Solitude in the Faith Traditions
Solitude is a condition of the spirit that is recognized, honored, and practiced by adherents of virtually every major faith. The founders and followers have discovered it, practiced it, and handed it down.
This article was originally published as "Solitude in the Faith Traditions: Because No Great Religion Was Founded by Committee," in our February 2006 issue.
In his classic study of ecumenical spirituality, the Irish Jesuit William Johnston tells this little story: After studying Zen with all its rigor in a traditional Japanese monastery, he eagerly reports his findings to a group of traditional Christian nuns, telling them of a meditation technique involving sitting in stillness and silence, alone, facing a blank wall.
“Oh, that,” their Superior replies. “We already do that all the time.” At first, Johnston was deflated. He had thought he was bringing them something new and exotic. But he soon realized that he had made a profound discovery. Here were two utterly separate and contrasting sets of spiritual seekers — male, Japanese, Zen monks and Christian, Benedictine, Irish sisters — who discover the same thing: the value of stillness in solitude.
Solitude is, in fact, a condition of the spirit that is recognized, honored, and practiced by adherents of virtually every major faith. The founders, exemplars, and followers of every religion have discovered it, practiced it, and handed it down.
The rigorous men Johnston knelt with in Kyoto and Tokyo were almost lineal descendants of their founder, Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha, and who, after years of wandering and spiritual practice, found enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree in the forest near Benares — in solitude. Those gentle women Johnston visited bearing the gift of contemplation were likewise lineal descendants, through a 2000- year heritage of Christian contemplation, of their founder, Jesus of Nazareth, who prepared for his earthly ministry with a 40 – day sojourn in desert solitude, and who frequently sought out lonely places for solitary prayer and contemplation.
These complementary approaches to the truth we call the great religions all involve solitude as a foundational principle. Like Buddha and Jesus, Mohammed founded his vocation in solitude, in his case, in the cave near Mecca, where he met the Angel Gabriel and received the holy Quran. Moses received the Torah after 40 days alone on Mount Sinai, and before him, the patriarchs of the Jews, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, had apprehended God in solitary places. Earlier still, sages known as the rishis recorded the Upanishads, prose poems of the spirit upon which much of Hinduism is based, after dwelling in seclusion in the caves and mountains of northern India. In every case, solitary states are the condition — indeed the requirement — for spiritual communion and clarification. No real religion has been founded by committee. Every one originates in solitude.
There is a reason for this: In every major faith, solitude is indispensable to the spiritual exploration we call mystical experience. The great prophets of the Old Testament, the early Christian desert mothers and fathers, the first Zen adepts in mainland China, the medieval Jewish mystics, and the Sufis in the tradition of Islam — all practiced solitude.
“Go into your cell, and your cell will teach you everything,” said Abbot Anthony. The Dhammapada, a fully charged condensation of Buddhism, recommends “the solitude of the forest, where worldly people do not dwell; a good place for the passionless” — echoing the words Gautama a spoke in the deer park after his own sojourn under the bodhi tree. The great religious philosopher Plotinus called such prayer, or meditation, the “flight of the alone to the alone,” the private moment between God and human being that recalls the solitary walks God took with Eve and Adam in Paradise.
Solitude however, is not only for those who want to move to other states of consciousness and religious or spiritual experience. In every faith tradition, solitude is a key requisite for devotion and growth. Ordinary practitioners are encouraged to practice some measure of solitude, no matter how communal their callings.
One of the pillars of Islam — the practices that define the Muslim — is personal prayer, five times a day, every day. It can be done in a group setting, and often is, but by design it cannot always be practiced with others. Muslims must spend quality time with Allah, often alone on their prayer carpets. Observant Jews pray twice a day, sometimes in a quorum or among family, sometimes alone, whispered to themselves. And for 2,000 years, ordinary disciples of Christ have heeded the advice of Jesus when he said, “Go to your room, shut the door, and pray” (my updated translation of Matthew 6:6).
So, while no religion has been founded by committee, every religion has been processed, tested, and developed in community. Indeed, every religion balances the experience of solitude with the experience of community. The Prophet Elijah listened to the still, almost silent voice of Yahweh on Mount Horeb, but he lived in community with his disciples and publicly challenged his king, at great risk. Buddha found satori alone beneath the tree, but he attracted scores of followers in spite of himself, who followed him, hungry for that enlightenment, for the rest of his life. Mohammed gathered disciples and inspired them with his zeal; so did Jesus, who knew that the Father with whom he spoke in solitude was the same Creator who said, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
The nuns who practice solitary meditation celebrate the Eucharist as a community and also run schools and hospitals for the larger human family. The Muslim observes the holy month of Ramadan, tithes, and makes a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in community. The observant Jew who daily prays in private gathers with his or her family and community for the Shabbat and other forms of service and worship.
Why should solitude, the deliberate and intentional practice of being alone, loom so large in the great historical religions? To answer fully would take volumes, but there are two primary reasons. First, all religions involve understanding the self, and solitude is the ideal context for an encounter with the authentic self. Second, each major religion originates in a central concern or question, and its theology and practice are an attempt at an answer. In Judaism, it is the oneness and the moral character of God, or what students of comparative religion call ethical monotheism. For Buddhism, it is the determination to uncover a reality or truth that transcends the cycle of uncontrollable pleasure and pain of life in this world. For Christianity, it is reconciliation with God, and for Islam it is God’s ineluctable and absolute transcendence. For Hinduism, it is the sanctity, the divine participation of all reality, all being, including the created world. Just as solitude clarifies the self, it clarifies the questions and answers posed by the faith. Solitude elucidates, enhances, and underscores the character of religion.
What we see is that communal as well as private experiences of prayer, worship, contemplation, and meditation look utterly different from one faith to another. When William Johnston participated in Zen group meditations, he found a radical departure from the Mass celebrated by his friends in the convent. The styles and practices of the great faiths display rich and sometimes bewildering diversity. So do their teachings, their scriptures, their moral standards, their imperatives. But it is in solitude, in private communion with God and personal exploration of the soul, that they show striking family resemblance. Solitude is the only way to introspection, communion, revelation. As Plotinus, who stood outside the major traditions, put it, God is the natural homeland of the soul, and it is in solitude that we sojourn in that homeland.