Monday, March 22, 2010

Solitude and Community

I had guests staying with me this week, bookended by a party at my house on one weekend and a party at a friend's place the next. The guests are people I love and wish I could see more often, the party at my place was overflowing with people I care about and enjoy, the friend's party was elegant and fun. People-wise, though, I've been overserved. I'm feeling a desperate need for silence, for words read in print rather than spoken into air, for no smiling faces before me, for the presence of no other and as little of my own as I can manage. I need solitude so that I can breathe.

This has got me thinking about Anthony and Pachomius (what, you don't get intimations of 3rd and 4th century ascetics when you want to be alone?). Anthony ran off into the wilds of the Egyptian desert on a quest to find God. Others gathered near him, each living a life of solitude broken only when they came together for worship. A number of years later Pachomius followed the same path, but then got sidetracked in his solitary quest by a vision in which God told him to create a place where seekers of holiness could live a communal life. So now the world-weary who wanted to leave behind the "get-this-do-that-have-more" mentality of ancient Alexandria had options when they decided to throw it all aside and head out into the desert: they could choose lives of solitude or community.

It's pretty clear that I'm the solitude type. Of course, the solitude of a comfortable house with a full fridge and temperature control, plus TV, tunes, phone and Internet just waiting for me to grow weary of quiet, isn't in the same league as the solitude of a hut in the Egyptian desert. But still, I crave quiet, and it's hard for me to function as a human being if I don't get time in a room alone every day. As much as I enjoy people, I only truly relax alone. It's as though all the thoughts and emotions that usually get bottled up inside this little container called "me" finally have space to spread out. And it's a little easier to hear God's part of the ongoing daily conversation when I'm not hearing anyone else.

But there's a lot to be said for community. You have to deal with your fellow humans when you live in community, in all their crazy wonderfulness. Petty jealousies, serious encouragement, downright hostility, deepening love - it's all right there, pushing you to admit your limitations, to find your compassion, to see God in the face of the person standing in front of you.

I'm not likely to run off to the Egyptian desert anytime soon, so I'm not pushed to choose one of these as a spiritual path and stick with it. I get to go back and forth, finding what I need at the moment and blessing the universe for sending it my way. So thank you, universe, for all the community I have recently experienced - and all the delicious solitude I'm experiencing right now.


  1. I've always thought the desert fathers got off a little easy -- seems like the more contact I have with my fellow human beings, the more often I sin. I think I'd sin less (or less seriously) if I lived alone in a hut in the desert. S vehemently disagrees with me on this, by the way.

  2. It is beautiful, and a blessing, to be able to go back and forth.


  3. So S thinks the desert is a pit of sweaty sin, hm? I think it would be easy to get really cranky being alone all the time, used to having your way in every situation; that's probably not good for keeping the ego in bounds. And then there's the potential for going stark raving mad. But having the beloved community around 24/7 - yeah, I'm thinking my sin quotient would skyrocket solely on "Shut the hell up and get away from me" thoughts...