Solitude, community, and why we need both
When I was a young boy, my family lived in the town of Forestville, on the shores of the St Lawrence River in Northeastern Québec. Although our little company town had about 3000 residents, I knew only a handful of them. Life in Forestville in the 1950s perfectly illustrated Quebec’s Two Solitudes. The workforce spoke French; the management spoke English. Our family, although neither French nor English, was assigned to the English community due to my father’s role in management, so we lived on “Snob Hill” with all the other management families. Having been raised in the Netherlands – a country where it was customary and expected that high school graduates would be competent in three languages besides their own – both my parents spoke French, and didn’t share the prejudices of the time. However, the children of management families had few dealings with the children of the French-speaking Roman Catholic families that comprised about 95% of the town’s population. We simply moved in different circles. As a young boy, it never occurred to me to question this; it was just the way things were.
As a result, my social universe was very small. We didn’t have television at our house, and my siblings and I spent a lot of time playing outdoors. There were other children on our street, but most of them were either a few years older or a few years younger than I. I was a shy, quiet and introspective child, and so although we played group games at times, I naturally fell into a pattern of spending a lot of time alone. My older brother and sister already had their playmates, and by the time I reached school age I had gotten used to hours of solitary play on the wooded hills behind our house. I spent many afternoons in a wonderful huge sandpit at the edge of the woods, building roads for my toy cars and trucks, and letting my imagination wander. In summer I loved the beauty of the white birch trees with their lacy green leaves silhouetted against the blue sky on the hills behind our home. I also loved walking down to the shores of the Gulf of St Lawrence – so broad that we could barely see the opposite shore, almost 30 miles away – and digging my toes in the sand on the wide beach. In winter I loved the bracing crisp air and the mountains of white snow. We lived in a beautiful if isolated place, and the beauty of it awakened a deep longing within me. Although I may not have had the words to express it at the time, my hunger for beauty was in reality a hunger for the One who is supremely beautiful and who is the source of everything that is good and true and right.
All this to say that I became accustomed to solitude at an early age, and I am quite comfortable with being alone. In fact I am not only comfortable with solitude; I crave it. Over the years I have tended to choose solitary sports – cross country skiing, canoeing, cycling – not only because they are solitary but also (especially) because they involve time spent under God’s great blue sky. I love hours spent in reading my Bible or worshipping Jesus with my guitar and my voice. I frequently need to go for walks alone and sort things out with God. When I have been with a lot of people for even a few hours, I frequently find that I need to get away for a while and collect my thoughts.
I don’t believe this is unique to me. It is true enough that I am pretty far along on the introversion scale. Still, I believe that even the most extroverted, socially oriented person needs times of solitude to be spiritually healthy. Consider the example of Jesus. Although he clearly loved people and enjoyed being with them, He also apparently craved time alone, frequently getting up before dawn and going to solitary places where he could have undisturbed fellowship with his Father. For anyone who is serious about cultivating the knowledge of God, willingness to get alone with Him for extended periods of time is essential.
Yet at the same time I also crave companionship and relationships. As a young child in Forestville, even though I loved being outdoors by myself, I also loved playing with my friend David. He was the only one among our group of playmates who was my own age, and we frequently spent time together playing cowboys and Indians (apologies for the politically incorrect terminology but that’s what we called it back then) and other boyish games. This friendship was so important to me that when David was ready for Grade One, I followed him to school every day for three months, although I was not yet old enough for school according to the rules of the day, and sat on the schoolhouse steps until the teacher eventually decided to break the rules and let me in.
My Grade One teacher soon found that I was an eager participant in her little one-room school. I loved learning to read and do arithmetic (yes, I really did !) , but I also enjoyed having a place to fit in. This shy, solitary boy who had a love for solitude also longed for community, acceptance and a sense of belonging. That’s not so surprising; even the most introverted of us is not made to live on our own. It is written that when the Lord God created the first man in the Garden of Eden, he declared It is not good for the man to be alone. We are made for community.
I believe that the need for solitude and the need for community are intertwined, like two strands of a cord of braided rope. Times of fruitful solitude – time spent not just vegging, but going deeper with the Holy One – give depth to the times we spend with others, allowing our conversation to go deeper than the surface.
Last weekend I had the rare treat of spending Friday evening and Saturday on a men’s retreat with about forty men from my church, All Nations Ottawa, and its sister church in Peterborough. Being still quite new to All Nations, I did not know most of the men very well. Driving to Circle Square Ranch with Dale and Dan was a great opportunity to listen to them tell their stories. By the time we had arrived at our destination, I felt that I had made two new friends. Upon our arrival I soon found that I already knew one of the men from Peterborough, which was an enjoyable surprise. The structured sessions at the retreat were very worthwhile – the worship was stirring, and the teaching was fresh, encouraging, and practical. But what I loved most about the weekend was time spent in one-on-one conversations. There were several of these, and each of them was an opportunity to really listen to one of my brothers, to encourage him and be encouraged by him in turn, leading to growth in love, hope and faith.
I can’t say enough about how important this is. I will always love solitude, but I also need community. The things that God does in my heart during my times of solitude are meant to be shared. I find that it is deeply humbling to take time to truly listen to a brother who is seeking to live the life of a disciple of Jesus. I need the encouragement of others to keep me from growing dull, and I also need to see the life of faith from their perspective so that I don’t get cocky or self-absorbed or locked in to my own perspective. I almost always come away from such conversations with an increased hunger to pray for my brothers, to truly love them as Jesus does, and to see them encouraged and built up in their faith.
Lord, thank you so much for calling us into community. Thank you for teaching us how to love our brothers as a sign and expression of your great love which is so much deeper, higher and purer than our own. Thank you for your Kingdom that is coming, in which we will have unbroken fellowship with you and with those who love your name and your ways.