LOVE OF SOLITUDE
Whosoever loves God, loves solitude. There the Lord communicates Himself more familiarly to souls, because there He finds them less entangled in worldly affairs, and more detached from earthly affections. Hence, St. Jerome exclaimed: “O solitude, in which God speaks and converses familiarly with His servants.” O blessed solitude, in which God speaks and converses with His beloved ones with great love and confidence! The Lord is not in the earthquake (3 Kings, xix. 11). But where is He found? I will lead her into the wilderness, and I will speak to her heart (Osee ii. 14). He is found in solitude and there He speaks to the heart in words that inflame it with holy love, as the sacred spouse attests: My soul melted when my Beloved spoke (Cant. v. 6). St. Eucherius relates that a certain man, desirous of becoming a saint, asked a servant of God where he should find God. The servant of God conducted him to a solitary place, and said: “Behold where God is found!” By these words he meant to say that God is found not amid the tumults of the world, but in solitude.
Virtue is easily preserved in solitude; and, on the other hand, it is easily lost by intercourse with the world, where God is but little known, and therefore His love, and the treasures He gives to those who leave all things for His sake, are but little esteemed. St. Bernard says that he learned more among the trees of the forest than from books and masters. Hence the Saints, in order to live in solitude and far from tumult, have so ardently loved the caves, the mountains, and the woods. The land that was desolate and impassable shall be glad, and the wilderness shall rejoice, and shall flourish like the lily; it shall bud forth and blossom … They shall see the glory of the Lord and the beauty of our God (Is. XXXV. 1, 2). The wilderness shall be a perennial fountain of joy and gladness to the soul that seeks it; it shall flourish like the lily in whiteness and innocence of life, and shall produce fruits of every virtue. These happy souls shall in the end be raised on high to see the glory and infinite beauty of the Lord. It is certain that to keep the heart united with God we must preserve in the soul the thought of God, and of the immense reward He prepares for those who love Him. But when we hold intercourse with the world, it presents to us earthly things that obliterate spiritual impressions and pious sentiments.
Worldlings shun solitude, and with good reason; for in solitude they feel more acutely the remorse of conscience, and therefore they go in search of the conversations and bustle of the world, that the noise of these occupations may stifle the stings of remorse. It is true that man loves society; but what society is preferable to the society of God? Ah! to withdraw from creatures and to converse in solitude with our Creator brings neither bitterness nor tediousness. Of this the Wise Man assures us: For her conversation hath no bitterness, nor her company any tediousness, but joy and gladness (Wisd. viii. 16). The Venerable Father Vincent Carafa, General of the Society of Jesus, said that he desired nothing in this world, and that were he to desire anything he would wish only for a little grotto, a morsel of bread, and a spiritual book, in order to live there always in solitude.
It is not true that a life of solitude is a life of melancholy: it is a foretaste and beginning of the life of the Saints in bliss, who are filled with an immense joy in the sole occupation of loving and praising their God. St. Jerome tells us that flying from Rome he went to shut himself up in the Cave of Bethlehem, in order to enjoy solitude. Hence he afterwards wrote: “To me solitude is a paradise.” The Saints in solitude appear to be alone, but they are not alone. St. Bernard said: “I am never less alone than when I am alone”; for I am then in the company of my Lord, Who gives me more content than I could derive from the conversation of all creatures. They appear to be in sadness, but they are not sad. The world, seeing them far away from earthly amusements, regards them as miserable and disconsolate; but they are not so; they, as the Apostle attests, enjoy an immense and continual peace. As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (2 Cor. vi. 10). The Prophet Isaias attested the same when he said: The Lord therefore will comfort Sion, and will comfort all the ruins thereof; and he will make her desert as a place of pleasure, and her wilderness as the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving and the voice of praise (Is. li. 3). The Lord well knows how to console the solitary soul, and will give a thousandfold compensation for all the temporal pleasures which it has forfeited: He will render its solitude the garden of His delights. There joy and gladness shall be always found, and nothing will be heard but the voice of thanksgiving and praise of the Divine goodness. Cardinal Petrucci describes the happiness of a solitary heart in the following words: “It appears to be sad, and it is filled with celestial joy. Though it treads on the earth, its dwelling is in Heaven. It asks nothing for itself, because in its bosom it contains an immense treasure. It appears to be agitated and overwhelmed by the tempest, and it is always in a secure harbour.”
In order to find this happy solitude, it is not necessary to hide yourself in a cave or in a desert. David found it, even in the midst of the great concerns of a kingdom, and therefore he said: Lo, I have gone far off, flying away; and I abode in the wilderness (Ps. liv. 8). St. Philip Neri desired to retire into a desert, but God gave him to understand that he should not leave Rome, but that he should live there as in a desert.
Hitherto we have spoken of the solitude of the body; we must now say something on the solitude of the heart, which is more necessary than the solitude of the body. “Of what use,” says St. Gregory, “is the solitude of the body without the solitude of the heart?” That is, of what use is it to live in the desert if the heart is attached to the world? A soul detached and free from earthly affections, says St. Peter Chrysologus, finds solitude even in the public streets and highways. On the other hand, of what use is it to observe silence if affections to creatures are entertained in the heart, and by their noise render the soul unable to listen to the Divine inspirations? I here repeat the words of our Lord to St. Teresa: “Oh, how gladly would I speak to many souls, but the world makes such a noise in their hearts that My voice cannot be heard. Oh that they would retire a little from the world!”
Let us then understand what is meant by solitude of the heart. It consists in expelling from the soul every affection that is not for God, by seeking nothing in all our actions but to please His Divine eyes. It consists in saying with David: What have I in heaven? and besides thee, what do I desire upon earth? … Thou art the God of my heart, and the God that is my portion forever (Ps. lxxii. 25, 26). Except Thee, O my God, what is there on earth or in Heaven that can content me? Thou alone art the Lord of my heart, and Thou shalt always be my only Treasure. In fine, solitude of the heart implies that you can say with sincerity: My God, I wish for Thee alone, and for nothing else.
Someone complains that he does not find God; but listen to what St. Teresa says: “Detach the heart from all things — seek God, and then you will find Him.” God can neither be sought nor found if He is not first known; but what can a soul attached to creatures know of God and His Divine beauty? The light of the sun cannot enter a crystal vessel filled with earth; and in a heart occupied with attachment to pleasures and wealth and honours, the Divine light cannot shine. Hence the Lord says: Be still, and see that I am God (Ps. xlv. 11). The soul, then, that wishes to see God must remove the world from her heart, and keep it shut against all earthly affections. This is precisely what Jesus Christ gave us to understand under the figure of a closed chamber, when He said: But when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret (Matt. vi. 6). That is, the soul, in order to unite itself with God in prayer, must retire into its heart, which, according to St. Augustine, is the chamber of which our Lord speaks, and shut the door against all earthly affections.
This is also the meaning of the words of Jeremias: He shall sit solitary, and hold his peace; because he hath taken it up upon himself (Lam. iii. 28). The solitary soul, that is, the soul that is free from all attachments, and in which earthly affections are silent, will unite itself with God in Mental Prayer by holy desires, by oblations of itself, and by acts of love: and then it will find itself raised above all created objects, so that it will smile at the worldling who sets so high a value on the goods of this earth, and submits to so many toils in order to secure enjoyment of them, while it regards them as trifles, and utterly unworthy of the love of a heart created to love God, the infinite Good.