Many years ago I was either brave enough or foolish enough to try solo backpacking, hiking and camping in the woods alone. On one hike I didn’t bring anything to read, and this was before the age of cellphones, so I was alone by the campfire at night. I remember reading the manual in my first-aid kit, but after I’d thoroughly gone through it I had only the campfire and my thoughts. I was in a transitional time, and the feelings of the changes were strong. Without anything to distract me, I felt all the intensity of an imminent move and beginning a new challenge, the power of the changes I believed to which God was calling me. I thought, “I usually distract myself from all this, but out here alone I can’t help but face it.”
This week, I saw a group of people waiting, and they were all looking into their phones. We have accessible distractions now; we can check social media or play a game on our phones. Most restaurants have television screens offering a constant flow of images. We have all types of reasons to think about something other than who we are and what we truly need. My time alone at the campfire was a moment to step away from the distractions, and when I did so I had only the presence of God and the emotion of my own circumstances.
In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers we’re told a brother came to Abba Moses asking for a word of teaching. Moses told him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Moses tells the brother that what he needs is the solitude of his monastic cell. When the brother is alone in his cell the solitude of the experience will teach the brother everything he needs.
We live in a culture where experiencing community is difficult, but we still don’t do solitude well. We’re more likely to not know our neighbors and not belong to any organized gathering with others, but we still avoid solitude. While we may be alone in our homes we’re pulled away from solitude by television or phone screens. We leave cable news on all day, pumping our beings full of anxiety, or we endlessly check social media to see who liked or responded to our endless sharing. While we may be more alone, we don’t experience solitude.
Listen to what Abba Moses tells us, that we need solitude. Solitude is a teacher if we give ourselves to it, if we push away the easy distractions and allow solitude to educate us. In solitude we only have ourselves as we really are and the unavoidable, loving presence of God, and when it’s just us and God we learn all we need. Go to your cell, whether that’s a quiet room in your house, a backyard seat, or a walk along a quiet path, without your phone or without the noise of a television, and in the solitude you’ll, Abba Moses tells, learn everything.
"In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome." - Rule of St. Benedict