Growing a garden of solitude in the desert of loneliness

In a few weeks our household is hosting a learning circle on the idea that hospitality is ‘making room’. Our thoughts about this have been influenced a lot by the writing of Henri Nouwen – in particular his book Reaching Out. Some of us used to draw on his ideas when we were working in the city. I thought I’d some blog posts over the next few weeks explaining ‘making room’.

In Reaching Out, Nouwen described a spirituality that helps to sustain hospitality. Nouwen was coming from a specifically Roman Catholic perspective, but I think his ideas could be useful to people from a range of different religious or non-religious locations. From Nowen’s perspective, spiritual growth involved reaching out in three different directions:

  • reaching toward ourselves, by moving from loneliness to solitude
  • reaching toward others, by moving from hostility to hospitality
  • reaching toward God, by moving from illusion to prayer (this one comes across as the most religious, so feel free decide whether that is or isn’t for you)

When describing the movement from loneliness to solitude, Nouwen noted that our globalised society doesn’t make space for solitude. The normal mode of operating is to try and fill our space with people and busyness. We think that we’re going to escape loneliness by crowding ourselves in with people and activity. Nouwen reckoned that by expecting other people to take away our loneliness we’re actually putting an unreasonable burden on them. By expecting other people to take away our loneliness, we doom them to disappoint us.

Nouwen believed that what we actually need to do is come to terms with our aloneness. This was how he believed we could move from loneliness to solitude. He talked about entering the desert of loneliness and gradually beginning to grow a garden of solitude there. Nouwen said that if we can become content being alone, this prepares us to be part of community. Coming to terms with our aloneness allows us to participate in hospitality without burdening others with our demands.

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