April 9, 2017
The Terrible Solitude comes when we are alone with God in what seems like a mistake, upside down or the last thing we would have wanted to happen. The Carmelite, Ian Matthews, has a good description of it in his book, “The Impact of God” stating that “this is the night where there is not only pain but where the ground I stand on to face the pain seems to shift.” He offers some scenarios, for example parents who sacrifice a great deal so that their children might have a better chance of taking the right path and then receive word that their child is seriously involved with drugs and must be dismissed from school; or the priest who leaves a comfortable and prestigious position and begins training for a difficult one in which he can serve vulnerable youth more directly, only to hear that the diocese is no longer interested. Each one of us could add an example of a situation from our own personal history when our good intentions for the glory of God seemed to come to nothing and we were left thinking in Ian Matthew’s words, “This is not just hard, but back to front.” Who is this unfamiliar God?
Let’s think of a couple of examples from our own early tradition. While he was a Benedictine, William of St. Thierry wrote many beautiful words on solitude, all of them flowing from his desire for God. They are expressive of the deep delight of solitude. When, however, he finally entered the Cistercians at a somewhat advanced age, his experience was terrible. Yes, he had entered the terrible solitude. He prays, “Lord, you have led me astray, and I have followed your leading…I heard you say, ‘Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.’ I came to you, I trusted in your word, and in what way have you refreshed me? I was not laboring before, but I am laboring now and ready to drop with the toil! I was not burdened formerly, but now I am worn out beneath my load…I have looked all round, and there is no one to help me; and I have sought, but there is nobody to give me aid. Lord, what does this mean? Have mercy on me, for I am weak. Where are your mercies of old?” And the Lord answered, ‘I have not led you astray, my son; I have led you sweetly until now. That which was said to you, that which was cried to you: ‘Come unto me,” has been cried aloud to all; but all do not receive the grace to come…You complain that I do not refresh you. If I had not refreshed you, you would have fainted away…There is no going except by the Way. If you do not forsake this road, then you will reach the goal. I myself will go before you, and you must follow as you see me go before. I endured and labored and you must labor too”…And William answers, surrendering to the terrible solitude, “Truly, Lord, you are become our refuge…I have begun to follow you, my leader, into the wilderness; I have vowed and I am determined to keep the judgments of your righteousness. By you grace I will not forsake you; I will not withdraw myself from you until either I come to the goal whither you have begun to bring me, or I fall in my tracks as you yourself fell.” That William traversed this terrible solitude to the end in the footsteps of his suffering Lord, made all the difference---for him and for us. God turned his life right side up in his own time and preserved for us the great treasure of William’s life as a Cistercian.
My favorite example though is that of Alice or Aleydis, a nun of our Order in the twelfth century. Alice was described as a perfect cenobite or community person, life-giving and compassionate to those around her, friendly, gentle, accessible; bearing the weaknesses of others patiently; living constantly under the divine gaze; wholly absorbed in God at the Divine Office; energetic, generous, prompt and never idle at work; always ready to serve. And then God turned her life upside down. There are surprising ways into interior solitude---misunderstanding, jealousy, difficulties with a language, sickness, but for Alice it was leprosy. At first she lived in a room off the Church but eventually she had to be more fully separated from her community who built a hut for her on the property. Alice, the cenobite entered into a terrible solitude, the solitude of Christ’s anguish and poverty. This shocked and grieved the whole community and she herself was afflicted with such mental anguish and heartache that her mind was in utter consternation. It was not long though before Jesus began to draw her into the deepest meaning of this affliction. As she entered the house he spoke these words to her, “Come, my daughter; how long I have desired you. All your life I will be with you and I will care for you myself.” Isn’t this the most amazing upside down of things you can ever imagine? What looks so terrible, so much like a punishment on the outside, somehow turns out to be the very way God draws us to an incredible intimacy with himself. “How long I have desired you.”
Remember the young American girl who died in the snow avalanche not long ago. Her diary revealed something similar. She climbed the mountains because she found God there, and her desire for him which grew so acute was only a faint echo of his desire for her. Neither her death nor Alice’s leprosy were tragedies despite appearances. Something divine was going on, a hunger and thirst for God too intense for this world. Yes, their sufferings were a tragedy no more than the Cross of Christ is a tragedy, for the Cross, that most upside down of all moments and that most terrible of all solitudes, is the absolute victory of God’s love and presence and power to save that has ever been or ever will be.
The document on the contemplative life, Venite Seorsum (“Come away by yourselves to a lonely place,” 1969) has some beautiful things to say about our life of solitude and the solitude of the Cross: “Withdrawal from the world for the sake of leading a more intense life of prayer in solitude is nothing other than a very particular way of living and expressing the paschal mystery of Christ, which is death ordained toward resurrection…But the death of Christ demands a real type of solitude, as the Apostle himself understood it, and many Fathers and Doctors of the Church after him. They attributed in fact this significance to certain episodes in Christ’s life: while considering him withdrawing into solitude or into the desert to engage in battle with the ruler of this world, but especially when he withdrew to pray to his Father, to whose will he was totally submitted. In this way he presignified the solitude of his passion which the Evangelists represent to us as a new exodus. Hence to withdraw into the desert is for the Christian tantamount to associating himself more intimately with Christ’s passion, and it enables him, in a very special way, to share in the paschal mystery and in the passage of Our Lord from this world to the heavenly homeland. It was precisely on this account that monasteries were founded, situated as they are in the very heart of the mystery of Christ.” So let us enter Holy Week once again with the resolve to let ourselves be lost in surrender and in gratitude to Jesus Christ who has loved us and who draws us to himself. Let us never be afraid to embrace the cross and to go where he calls, no matter how unfamiliar or how difficult, because where he is, there is our true life and joy and meaning.