Praise of Life in Solitude

by Guigo, Fifth Prior of the Grande Chartreuse

Consuetudines Guiguonis (1128): cap. LXXX
Statuta Ordinis Cartusiensis (1991): 0.2.2 - 0.2.9

 

In praise of solitude, to which we have been called in a special way, we will say but little; since we know that it has already obtained enthusiastic recommendation from many saints and wise men of such great authority, that we are not worthy to follow in their steps.

For, as you know, in the Old Testament, and still more so in the New, almost all of God's secrets of major importance and hidden meaning were revealed to His servants, not in the turbulence of the crowd but in the silence of solitude; and you know, too, that these same servants of God, when they wished to penetrate more profoundly some spiritual truth, or to pray with greater freedom, or to become a stranger to things earthly in an ardent elevation of the soul, nearly always fled the hindrance of the multitude for the benefits of solitude.

Thus — to illustrate by some examples — when seeking a place for meditation, Isaac went out to a field alone (Genesis 24:63); and this, one may assume, was his normal practice, and not an isolated incident. Likewise, it was when Jacob was alone, having dispatched his retinue ahead of him, that he saw God face to face (Genesis 32:24-30), and was thus favored with a blessing and a new and better name, thus receiving more in one moment of solitude than in a whole lifetime of social contact.

Scripture also tells us how Moses, Elijah and Elisha esteemed solitude, and how conducive they found it to an even deeper penetration of the divine secrets; and note, too, what perils constantly surrounded them when among men, and how God visited them when alone.

Overwhelmed by the spectacle of God's indignation, Jeremiah, too, sat alone (Jeremiah 15:17). He asked that his head might be a fountain, his eyes a spring for tears, to mourn the slain of his people (cf. Jeremiah 9:1); and that he might the more freely give himself to this holy work he exclaimed, "O, that I had in the desert a wayfarer's shelter!" (cf. Jeremiah 9:2), clearly implying that he could not do this in a city, and thus indicating what an impediment companions are to the gift of tears.

Jeremiah also said, "It is good for a man to await the salvation of God in silence" (Lamentations 3:26) - which longing solitude greatly favors; and he adds, "It is good also for the man who has borne the yoke from early youth" (Lamentations 3:27) — a very consoling text for us, many of whom have embraced this vocation from early manhood; and yet again he speaks saying, "The solitary will sit and keep silence, for he will lift himself above himself" (Lamentations 3:28). Here the prophet makes reference to nearly all that is best in our life: peace, solitude, silence, and ardent thirst for the things of heaven.

Later, as an example of the supreme patience and perfect humility of those formed in this school, Jeremiah speaks of "Jeering of the multitude and cheek buffeted in scorn, bravely endured."

John the Baptist, greater than whom, the Savior tells us, has not arisen among those born of women (Matthew 11:11), is another striking example of the safety and value of solitude. Trusting not in the fact that divine prophecy had foretold that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb, and that he would go before Christ the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah (cf. Luke 1:11-17); nor in the fact that his birth had been miraculous, and that his parents were saints, he fled the society of men as something dangerous and chose the security of desert solitude (cf. Luke 1:80); and, in actual fact, as long as he dwelt alone in the desert, he knew neither danger nor death.

Moreover the virtue and merit he attained there are amply attested by his unique call to baptize Christ, and by his acceptance of death for the sake of justice. For, schooled in sanctity in solitude, he alone of all men became worthy to wash Christ (cf. Matthew 3:13-17) — Christ who washes all things clean —, and worthy, too, to undergo prison bonds and death itself in the cause of truth (cf. Matthew 14:3-12).

Jesus himself, God and Lord, whose virtue was above both the assistance of solitude and the hindrance of social contact, wished nevertheless, to teach us by his example; so before beginning to preach or work miracles he was, as it were, proved by a period of fasting and temptation in the solitude of the desert (cf. Matthew 4:1-11); similarly, Scripture speaks of him leaving his disciples and ascending the mountain alone to pray (cf. Matthew 14:23). Then there was that striking example of the value of solitude as a help to prayer when Christ, just as his Passion was approaching, left even his Apostles to pray alone (cf. Matthew 26:39-44) — a clear indication that solitude is to be preferred for prayer even to the company of Apostles.

We cannot here pass over in silence a mystery that merits our deepest consideration; the fact that this same Lord and Savior of mankind deigned to live as the first exemplar of our Carthusian life when he retired alone to the desert and gave himself to prayer and the interior life; treating his body hard with fasting, vigils and other penances; and conquering the devil and his temptations with spiritual arms (cf. Mat thew 4:1-11).

And now, dear reader, ponder and reflect on the great spiritual benefits derived from solitude by the holy and venerable Fathers — Paul, Antony, Hilarion, Benedict, and others without number — and you will readily agree that for the spiritual savor of psalmody; for penetrating the message of the written page; for kindling the fire of fervent prayer; for engaging in profound meditation; for losing oneself in mystic contemplation; for obtaining the heavenly dew of purifying tears, — nothing is more helpful than solitude.

The reader should not rest content with the above examples in praise of our vocation; let him gather together many more, either from present experience or from the pages of Holy Writ.

 

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