The Lost Art of Loneliness (by Sean Bess)
I recently came across a book entitled “A Treasury of the World’s Best Beloved Poetry.” The book belonged to my great grandfather. After his death my granddad let my mom, her sisters, and her brother comb through my great grandfather’s belongings and pick out a few things as keepsakes. My mom chose this book. The cover looks like an ancient, gothic wardrobe door. It’s a deep, rich brown with golden inlaid writing. The book is in great condition considering its age; the pages are still bright and flat, but smell like an abandoned building.
The night I found it I thumbed through the book’s pages, skimming over some stanzas from Shakespeare, Longfellow, Dickenson, Byron, Shelley, and others. But since that night there has been one poem in particular that I haven’t been able to escape: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Good-Bye.”
In his poem Emerson bids farewell to the crowds, to the “frozen hearts and hasting feet,” those gaining the world but forfeiting their souls, so to speak. He says goodbye to society, its ambitions, and its pretense of “grandeur.”
Good-bye, proud world! I’m going home
Thou art not my friend, and I’m not thine.
Long through thy weary crowds I roam;
A river-ark on the ocean brine,
Long I’ve been tossed like the driven foam;
But now, proud world! I’m going home.
Good-bye to Flattery’s fawning face;
To Grandeur with his wise grimace;
To upstart Wealth’s averted eye;
To supple Office, low and high;
To crowded halls, to court and street;
To frozen hearts and hasting feet;
To those who go, and those who come;
Good-bye, proud world! I’m going home.
I am going to my own hearth-stone,
Bosomed in yon green hills alone,–
A secret nook in a pleasant land,
Whose groves the frolic fairies planned;
Where arches green, the livelong day,
Echo the blackbird’s roundelay,
And vulgar feet have never trod
A spot that is sacred to thought and God.
O, when I am safe in my sylvan home,
I tread on the pride of Greece and Rome;
And when I am stretched beneath the pines,
Where the evening star so holy shines,
I laugh at the lore and the pride of man
At the sophist schools and the learned clan;
For what are they all, in their high conceit,
Where man in the bush with God may meet?
How are we supposed to read this poem? Is it a deathbed farewell, a celebration of an impending afterlife with God? Or is it simply the pronouncement of someone who is sick of society and has decided to get away for a spell? Truthfully, I don’t feel it’s necessary to know one way or the other. The poet is resigning indefinitely from society and is retreating to a place of silence and solitude. He is leaving the “weary crowds” to meet with God.
I’m convinced that people weren’t made to live in isolation, so I’m not endorsing any sort of reclusiveness. However, I am starting to think that maybe Emerson was on to something. I think everyone shares Emerson’s sentiments at one point or another. We grow weary of the world and its desires and we wish to escape, if only for a little while. Something crawls inside of us, like a virus, and makes us sick of the noise. We dream of somewhere so still and quite we can feel the earth rotating on its axis and hear it stretch and breathe like an old empty house.
King David wrote, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. Behold, I would wander far away, I would lodge in the wilderness.”
All throughout the pages if Scripture silence and solitude are held in high esteem.
In Exodus 19 Moses is on Mt. Sinai. He has slipped away from the crowds and climbed the mountain to be with God. The Scripture says that God came down to the mountain and that Moses went up. It seems to paint a picture of mutual effort on the part of Moses and God, like a married couple planning their anniversary.
It was on this Mountain that God spoke with Moses; He gave him His words. It was in such a moment of solitude, disserted with God, that He put His hand on Moses and passed by him in all His goodness. Moses felt the hand of the Almighty and saw the back of His glory. These moments with God were precious to Moses and essential for the survival of the people of Israel. It is through such moments of silence and solitude that we have God’s word today.
Consider Paul who, after his miraculous conversion, went to Arabia. Even though the specifics of his time there are unknown, I like to imagine that he whiled away the hours in quiet preparation for what was to come. The beginning of Paul’s ministry consisted of three days blind in a house and an undisclosed amount of time alone with God in Arabia. What followed were three missionary journeys and the penning of much of the New Testament.
The Gospels are littered with instances in which Jesus took time to escape and be alone with His Father.
In Matthew 4, after His baptism and in the beginnings of His recorded ministry, He was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. He was alone for forty days. He fasted and he was tempted.
In Matthew 14:13, after the death of John the Baptist, the Scripture says that Jesus left for a secluded place. In light of a tragedy, in a time of mourning, Jesus left to be alone with His Father.
In Matthew 14:23, after Jesus fed more than 5,000 men, women, and children with five loaves of bread and two fish he sent the crowds away and went up on a mountain by Himself to pray.
In Matthew 26, on the night of His arrest, Jesus took His disciples to the garden of Gethsemane. Once they arrived He left His disciples and continued further into the heart of the garden alone to pray. Up until the very moment of His arrest Jesus is enclosing Himself in silence and solitude, praying to His Father.
Luke 5:16 seems to sum it up nicely. “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
I was on a flight, flipping through the pages of a SkyMall magazine when I first saw the underwater headset. You can listen to music while taking a shower or swimming in the pool. Maybe I should lighten up and enjoy the technological advances, but all I could think was “Are we that determined to poach our lives of silence?” God values the secret moments, the lonely places, the quiet rendezvous, but today the average American who lives to be sixty five spends nine years of his or her life watching TV. Silence and solitude seem to precede the paramount events in life, and I fear that in disregarding the former we may deprive ourselves of the latter.
There is a word that comes to mind whenever I think of such moments with God: tryst, a lovers’ rendezvous. As in the case with Moses, God comes down and we climb up. As in the life of Paul, these sacred trysts precede the greatest events in our lives. As we see in the life of Jesus, these moments of silence and solitude should color our lives, filling the empty spaces before, during, and after all of life’s events.