“Go to your room!” It is no wonder that solitude is a scary experience when, from one’s earliest years, time alone or “time out” was a common consequence of childhood shenanigans. Time out, however, was nothing compared with the dreaded “being grounded,” which not only required solitude but also limited one’s use of the Internet, telephone and television. In our modern prisons and schools, too, the final response to bad behavior often entails forced solitude and ostracism, in the form of solitary confinement or a trip to the principal’s office. It may not be surprising, then, that I had mixed feelings about the idea of spending 10 days in solitude secluded from the modern world in a hermitage.
I am a Franciscan novice. Both of those words are open to misinterpretation, so let me clarify. I am a Franciscan friar, a member of the religious order of men founded by St. Francis of Assisi. As such I live following the Rule of St. Francis, which outlines a way of life modeled after the Gospel. A friar is neither a monk nor a secular cleric, but a man who lives in a community of brothers who profess to live with nothing of their own (poverty), without marrying (chastity) and under the direction of their superiors (obedience). While this outline does little justice to the complexities of Franciscan life, it is at least a foundation.
Novices, quite literally, are beginners. In our way of life a novice is one in his second year of what totals five to seven years of formation, or training. I am not only a beginner in my second year, but at 23 I am young, which earns me the title “novice” twice over: I am also a novice at life. I mention my relative youth because it directly affects my hermitage experience and future experiences of solitude. Having entered the Order of Friars Minor immediately following my graduation from college, I am a child of the technological age, or, as we have been dubbed, a “millennial.”
Being a millennial is an important factor for a person in religious life. We millennials have grown up bombarded by stimuli too varied to count. With satellite television, satellite radio, MP3 players, the Internet and cellular phones, silence is a rarity; and with communication technology always a reach or click away, loneliness can easily be masked. None of these devices or activities is inherently bad; on the contrary, appropriately used, they are all good and useful. But because of them and our predisposition to fear solitude (like a time out), the embracing of solitude can be difficult for a millennial. So when my novice master informed me that I would spend 10 days in the woods of eastern Pennsylvania on a hermitage experience, apprehension and anxiety soon followed.
If you never spend time with another person, you can hardly describe yourself as being in a relationship with the other. To foster a healthy and meaningful relationship with someone, you must set aside time during which the other person is your focus and your presence to each other takes priority. Understandably, such effort can be a challenge. With all the distractions of life and the pressures of work and society, it seems sometimes nearly impossible and often improbable that time can be made just to be and to be with another.
The difficulty in finding time and space to be present to another seems to occur more frequently in a relationship that is taken for granted or in a complacent relationship that has been relegated to a lower status on one’s priority list. It is different from the time when one first began to know a person, what in romantic relationships we call dating. Dates are specific times reserved solely for experiencing the presence of another, to learn about him or her and to build a history of shared experiences.
Transcending the stereotype of the romantic encounter, an experience like dating can be found in all types of relationships. When we first get to know a new friend, we want to spend time exclusively with that person; we desire to be around him or her. We want to learn all we can about the other and to include this new and exciting person in all of our activities. Doesn’t this sound like dating minus the romantic nuances?
As time goes on and the friendship becomes more established, life more busy and work more burdensome, what once was natural and easy requires planning and intention. Maintaining a relationship, romantic or otherwise, requires effort.
The purpose of a hermitage experience is to set aside a time and create a space for solitude. Living alone in a small cabin means no television to entertain, Internet to distract or music to soothe. Following the instruction set down by St. Francis on how friars are to live while at a hermitage, my fellow novices and I set out for 10 days of solitude. Adapting the Gospel passage about Jesus’ encounter with Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) into a model for life in a hermitage, St. Francis designated that half the friars take the role of Martha and the other half that of Mary. The Marthas look after the needs of the Marys by preparing the meals, planning the prayer and protecting the solitude of the Marys. Halfway through the experience the friars switch roles. After serving my brothers in the role of Martha, my time came to go off to the hermitage, and I was left alone. Or so I thought.
Not long in the silence of solitude, I understood that I was not alone. With all the initial awkwardness of seeing a friend for the first time in a long time, I realized I was on a date with God. Soon I began to acknowledge that the awkwardness of this date was not mutual. God, like a patient and understanding friend, was simply present and comfortable with me. It was I who was uncomfortable. Burdened with self-consciousness and doubt, projecting my own insecurities and self-judgments on God, I found myself in a state of nervous confusion. It was not until I took a walk in the woods that I realized, as with a best friend or a wonderful date, my presence was all God desired. In turn, God’s presence was enough to calm my nerves and assure me of my value and my ability to be loved. I experienced a form of transcendence while walking among and as part of creation with my creator. It was a very good date.
The Importance of Solitude
The concept of dating God is not new. Throughout history believers have sought solitude to hear more clearly the quiet, gentle voice of God. While in a cave awaiting the Lord, Elijah did not find God in the heavy wind, earthquake or fire, but in a tiny whisper (1 Kgs 19:9-13). Today we do not find the Lord on the Internet, television or radio, but in the quiet of time set aside for God.
This is not to suggest that solitude is the only way to experience God. Similarly, time alone with another is not the only form of dating. We find God in community with our sisters and brothers, in the activities of work or leisure and in art—to name a few other ways. While it is joyful and enriching to go on a date with someone to a professional basketball game or to the movies, it is difficult to enter into intimate conversation at that time. Some dates with God will be experienced in liturgy, faith sharing, friendship, music and so on. However, there is a fundamental need to create a space and set aside a time that is just for God, where a deeper conversation can take root.
Jesus built close friendships with men and women. He often chose to spend time with his friends; at other times he joined the larger community to teach and share a meal; but frequently Jesus withdrew into solitude. After his baptism, “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for 40 days” (Matt 4:1, Mark 1:12, Luke 4:1). It was the custom of Jesus to pray on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39). When we answer his call to “Follow me” (Luke 5:27, John 1:43), we follow Jesus to the Father in solitude. Jesus shows us that in solitude we are never alone. We are with our creator, to whom we are the beloved children created in God’s image.
Dating God does not require a hermitage any more than taking a prospective spouse on a date requires a first class restaurant. Solitude comes when we create the space and set aside the time to enter more deeply into the mystery that is the love that gives us life and meaning. It can be found in the quiet of the morning before a busy day, a 10-minute walk at lunch or in restful moments before bed.
Solitude may appear scary at first. Yet by confronting that fear, one takes the first step toward deepening one’s relationship with God. The prospect of learning more about another person or oneself can be daunting, too, yet the reward comes in the connection formed when the two know each other in the openness of an intimate friendship.
Isn’t it time to go on a date with God?