Praying Loneliness Into Solitude

One of the unexpected benefits of the extra “home time” in this pandemic is a chance to grow closer to God and make peace with our alone time.

There is a difference between loneliness and solitude.  Being lonely is painful and difficult, but being alone can also mean a time of “solitude.”  Here is the difference:  Loneliness is feeling “cut off” from others, it despairs in the lack of companionship, but solitude is what happens when you open yourself to the possibility of time.  It is an exploration of the world around you whether that is books, music, nature, ideas, or even technology.  Solitude inspires creativity where loneliness erodes hope.

Lonely happens to us all, even to people of faith.  Sometimes the loneliness is caused by fresh loss and the appropriate response is to mourn.  This is especially difficult now when “social distance” is needed to lessen the impact of disease.  However, for those of us who are just not used to being alone, it is a different proposition.  We need to learn to move from loneliness to solitude.  One of the best ways to begin doing this is actually a spiritual discipline that comes to us from a man who lived in the 1500’s.  Today he is known as Ignatius of Loyola.

Ignatius was a soldier with a brilliant reputation as a fighter.  Though he was a “Christian” he felt his role was to defend the faith on the battlefield.  One day he suffered great injury as the result of being too close to a cannonball blast.  During his long recovery he began to study the life of Jesus (thanks to his sister-in-law, who brought him books to read to alleviate loneliness).

Instead of fighting for Christ, Ignatius became obsessed with living for Christ.  He began to imagine the life that Jesus lived.  His prayer life expanded to include imaginings of events in the life of Jesus.   As a result, he wanted to become closer to God.  He asked God to help him with this and a discipline of prayer came to him.  He considered it a gift from above and it is available to all of us so we, like Ignatius can move from loneliness to solitude.  It is called the “Daily Examen.”  Here is how you do it.

1.  Settle in to a quiet place of prayer.  Invite God’s presence and ask for clarity as you review your day.
2.  Review the activities of the day with gratitude.  This means to appreciate any little thing that was positive.  Maybe you had less pain, or got an unexpected text, call or email.  Maybe a bill was less than you feared it might be.  It could also be sunshine or a great cup of coffee. Gratitude paves the path to God.
3.  As honestly as possible, recall any feelings you experienced throughout the day.  Were you angry, happy, content, restless, resentful, fearful or lonely?  What event or memory prompted those feelings?   Is God trying to bring you to a new understanding?  This is where you may feel the Holy Spirit gently comforting or even challenging you.
4.  Choose one of those feelings or an activity from the day and pray for understanding and clarity.  Ask God to teach you.  Ask for help and strength and forgiveness.
5.  Finally, set the intention to be aware of God’s presence with you as you approach and live the day to come.  Ask God to renew your hope with the morning light and to open your eyes to opportunities to reflect and/or experience God’s love.

This prayer is ideally done each evening and it may take 5 minutes or 50 minutes (or somewhere in between).  The important thing is you “show up” and know God is doing the same.  Be patient with yourself.  Try to really embrace the idea that God loves you and wants to continue the good work begun in you.  Like Ignatius, you may find that the inactivity imposed upon you is an opportunity to grow closer to God who can transform loneliness into solitude.

–Rev. Lynn McLaughlin