The Balance of Solitude and Community

by Maria Wilson

Without the solitude of heart, the intimacy of friendship, marriage, and community life cannot be creative. Without the solitude of heart, our relationships with others easily become needy and greedy, sticky and clinging, dependent and sentimental, exploitative and parasitic, because without the solitude of heart we cannot experience the others as different from ourselves but only as people who can be used for the fulfillment of our own, often hidden needs.

- From Reaching Out by Henri J.M. Nouwen

These words from Nouwen may seem harsh to those reading them for the first time. But life experience has taught me and many others the truth and wisdom of his words. The phrase “solitude of heart” is referring to that time spent seeking God in prayer, reading the Word, and simply sitting in silence before God.

Don and I have been a part of many communities and small groups over the last forty-plus years. We originally met in a campus ministry that stressed the value of small groups and community. Since then we have been a part of and or led a variety of groups, whether it was young marrieds, parents of teens, Bible studies, church boards, or para-church organizations. The moment the reliance for spiritual growth and depth shifted from the individual's responsibility to participate in the group, something vital was lost.

In our busy lives, we find it easy to slide into the pattern of relying on participation in community over the “solitude of heart.” We excuse ourselves by saying, “I was in church on Sunday, I went to the board meeting, or I went to Bible study.” This pattern impacts not only us but the communities in which we are participating. We rely on the community for that which we can only receive from God. I have experienced this, but have had plenty of excuses as to why I was so “busy.” I was raising three children, and I was teaching Sunday School, I was leading the Bible study and on and on. I would fit in a quick prayer when I could but nothing near what is true “solitude of the heart.”

What about you? Are you so busy serving and doing that you have forgotten what it means to be with Jesus? How is this showing up in your communities or groups? I will close with some words from another man who experienced the truth of these words:

Let them who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community…But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Only as we are in fellowship can we be alone, and only he that is alone can live in the fellowship. Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in fellowship. It is not as though the one preceded the other; both begin at the same time, namely, with the call of Jesus Christ.

- From Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer