Solitude Among Saints and Artists

Benny Andrews, Portrait of the Black Madonna (1987)

By Elizabeth Orens

The experience of solitude can be an unexpected blessing as we enter the third year of the pandemic. As anxiety, sorrow, and grief have laid hold of us, we have come to know all too well the challenge of being alone, at home, in isolation. But embracing solitude during Lent, during a pandemic, can surprise us with solace, creativity, and a refreshment of the spirit.

Solitude is different from loneliness. Solitude is defined as “a state or quality of being alone,” whereas loneliness is experienced as “a painful feeling of bleakness, of desolation.” When we know loneliness, we feel cut off from family, from society. With solitude, we become more mindful of the quality of life, of who we are, and of what we are called to be.

Solitude encourages us to seek inner serenity, to affirm the spirit, to recognize creative possibilities. Solitude is chosen, purposeful. Even amid the round of endless daily responsibilities, solitude can bring moments of meditation, self-revelation, and attentiveness to what God is calling us to do. Thomas Merton celebrates these moments as “life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life.”

The desert mothers and fathers of the third and fourth centuries understood solitude and the sacredness of life. These Christian monks fled from the noise and busyness of the Nile Delta and moved to the desert in order to experience a more authentic faith. From his desert cell, the solitary Poeman remarked: “Whatever hardship comes upon you, it can be overcome by silence.” An elder solitary advised: “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

From these quiet habitations, the desert monks examined the self, confronted their weakness and sinful pride, and experienced the riches of humility, repentance, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and God’s love through prayer and practice. Surprisingly, such self-examination led them closer to their neighbors. For them, silence brought a renewed sensitivity, a newfound compassion for those in need.

Jennifer Duncan, Walking in the Woods (2021)

“You ‘flee’ to the desert not to escape neighbors,” writes Rowan Williams, “but to grasp more fully what the neighbor is — the way to life for you, to the degree that you put yourself at their disposal in connecting them with God.” As Christians, locked down during the pandemic, we can experience this paradox: the solitude that deepens our faith (through prayer, Scripture, long walks, reading, gardening, art, music) and the solitude that brings us closer to our neighbors (through a deeper awareness and sensitivity to their needs). It’s a paradox worth embracing.

After his baptism, led by the Holy Spirit, Jesus retreated into the wilderness seeking to more fully discern his identity, his calling. And it was there, in his solitude, that Jesus wrestled with temptation, resisted Satan, and claimed his authority, affirmed his identity as God’s chosen Son, and dedicated his life to his compassionate and salvific mission to the world.

When he preached his first sermon, Jesus urged the Nazareth congregation to tend to the blind, the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed. Unlike the desert fathers, Jesus did not remain in the wilderness. Instead, he offered a public ministry of proclamation, healing, and forgiveness. But the themes of solitude, wilderness, prayer, self-examination, faith, and love so dear to the desert fathers lay at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and his vision of the kingdom of God.

Many saints, bishops, writers, and artists have borne witness to this bond between solitude, prayer, and love of neighbor. Antony of Egypt (251-356), for instance, dwelt alone for 20 years praying, reading, doing manual labor. He faced formidable temptations, but in his solitude he overcame them. Eventually he founded a monastery, preached in the public arena, and converted many to Christianity. He advised his followers: “[L]et us not lose heart. Let us not think that the time is too long or what we do is great, for the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Not losing heart is one of the fruits of solitude.

Catherine of Siena is another saint who experienced the blessing of solitude through prayer and love of neighbor. At an early age, she retreated, as a solitary, to her room at home. Years later, as a member of the Dominican Sisters of Penitence in Siena, she served as a nurse to care for those suffering from leprosy, cancer, and the plague.

In her Dialogue, she describes the bond between solitude and love: “A soul rises up,” she writes, “restless with tremendous desire for God’s honor. … She has for some time exercised self-knowledge in order to know better God’s goodness toward her, since upon knowledge follows love. And loving, she seeks to pursue truth and clothe herself in it.” Solitude, self-knowledge, love, truth: the beauty of contemplation, of revelation, of seeking God’s goodness.

Antony and Catherine are only two of the many saints who revealed the fruits of solitude. Their calling and witness can deepen our desire for a more capacious understanding of God’s love during this trying time. From the riches of his own contemplative life, St. John of the Cross offers exquisite metaphors to describe the way God will disclose himself to us. In his Spiritual Canticle, he writes: “My Beloved / the tranquil night / at the time of the rising dawn, / silent music, / sounding solitude, the supper that refreshes, and deepens love.”

For those seeking a more contemporary guide to the riches of solitude, Sara Maitland and Merton offer a depth of wisdom. In A Book of Silence, Maitland describes how silence nurtured her life during a 40-day solitary retreat on the Isle of Skye. She meditated several hours each day, took long walks, listened to the sounds of nature, sewed, wrote in her journal, listened to music. She hoped that her prayers could “be useful somehow in the noisy world.” She described her walks as a sacred time for “emptying the mind and the body of desires … a kind of blank, a tabula rasa, on which the divine can inscribe itself. It is a discipline of self-emptying, or, to use a theological term, of kenosis, self-outpouring.” Here is a map for our search for stillness, meditation, and creativity.

Merton lived most of his life in silence and wrote extensively about solitude. In keeping with the vision of the desert fathers and the teachings of Jesus, Merton described the true purpose of Christian solitude as bringing love to a world in need. He wrote: “We can go out to [others] without vanity and without complacency, loving them with something of the purity and gentleness and hiddenness of God’s love for us.”

Merton also connected solitude with his experience of nature: “Let me seek … the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.” In more solemn moments, he spoke about the way God offers grace to those experiencing the dark night of the soul. In one of his letters, he wrote: “It is in the darkness of faith that the soul is united to Christ, and in this darkness the Holy Spirit, like an inexhaustible spring of living water, irrigates the dry wastes of the soul.”

In solitude — the quiet cell of the studio — visual artists are, at times, similarly inspired and share the fruits of their solitude in their creative work. By means of composition, color, shading, and light, they disclose moments of meditation and the complexities of the interior life. Johannes Vermeer’s painting Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1662) shows a woman alone, fully attentive to her morning chores. The painting conveys a specific moment in time when this young woman is about to water plants outside her window. Through the painting’s light, its illumination of the interior, its focus on a woman in the midst of a domestic act, Vermeer reveals the presence of the divine in everyday life.

Benny Andrews’s Portrait of the Black Madonna (1987) depicts a woman, in solitude, most likely contemplating the meaning of her pregnancy. Like Mary, she is a woman of strength, purpose, and determination, pondering God’s favor toward her. The bright flowers on the table nearby are a reminder of the angel’s annunciation, of hope itself, of God’s promises.

Jennifer Duncan’s painting Walking in the Woods (2021) is a colorful depiction of a path that welcomes all who seek the beauty of nature through a solitary walk in the woods. The bright light shining on the painting’s magenta path suggests how walking can be a meditative experience for those who delight in God’s creation. Duncan captures a moment of illumination that awaits the walker who is willing to take this welcoming path in solitude.

Solitude holds so many possibilities. It has the power to heal broken spirits, to provide a deeper understanding of the self, to bring solitaries into God’s presence, to give birth to creative adventures, to awaken the soul to the needs of the poor. “It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life.”

The Rev. Elizabeth Orens is an honorary assistant at St. Paul’s, K Street, in Washington, D.C., and rector emeritus of St. James, Parkton, Maryland.

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