Solitude and Loneliness by Monsignor Ferrarese

When I speak to people of my love for monks and hermits, they look at me with a rather blank expression on their faces. Most people have had no interaction with monks or hermits and do not see the value of them. Still, when I speak of St. Anthony of Egypt (Abbate—like the street festival) or St. Bruno, I am filled with admiration and awe. They went into hermitages to be totally available to God and to prayer.

In previous ages, there was a certain positive mystique about ‘going into a hermitage’. One of the places I was most interested in visiting when I was in St. Petersburg was the world-famous museum called the “Hermitage”. I found out during my visit that it was established by Catherine the Great to house her (then) small art collection. She called it her ‘hermitage’ because she saw herself using it while communing with God in solitude. It was supposed to be her private place of recollection.

The Christian respect for the solitary vocation is an important reality of our Church. Unfortunately, few realize this. The hermit’s vocation is considered the highest in the Church because it shows purely the primal relationship that God must have with the human person. For a hermit, God is the most important person in his or her life. He proves it by spending his life with Him.

It also shows the Church’s belief in the power of prayer. A hermit prays night and day for us. We firmly believe that this has practical and amazing effects for the Church. I remember an older priest telling me when I was newly ordained that I could do more for my parishioners on my knees in prayer than any other work of mercy.

So in speaking of the hermit, we have a Christian who wants to be in constant contact with God and who believes his prayers will have the most powerful effects for the world, including those whom he loves. So he enters into solitude. Will that person be lonely?

He will definitely be alone in regards to human company. But, never lonely. Why? At the heart of loneliness is not the experience of being alone: it is feeling worthless, like I don’t matter to anyone. This is truly a horrible way of being. But, it is my contention that our hermit will not be lonely because he is with God at all times. And he knows that he matters since his prayers have special power and influence. Loneliness and solitude are found in different ballparks!

There is a long pedigree to the importance of solitude (giving quality time to God alone) that goes back to the early prophets and culminates with Jesus Himself. After the deeply religious experience of His Baptism, hearing the Father’s delight in Him and being suffused with the Holy Spirit, what did Jesus do? What was His first priority? If you said that He would go out and preach, you would be dead wrong. He went out into the desert, alone. Feeling the love of His Father and the love of the Spirit, He had to spend time alone with this Love. It was such a powerful efficacious experience for Him that He had to have time alone to continue to bask in that love and affirmation. But it also alerted the devil, since this was very dangerous for the kingdom of evil. One of the reasons people fear silence and solitude is that they leave us defenseless. All the distractions and evasions are not there in the desert. Only you and God. The devil knows that, and will reveal things that frighten you and challenge your faith. He knows our weaknesses more than we know them. He attacks where we are the most vulnerable. When Christ entered the solitude of the desert, the devil must have known that here was a person without the normal weaknesses, so he tried to twist the truth. “If you are the Messiah…” The devil always sows seeds of doubt and discouragement. He is also a consummate liar. As dangerous as he seems, he really is very foolish. Did he really think that Christ would fall for the ‘loaves to bread’ temptation? What are all the kingdoms of the world to the One who has the Father’s Love?

Once Christ experienced the joy and the trials of the desert, He was ready to preach and the first words out of His mouth were “Repent, the Kingdom of God is here!”

You can be lonely in a crowd. But the realization that God is always with us can be transformative and give us the confidence and the courage to look at our lives differently. God is always with us but the problem is we don’t notice it, we don’t believe it and sadly we miss the greatest opportunity of our lives. No wonder Jesus was constantly healing blind men. We are all blind to God’s love and unbelieving in the face of this great and glorious God. We need hermits, and more importantly the example they set, to remind us that God is enough.

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