship and Christian conversation, and finds much to affect his heart in it; but he also delights at times to retire from all mankind, to converse with God in solitude. And this also has peculiar advantages for fixing his heart, and engaging his affections. True religion disposes persons to be much alone in solitary places for holy meditation and prayer...It is the nature of true grace, however it loves Christian society in its place, in a peculiar manner to delight in retirement, and secret converse with God.

Solitude helps us to discover our weakness, our need. Our human heart is most open and vulnerable, in all its darkness and desire, when we are alone. Blaise Pascal said, "J’ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre." ("I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber") (Pensées, 139) And this is why Charles Spurgeon commends occasional solitude (Solitude, Silence, Submission, preached June 13, 1886):

I commend solitude to any of you who are seeking salvation, first, that you may study well your case as in the sight of God. Few men truly know themselves as they really are. Most people have seen themselves in a looking-glass, but there is another looking-glass, which gives true reflections, into which few men look. To study one's own self in the light of God's Word, and carefully to go over one's condition, examining both the inward and the outward sins, and using all the tests which are given us in the Scriptures, would be a very healthy exercise; but how very few care to go through it! Yet, beloved friends, if it be a wise thing to look well to your business, how much more ought you to look to the business which concerns your immortal souls! If a true shepherd will not neglect his flocks and his herds, should not a wise man care about his thoughts, his feelings, and his actions? Must it not be a wretched condition not to know whether one is saved or not? I sometimes hear people express surprise if they are asked whether they are saved; yet in what ignorance of your own soul's state must you be if you have never put that question to yourself, or if, when it is put, you feel inclined to give no answer to it! I press this matter home upon you, and if you would be saved, you must know first that you are lost. If you would seek to be healed, you must first learn that you are sick. It is not possible that you will repent unless you are aware of your sin; it is not likely that you will look to Christ unless you first know what it is for which you are to look to him. Therefore, I pray you, set apart some season every day, or at least some season as often as you can get it, in which the business of your mind shall be to take your longitude and latitude, that you may know exactly where you are. You may be drifting towards the rocks, and you may be wrecked before you know your danger. I implore you, do not let your ship go at full steam through a fog; but slacken speed a bit, and heave the lead, to see whether you are in deep waters or shallow. I am not asking you to do more than any kind and wise man would advise you to do; do I even ask you more than your own conscience tells you is right? Sit alone a while, that you may carefully consider your case.

The fruits and benefits of time alone with God can be tremendous. To better know yourself, your condition, the state of your soul, to commune with God without distraction, to lift your affections and find that, as you empty your soul to him, laying all before him with whom we have to do, the Spirit fills your broken and contrite heart.

The heart knoweth his own bitterness; and a stranger doth not intermeddle with his joy. (Proverbs 14.10)

James Morgan wrote a beautiful meditation on Psalm 51 called The Penitent. In the preface (pp. 8-9) he states:

I felt altogether unworthy of the goodness which the Lord had made to pass before me. I could only abase myself before Him. My heart reproached me with many, many shortcomings, which caused it to know its own bitterness. I turned to the 51st Psalm, and felt as if it were written for me. The more I read it the more I enjoyed it. I began to write upon it, and this deepened its impression on my soul. Its confessions, and supplications, and hopes, and joys, were sweeter to me than my necessary food. By the kindness of my congregation, I was at that time removed from them for the space of a month, that I might relax from my accustomed labors. I spent it in entire solitude, apart from my family and friends. I occupied myself exclusively in committing my meditations on this portion of the Divine Word to paper. I returned with these carefully written out....While memory endures, I will remember with thankfulness the solitary hours spent in their composition....In this, as in all things, Jesus Christ is the perfect pattern of His servants. His public labours were excessive, and were equalled only by His secret devotions. Daily he toiled, and taught, and healed, and fed the people; yet it is told of Him, "Early in the morning, He rose up a great while before day, and went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed." He who was clothed in a perfect humanity found it necessary to do so. How much more, then, must it be so to the poor earthern vessels into which He has put the treasure of the Word?

Those who have experienced the fruits of solitude, who have climbed to the mountaintop, can relate to the young lawyer in Anton Chekhov's The Bet, who, having agreed in a wager to spend 15 years in solitary confinement to prove a point, at the end of his tenure, wrote:

For fifteen years I have been intently studying earthly life. It is true I have not seen the earth nor men, but in your books I have drunk fragrant wine, I have sung songs, I have hunted stags and wild boars in the forests, have loved women.... Beauties as ethereal as clouds, created by the magic of your poets and geniuses, have visited me at night, and have whispered in my ears wonderful tales that have set my brain in a whirl. In your books I have climbed to the peaks of Elburz and Mont Blanc, and from there I have seen the sun rise and have watched it at evening flood the sky, the ocean, and the mountain-tops with gold and crimson. I have watched from there the lightning flashing over my head and cleaving the storm-clouds. I have seen green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, towns. I have heard the singing of the sirens, and the strains of the shepherds' pipes; .... In your books I have flung myself into the bottomless pit, performed miracles, slain, burned towns, ... conquered whole kingdoms....

It is good to be alone and then to return to society, as Moses did, his face aglow from communion with his God.

William Cowper, Retirement:

I praise the Frenchman [Bruyère], his remark was shrewd,
How sweet, how passing sweet is solitude!
But grant me still a friend in my retreat,
Whom I may whisper—Solitude is sweet.

But it is wise to remember what Matthew Henry said on John 16.32: "Those that converse with God in solitude are never less alone than when alone."

For seasons of solitude which are desired or imposed, are to be improved, and that by seeking communion with God. For some, solitary confinement is a prison, a cage, where the worst of man's heart overwhelms the soul and drives to despair; for others, it is a privilege, a passport, a journey which leads to a mountaintop and back again. For further reading on the benefits of secret communion with God in solitude, see Richard Baxter, Converse With God in Solitude; Nathanael Ranew, Solitude Improved by Divine Meditation; and Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service, Vol. 4, Chap. 77, pp. 19-24, who includes a poetic meditation on p. 24:

Take heed that you keep your secret place holy,
Or else it will not be safe there.
When do you keep your secret place holy?
When you have intimate fellowship with God.

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