Jesus embodied stillness and solitude, and he cultivated a kind of hermitage of his own heart, an oasis in a desert where his Father in heaven lived in the mystery of infinite love and compassion. To nourish this place, Jesus often retreated somewhere alone to pray or meditate, and in the reading today Jesus offers a similar experience of solitude to his disciples, inviting them into a deserted place. The Greek word translated as “deserted place” can also be translated as the wilderness or the desert. The root of the word means “lonely” and in fact the New Jerusalem Bible translation has Jesus inviting his disciples into a “lonely place.” The question is, why would anyone want to go to a lonely place?
In his book, Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen describes three movements of the spiritual life, the first being from loneliness to solitude, or what he also calls reaching out to our innermost self. Loneliness can be very painful and its roots run deep — it’s much more than simply being alone. It’s something like a feeling of restless fear or anxiety, a feeling that comes about when we have an urgent need for intimacy, but can’t seem to quite satisfy this need. It often plays a central role in addictions of all sorts — from addictions to substances, to pornography, to unhealthy relationships, or even to ways of feeling and thinking.
Ironically, for a pervasive loneliness like this, the way through it is also the thing we most avoid, reaching out to, and fostering a deeper sense of intimacy with, our innermost self. We avoid it because that kind of intimacy comes with feeling compassion with hurting parts of our selves, and it calls us to be present for that pain. Our culture is a pain avoidant one, and we’re experts at amusing and entertaining ourselves with all sorts of distractions to avoid anything unpleasant.
But we do need the courage to spend some time in a lonely place, because that’s the only way to move from the desolation of loneliness to the consolation of solitude. When we’re lonely it’s very hard to act with compassion, because we’re enslaved to getting our own needs met. But from a place of solitude, a place of true poverty of spirit, we’re free to serve others out of love.
Jesus cultivated solitude in a profound way, nurturing the relationship with his Father in heaven, and from the stillness and peace that lived in his heart he could act with compassion towards the crowds clamoring for his attention. His disciples, though, they still felt lost, and needed to practice compassion for themselves before being able to offer it for anyone else. They needed to go to a lonely place, a place where, as we see later in the story, they might have to weather storms and rough waters. We might find ourselves in a similar situation, but with Jesus’ help we can be led to the still waters of solitude, a place where love and compassion blossom.
I’ll let Thomas Merton have the last word on the subject. He wrote: “Once God has called you to solitude, everything you touch leads you further into solitude. Everything that affects you builds you into a hermit, as long as you do not insist on doing the work yourself and building your own kind of hermitage. What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily. It shall become a pool, it shall bud forth and blossom and rejoice with joy. It is in the desert of compassion that the thirsty land turns into springs of water, that the poor possess all things.”
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