A Solitary Life

Many people live alone but do not necessarily live a solitary life. Many people live alone but do not necessarily live a lonely life. What is the difference between being alone, being solitary and being lonely?

I’d say that being alone is principally a physical fact. There are no other people around. One can feel alone in the midst of a crowd, of course, but doesn’t that just mean that there aren’t any other people whom one knows or can relate to in a personal way? It is as if they weren’t there.

To be lonely is more of a metaphysical or emotional fact. Whether there are people around or not makes no difference. If there are others around, one knows that one’s own being there doesn’t matter to them. It is as if one weren’t there oneself. One is isolated: a little island in the sea of indifferent humanity.

To be solitary is something different again. For me the word is full of religious overtones because, in the Catholic tradition, to be solitary, alone with the Alone, is a privilege and a joy. It is not necessarily an absolute solitude, however. There is a solitary side to community life, for example, that few will speak about; but that intensely private life of prayer and sacrifice is an essential part of what it means to be monastic, and I am well aware that it is not confined to monks and nuns. The Church has her hermits, but she also has her ‘solitaries in the world’ whose lives light up the darkness that envelops us. Today would be a good day for giving thanks for these anonymous men and women of God whose lives of quiet holiness, outside the formal structures of religion, are such a blessing to us all.


3 thoughts on “A Solitary Life”

  1. It’s a strange business whether being lonely or solitary.

    I can identify with being lonely in a crowd, because I’ve experienced it quite often, particularly if the crowd isn’t somewhere or with people that I don’t feel comfortable with. Looking at the Myers-Briggs personality types, I came out as ENFP, but it was quite borderline with INFP, so introversion or introspection appears to be a natural part of my makeup.

    I’m not sure how this ties in with being solitary, but I’m often quite comfortable with my own company, particularly when I want to be quiet and listen for God, or when I’m pondering on him, or preparing to write something, perhaps an essay or blog post.

    I do know that the community of disciples is something that I value and enjoy, particularly in worship or communal prayer – there is something affirming in this and perhaps relating to something written by Thomas Merton involving seeking God in isolation, while melded with the millions of others in the network of voices seeking God just fits.

    There are so many things that form us, and our lives and relationships are inextricably tied in with others, those we love, those we know and perhaps importantly, those we meet along the way. So, no matter how hard I try, I can’t and don’t avoid contact and interaction, I just seek somewhere in it all, a little quiet space for that vital commune with God away from the distractions.

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