Solitude for some people has a romantic appeal. It seems to hold out the promise of a life of ease and peace. Life would run so much more smoothly if there were not so many difficult people to always have to deal with.
The desert tradition understood that, as much as solitude has its place as a valuable practice in the spiritual life, we can never escape the responsibility of dealing with people.
Abba Longinus said to Abba Lucius, “I have three ideas, the first is to go on a pilgrimage.” Abba Lucius replied, “If you do not control your tongue wherever you travel, you will not be a pilgrim. But control your tongue here, and you will be a pilgrim without traveling.”
Abba Longinus said, “My second idea is to fast two days in a row.” Abba Lucius answered, “The Isaiah said, ‘Even if you bend your neck to the ground, your fast will not therefore be accepted. Instead you should guard your mind from evil thoughts.”
Finally Abba Longinus said, “My third idea is to avoid the sight of men.” Abba Lucius answered, “Unless you first correct your sin by living among men you will not be able to correct yourselves when you live alone.”
The people in our lives are our spiritual practice. How we communicate with, think about and interact with the people around us, provides constant opportunity for spiritual pilgrimage. We do not have to go to the desert. It is not necessary to fast two days in a row or to travel to some holy shrine in order to have the opportunity to be called more deeply into God.
The pilgrimage that is the spiritual life takes place right where I am with the people God gives me to love. The neighbour I find irritating can be my desert. Every person I meet offers me the opportunity for self-examination, the chance to see myself better and know myself more deeply. Every human interaction is a call to abandon critical, judgmental thinking and to open more fully to tenderness and vulnerability.
The company of others offers me the constant opportunity to follow Jesus, taking up my cross and dying to my self. When I feel hurt, let down, betrayed, or merely frustrated by the people around me, I am forced to face my own inner demons. I must struggle with my desire to control others and to have life turn out the way I am determined it should.
It is tempting for those of us who are naturally inclined to solitude to pride ourselves on our profound spiritual discipline. It is more challenging to put that discipline into practice when faced with the irritation of people who do not conform to our expectations. The practices of love, compassion, and gentleness require the presence of other people. They only become real in the face of the tangible opposition that characterizes so much of human interaction.
My journey with Jesus is as authentic as my deepening ability to live in love with the people Jesus gives me to love.
As much as the ancient Christian desert tradition valued the spiritual practice of solitude, the monks had a profound understanding that solitude must never be used to escape from the difficult reality of people.
A brother who renounced the world and took the monk’s habit, immediately shut himself up in a hermitage, saying, “I am a solitary.”
When the neighbouring elders heard what the new monk had said, they came and threw him out of his cell. They made him go around to the cells of all the other brothers and do penance before them, saying, “Forgive me. I am not a solitary, but have only just begun to become a monk.”
Until we can truly and freely live with others, we will not be able to live authentically by ourselves. We must be able to live authentically in the company of other people, before we are ready to live authentically alone. The purifying discipline of community cannot be avoided.