How do you experience aloneness? How we answer this question, according to the philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, is of paramount importance. "Religion," wrote Whitehead, "is what the individual does with his own solitariness." That's worth pondering sometime when we're alone.
As important as it is to face others, to be in the company of others, there is something no less important than facing ourselves, being alone. Without friends, aloneness devolves into isolation--aloneness does not create isolation, it simply exposes it as a chronic condition. Solitude names the experience of aloneness that is centering and live-giving. It is, in my view, the best way to name the experience of aloneness that is renewing, rejuvenating, and restorative.
Recently, I came across the term, "hikikomori." It is the term used by the Japanese Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry to define those who have not left their homes (often their bedrooms) or interacted with others for at least 6 months. Often this condition persists for years. In a recent study (Sept. 2016), it was reported that, in Japan, there are 541,000 people between the ages of 15 & 39 who suffer from this condition. That's isolation on steroids.
"Isolation," Sister Joan writes, "is either separation or alienation form the world around us. Solitude is something quite different. Solitude is chosen. It is the act of being alone in order to be with ourselves. We seek solitude for the sake of the soul. Even with easy access to other people, we take time to be by ourselves, to close out the rest of the world, to concentrate on the inside of us rather than wrestle with everything going on around us." She says further on, "In solitude we wait for all the noise to quiet in order to find out what we are really thinking about, what we are really saying to ourselves underneath all the layers of other people's messages that threaten to smother the words of our own heart."
Among those reading this post, there are some who, at about this point, are thinking, "I need to make more space in my life for aloneness, for the experience of solitude." Among you who are thinking that way, it probably means creating zones of silence--unplugging from technology, as well as intentionally withdrawing from the ever-present company of others. For others reading this post, your experience of aloneness is more the norm than the exception. You go to bed alone, you wake up alone, you eat breakfast alone...etc..etc. Solitude, in the way I am naming it here is hard to come by--not because of too much company, but of too little.
For ALL of us reading this post, solitude is a challenge worthy of our best efforts--whether that means intentionally unplugging and withdrawing...or whether it means becoming more intentional about being in the company of others to counter the conditions that generate isolation.
In terms of our knowledge of God, there is a Presence that comes to the foreground in the absence of others which is no less important than the knowledge of God we learn through the presence of others. Prayer is the practice of the Presence of God. For all the time Jesus spent with others, there are several occasions where we read of him withdrawing in order to pray: "Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God." (Luke 6:12)
Praying with others as we do each Sunday is preparation for us to pray when we are alone...in our solitariness.