The Importance of Solitude

In the late 1980s, I discovered the writings of the late Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest, university professor, and psychologist.  After having taught at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale, he went on to work with mentally handicapped adults in Ontario. 


He was a prolific writer.  I remember reading books such as The Way of the Heart, The Wounded Healer, and In the Name of Jesus.  As I read Nouwen, I was deeply moved.  There was something about his writings that fed me at the time.  I found myself going back again and again to certain paragraphs in his books.  After reading these three books, I then read most of what he had published at that time.


The following is an excerpt from his book Making All Things New.

To bring some solitude into our lives is one of the most necessary but also most difficult disciplines.  Even though we may have a deep desire for real solitude, we also experience a certain apprehension as we approach that solitary place and time.  As soon as we are alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us.


This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again.  Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires.  On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distractions, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force.


We often used these outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises.  It is thus not surprising that we have a difficult time being alone.  The confrontation with our inner conflicts can be too painful for us to endure.


This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.  Solitude is not a spontaneous response to an occupied and preoccupied life.  There are too many reasons not to be alone.  Therefore we must begin by carefully planning some solitude.


(Cited in Richard Foster’s Devotional Classics, pp. 95-96.)  

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20 thoughts on “The Importance of Solitude

  1. This is a great post and oh so very true. Solitude is a discipline and not an automatic work and reality in our lives. However, the fruit of solitude is fantastic. The road to solitude is, however, bumpy, to say the least.
    Blessings in Christ Jesus!


    Ecc 4:6
    6 Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.

    Isa 30:15
    15 For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, "In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength." But you were unwilling,

    Isa 32:17
    17 And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.

  2. Phil,Thanks for these very appropriate verses.I appreciate your comment (and the one you made  yesterday as well).  Thanks again, 

  3. L.L.I had not thought of that.  That is very true.  (I went to your website and enjoyed looking around.  In particular I want to read some of the articles/interviews on writing).

  4. Jim,

    I really enjoy reading your blog. Your perspective on all things eternal blesses me. I too have been reading Henri Nouwen. His insight is wonderfully refreshing. I recently read his Genesee Diaries where he spent 9 months in a trappist monastery. I would highly recommend this book. Also another great book I recently read concerning solitude is ‘Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence’ by Ruth Haley Barton.

    The hardest thing I find about entering into silence and solitude is finding the time. Most of our days are filled with ‘stuff’ and not enough time is filled with silence and solitude which is precisely why we need to make a place for it in our daily living.

    Peace and grace to you.

  5. Jim, I see solitude as a neat segue out of what you’ve been discussing regarding honesty.  We can hide almost anywhere and in nearly all social settings, but we cannot hide from ourselves when we are alone for an extended period of time.  Since we tend to speak lies to each other in all our togetherings our shell only grows more rigid in the arid deserts of those various social contexts.  When, however, we are in solitude, there is no one around to lie to us, and slowly, painfully, the true self begins to come out of exile.  If we will open the sacred text and allow the word to read us while we are in solitude, we can begin to see the depths of our fallenness, the infinite need for grace, and the blessed reality that, in the end, we are never less alone than when we are alone.  The Other becomes uncomfortably present.

  6. One of my favourite quotes from Augustine is, “My soul floundered in the void and came back upon me. For where could my heart flee from my heart…” I think about that in terms of solitude quite a lot… its a hard thing to do and may be painful to start, but eventually we become more ourselves, we lose the junk that weighs us down and gain more of God.

  7. David,Thanks for coming by.  Thanks for your comment as well.   I have not read Ruth Haley Barton.  Thanks for the recommendation. 

  8. Ben,You express it well!  You are so right regarding the lies that go back and forth through out the day/week/month etc.  I suspect it would be frightening if we knew just how pervasive this is.Thanks 

  9. Emma,So glad to have one of your comments again.Thanks for the Augustine quote.  How appropriate and fitting.I like the expression you use– "…eventually we become more ourselves" 

  10. Jim, it’s a phrase that runs through my head quite a bit… that we chose to believe that what God has said about us is true, that that is who we truly are, and we are just learning to live it out more and more each day… to become more ourselves… that being a Christian isn’t really about becoming someone else, but becoming more of who God has said we already are, who we really are.

  11. To quote Paul Tillich (I hate quoting Tillich): "Lonliness is the word we use to refer to the pain of being alone; solitude is the word we use to refer to solitude of being alone."

  12. I am finding such richness and wealth in your blog. I appreciate this post especially because it is so difficult to find solitude in a family with 5 kids and constant activity. My most treasured moments are ones where I simply sit at my desk and THINK.
    Thanks for being relevant to today’s lifestyle.

  13. which is exactly why I can easily fall asleep in front of the TV but will stare at the ceiling for "hours" laying in my comfy bed in a dark room.I wonder if David would have written such beautiful psalms and known God so well, if he had been listening to his ipod and talking to his brothers on the cell phone while shepherdingsince quoting some writer seems to be mandatory here, how about this by peter kreeft…"Solitude, the thing which ancient sages longed for as the greatest
    gift, is the very thing we give to our most desperate criminals as the
    greatest punishment we can imagine. 

  14. Emma,You said it very well!  You said it better than I could have.  We really are most fully human when we are in Christ and are being transformed into the likeness of our true identity. 

  15. John,Thanks so much for your kind remarks regarding this blog.  Very encouraging.I hope you will comment again, John.  

  16. Allan,A great quote.  (Though I admit I was laughing when I read the sentence in brackets, "I hate quoting Tillich." ) :) Thanks,  

  17. Brian,Thanks!  I hope you will comment again.  Thanks for coming by.Thanks also for the very interesting quote by Kreeft. 

  18. This excerpt jumped out to me: "The confrontation with our inner conflicts can be too painful for us to endure…"
    When I lead the song "On Zion’s Glorious Summit," I will ask the congregation to focus on one full minute of silence and meditation after the sanctus.  It seems so appropriate, yet feels so uncomfortable – A missing element in our lives.
    Thanks for sharing, Jim.

  19. Keith,It is interesting how silence is so uncomfortable to us.  I suspect that the more stimulation we experience everyday, media, IPod, phone, e-mail, etc. the more difficult it is.