By Bethany Bell
“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret;”- Matthew 6:6 “
I’ll admit that writing about solitude is challenging for me. As a Mother of three children, five and under, it isn’t something I am too familiar with these days. But, despite that, I know solitude is important for prayer. I found Jesus retreating away to pray at least six times throughout the Gospels and I know if I dug through the Old Testament I would have found Moses, David, Elias, and others retreating away to commune with God. So I then considered why Jesus sought solitude while in prayer and how we should follow that example.
The Carmelite Doctors refer to Christ as the Bridegroom and the Spouse of our souls. This would only make sense then that these intimate conversations would take place apart from others. And I think if our earthly relationships are vulnerable enough such that a retreat from others is needed, how much more intimate were Jesus and God the Father’s conversations! Seeking solitude allowed for Them to share this intimacy without distractions, watchful eyes, or listening ears. We too should want our conversations with Christ to be this way. Another thing we can takeaway is the intentionality of seeking a place apart from others. Our life can be so busy, almost on autopilot. Seeking a place apart from the everyday moments has us mark that this time is sacred and important because we have sought out a space all for an intimate conversation with Jesus, our Divine Spouse. Jesus too was busy performing many miracles, preaching, and teaching - caring for His children. Being fully divine and fully human, in His humanity, He too needed to be intentional about His time with His Father. If He did this, how much more do we need to be intentional?
The Eastern Desert Fathers also teach that seeking solitude is an interior disposition, characterized by attentiveness. We need to attentively turn inwards and find that interior space in our heart that is for Jesus. This space should have one solitary purpose and only be filled with one thing - Love. St. Paul taught us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit - Yes, God dwells within us. The Christian East and the Carmelite Doctors bear witness to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in humanity in their mystical teachings on prayer. If God dwells within us, then let us go and greet this Divine Guest and Gift of Gifts!
What does seeking solitude do for our prayer life? It makes us more intentional. For me, if I want solitude it means I have to give something up - it’s just that simple. And the simple thing I have to give up is something I love, which is sleep. It means I have to set my alarm for 30 minutes earlier so I can wake before the kids and have my time with Christ. Or it means that I have to stay up 30 minutes later to get my alone time with Christ. While on paper it seems silly, but giving up sleep is a self emptying act for me because I like to sleep… a lot. But as we know, those self emptying acts are beautiful opportunities because by leaning into them there now is a smidge more space for the Holy Spirit. And the more space He has, the more my inner space will be transformed into Love. A hymn to Mary from the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great chants, “...for He made your body a throne and made your womb more spacious than the heavens." Mary did a great self emptying act when saying “Yes” to God and she was filled beyond measure with the Holy Spirit, becoming what the Fathers called the Ark of the New Covenant, or the Most Holy God-Bearer (Theotokos). Let us imitate our Blessed Mother! Your act of kenosis may look different than mine, and certainly Mary’s, but the result will be similar - you will have less you and more Christ in your interior space!
13th century depiction of Our Lady of the Sign- The icon depicts the Theotokos during the Annunciation at the moment of saying, "May it be done to me according to your word."
The “how” to seek solitude is the most difficult part. It will look different for everyone and it will even look different depending on the day! Today I didn’t get up early so my time spent alone with Christ was driving home from school after I dropped the bigger two off. It wasn’t long but it was enough time to call on the Holy Spirit, to pray a decade and have a small chat about my day. It wasn’t perfect but I seized the opportunity that I was given. Look for those little moments throughout your day; I know you will find them too! I pray that this week continues to brings you peace and joy during your intimate moments with Christ, but do not be dismayed if the experience is difficult either. St. Teresa of Avila told us that prayer is a battle and that even if we spend the whole time gently turning our distracted attention back to God repeatedly, we never walk away from prayer without grace. The important thing is to see distractions as an opportunity to be humble before God, to recognize our dependence on the Spirit to help us pray, and then to beg for alms from our Father who is a Giver of many gifts. Remember to be like Mary, the Magi, and St. Simeon. Open your heart to the joyful anticipation of the infant Christ, the Son of God.