Courage for Solitude: With Some Help from Rainer Maria Rilke
Currently on our own writing retreat tucked away on a little island in mainland Florida surrounded only by water and wildlife we came to ponder the art of solitude in new ways. It is not always easy to be with each other in solitude. Suddenly you are met by problems which long wanted to be discussed, by duties which long needed to be done, by questions which have long waited for answers, even by a blog post which is not yet written.
Still many existential writers like Hesse, Kierkegaard or Buber as well as spiritual leaders as Rumi, Benedict or Bonhoeffer are deeply convinced that our ability for true encounter starts with practicing solitude.
This insight has probably never been more beautifully said than by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In a letter to a young poet who struggled with his loneliness around Christmas time, he writes the following:
"My dear Mr. Kappus,
I don't want you to be without a greeting from me when Christmas comes and when you, in the midst of the holiday, are bearing your solitude more heavily than usual. But when you notice that it is vast, you should be happy; for what (you should ask yourself) would a solitude be that was not vast; there is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, difficult to bear, and almost everyone has hours when he would gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial or cheap, for the tiniest outward agreement with the first person who comes along, the most unworthy. But perhaps these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys and sad as the beginning of spring. But that must not confuse you.
What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours - that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grownups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn't understand a thing about what they were doing...."
Our culture today has not much room for such times of "vast inner solitude," that call us to step out of the business of our daily routine, of the noisiness with which we surround ourselves, to "walk inside ourselves" in order to find what still lies hidden. But this being alone with oneself is very different from being lonely. As all experience from the inner realm, it cannot be described in objective language. Because being alone can lead the unwary into loneliness, melancholy and despair; but learning to be alone the right way can also make a way to heal our deepest loneliness.
One of my fondest memories of starting a new year was a contemplative cloister retreat we led at St. John's Abbey, MN a couple of years ago. When we arrived at the meeting place on the second morning of our retreat we found our guests already sitting by and with each other, silently, while reading and waiting. There was such a beautiful, quiet, energy of community in the room, of anticipation and togetherness while still being alone with one's own thoughts.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has remarked on this "dialectical character" of solitude in his book Living Together: Only in community do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in community. And he advises us to grant each other spaces where we can practice solitude. Just as the day together will be unfruitful without the day alone, after a time of quiet we will meet each other in a different and fresh way again.
When you read Rilke's lines on the mixed appearances of solitude, what experiences or times of your own life come to mind? When has solitude knocked at your door last? What or whom have you met when you walked the last time "inside yourself"? Can you find an image or line for this encounter? Does it encourage you to try again?
May you find courage
to walk inside yourself
may you find rest
in the stillness of your heart
pondering new beginnings
may your tears be like the first rain
after a long winter season
telling the spring.
(This post was first published Jan 29, 2015)