Solitude, Self-Presence, And True Participation

Photo: Tinnakorn Jorruang/ Shutterstock

by Susan Muto

On one of her trips to the United States, St. Teresa of Kolkata lamented that the disease facing the West is loneliness. Research regarding the effects of social media verify her observation. Connections in cyberspace, voluminous though they may be, do not foster the closeness of face-to-face conversation and the warmth of a loving community. Those who claim to have a “thousand friends” often admit to feeling lonelier than

All of us can recall times when we have felt terribly alone, even in a crowd or sadly when we were forsaken by someone we thought we could trust. A first response to the pain of loneliness is to recognize that it is part of the human condition.

The solution to this pain is not to deny it or escape from it by losing oneself in the media world or by engaging in unsatisfying work just to kill time. We need to face the reality of aloneness while seek-ing its deeper meaning in solitude.

The irony is that solitude is the other side of the coin of togetherness. The more we experience that God is present, even in God’s felt absence, the more our solitude becomes the bridge to our solidarity.


Solitude is a with, not a without experience. It invites us to be in communion with all those we love and with God who loves us. Only when we sit in solitary ad-oration of God can we ascertain the best way to be in solidarity with others.

Rather than brooding over our loneliness, it is best to focus on our oneness with God and on the awesome truth of our togetherness in the human family. No matter where we happen to be — on a crowded street or on a deserted beach — we are kindred spirits: one of a kind, who are always at one with others and with the Divine Source in whom we live and move and have our being (see Acts 17:28).


The search for our true self explains why at times we all seek solitude. It is an inner attitude of self-presence. It does not mean withdrawal from the world, though an experience of temporary withdrawal may be in order for us to return to our center in God so that we can attend with renewed faith, hope, and love to the world of action and encounter.

In solitude, we become more present to ourselves and more capable of en-gaging in true participation with others. Solitude is a spiritual experience, not an excuse to isolate ourselves from the demands others make upon us. Genuine solitude is not aloneness, but rather an inner attitude of at-oneness with our-selves and the Divine. It prevents us from becoming all action and no recollection. We attend to what really is asked of us and then try to address it with courage and creativity.

Solitude is never an exercise in selfish withdrawal that negates the needs of others. It is not an escape from the marketplace of human wants and needs. It opens our heart to ways in which we can alleviate the social problems of pain and poverty.

Paradoxically, solitude in the deepest sense opens us to our inmost selves and others and to God as our common, sustaining source. This union prevents solitude from degenerating into selfish isolationism and makes it paradoxically the root of solidarity.

Solitude also frees us from the fear of facing ourselves before God. We refuse to lose our life in endless rounds of activity and prefer to center it in the sacred. We take the time to consider the person God calls us to be and become.


Too often we refuse to listen to the beckoning sounds of silence and solitude. We turn on the television, leaf through a magazine, telephone friends. Anything seems better than coming face-to-face with ourselves and God.

We may shun solitude because we equate it with loneliness. When we feel lonely, it may appear as if life itself is meaningless, empty, boring, and frightening. By contrast, solitude can fill us with a sense of joy and the profound awareness that we are all one in the Lord.

Depending on our attitude, being alone can be lonely, or it can be the occasion to experience the deepest reality of our at-oneness. Loneliness, to put it succinctly, is the pain of being a-lone; solitude is the joy of being all-one. To transform loneliness into solitude is a challenge, but one God will help us to meet.

Society tends to attach a negative stigma to any form of withdrawal — as if only in the world of action or only in the world of nonstop socializing can we find fulfillment. In truth, solitude is as necessary as togetherness for balanced human living to occur. It must not be seen as a special prerogative of people in monastic life. Even in a monastery, there is an outreach to the community, seen in the production of manuscripts, sculptures, spiritual writings, and poetry.

We need time for recollection and retreat, for moments of withdrawal from activity, to hear the inspirations of the Holy Spirit that often go unheeded during hours of day-by-day dedication to duty. Every time we retreat momentarily to still the clamor of daily life, we return to action refreshed and receptive to the work that needs to be done.


The experience of solitude and the inner attitudes of self-presence and true participation it fosters offer us profound benefits. One is that solitude grants us a sense of healthy social distancing to assess what is of most importance in any situation. We see into the heart of a problem; we do not settle for easy surface solutions.

We could compare this stepping aside in solitude to viewing a great painting. From afar, we enjoy its vivid depiction of a scene in nature, a beautiful face, a tragic event. We appreciate the depth of an artist’s sensitivity to life on every level. If, however, we stand too close to the canvas, we may miss the whole presentation and see only a few flaws or even some cracks in the oils. Our analysis may be correctly critical, but if we never allow ourselves moments of quiet acceptance and appreciation from afar, the harmony of the painting may hide itself from us.

Solitude, like aesthetic distance, reveals modes of presence that open us to the harmony of all people, events, and things. It calms many churning imperfections on the surface of life. It strengthens our ability to stand up for the values in which we believe, even if in a particular period of history these beliefs may be severely undervalued.

Enjoying solitude as an essential spiritual discipline offers many benefits, including enabling us to resist the push-and-pull of a crowd mentality; it allows us to be more patient with others and to refrain from impulsive actions. We are content to wait for the best way to make decisions that may affect others for better or worse.

Solitude grants us the gift of stillness when we are dying to speak. The more realistically we evaluate our situation, the more willing we are to live with it when it cannot be changed. By letting go of clever calculations or arrogant estimations of what we can do, we remember that without God we can do nothing. Instead of pushing for instant success, we retire for a while in solitude to assess how to relieve others’ suffering and unexpected hardship. We know that our lives mean more than tabulations of achievements. We need to be joyful, gracious, and grateful for who we are and what we do as centered in the sacred.

Photo: Tinnakorn Jorruang/ Shutterstock

This commitment to solitude and self-presence offers the most efficacious pathway to participation. Once we face the deepest meaning of our life in solitude, we can foster the best possible modes of encounter and action. Our attitude of respectful presence can transform the community in which we live and work. Life is no longer a struggle for power, an isolated moment of plea-sure, a store of goods to be possessed. Everyone and everything, ourselves included, finds the place and time allotted to us by the providence of God.

True togetherness is the sharing of our solitude; it is not a false attitude of being like everyone else or a least common denominator mentality that lacks respect for the unique self-presence of ourselves and others. To the degree that each member of our community centers himself or herself in God, our life together is immensely enriched. We are no longer solitary persons who feel frightened and lonely. We sense that our oneness is what binds us to the rest of humanity.

We become more aware of our true self and our place in God’s plan for our community.

Likewise, because we respect our own need for supportive togetherness, we enjoy the company of others who feel as we do. We practice the virtues of patience and compassion. We try to temper our demand for instant solutions to every personal and communal problem. The questions that cannot be clarified today are left to be pondered tomorrow.

Without solitude, decision-making may take place in a vacuum of cheap opinions. Without solitude, we may fall victim to majority rule and suppress what we feel to be just and true for all. We may go along with the crowd because we are afraid to stand alone.

Being in solitude helps us to accept unavoidable ambiguity, confusion, and differences of opinion as reminders that we are a human community in need of redemption.

Solitude, sustained by prayer and self-presence to God, does not mark the cessation of action, but rather the binding of participation to its source and inspiration. If we never experience the restorative power of solitude, we may find it difficult, if not impossible, to re-main faithful to our calling in the Lord to move from self-presence in solitude to selfless participation in works that place the needs of others above our own.

When we see ourselves as God’s children, as sons and daughters adopted by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in communion with all of creation, we move slowly but surely from the pain of loneliness to the joy of solitude. We re-affirm that God calls us to a new life of oneness with others. Most of all, we trust in the promise the Lord himself made to us: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18).

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