My parents live just a few miles away from my brother’s house, and if it were any other afternoon, they would be inside providing care for my two nephews. The pictures they sent recently painted a different reality. On this day, my parents were waving to their grandkids through the front window while the kids enthusiastically waved back. The littlest one was being held by his mom and said hello by repeatedly tapping on the glass.
This story joins the experience of millions of others who are trying to find ways of connecting during this pandemic. As I grapple with the reality of this crisis, I too find myself without the closeness of community. I have great longing to be near to those I love and show my care in person. The irony of the moment is knowing that the best way to love my community is to give them the space they need to stay healthy. Even on good days, this intentional distancing for the greater good is difficult. Often it feels like I am tapping the glass in search of connection. This is hard.
I often lack the vocabulary to properly articulate the dissonance between wanting to connect and being in isolation. The best words I can come up with have to do with feeling lonely or disconnected.
The 20th century writer Thomas Merton might be of help here with his wisdom about how we think about being alone. Merton was a American Trappist monk who lived in a cloistered community, which required him to be alone for long periods of time. He learned how being alone can serve as a life-giving practice. For Merton, being alone did not always equate to loneliness. In fact, it was the source of profound connection with God and community. He had a word for this: solitude.
As I learn to grapple with this temporary reality of social distance, I’ve been challenging myself to befriend solitude. Solitude teaches me to pay attention to my desire to connect. I am learning not to be afraid of that desire for relationship within me that rises in the midst of silence. It calls me to recognize that the true connection I long for is not just socializing — it is for communion with others.
Communion is more than just physically being with someone — it is an interior disposition. Therefore, solitude can be an opportunity to cultivate that disposition, even across distance — solitude can help us grow in compassion and concern, and to make room for others in our hearts.
If we can find a way to welcome it, solitude can be a gift, not a burden. The vacancy of everyday noise is opening up new spaces within my heart. My time alone can heighten my desire for authentic connection with others, and when I see that as a desire for communion, I can direct that seeking toward God and find a connection — both with Him and in solidarity with others.
My practice of solitude in service to communion so far has led to letting go of minor grievances and giving way to forgiveness. I have surrendered my obsession with efficiency in exchange for mercy. And that has been a gift.
This difficult time shall pass and we will be free again to go about our daily lives as we once did. In the meantime, though, may we discover the lessons that solitude might teach us: to listen, to heal, to discover new ways to love.