“In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me — naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken — nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. But that is not all.

“As soon as I decided to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in a banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces. I give long, hostile speeches to my enemies and dream lustful dreams in which I am wealthy, influential, and very attractive — or poor, ugly, and in need of immediate consolation. Thus I try to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory.

“The task is to persevere in my solitude, to stay in my cell until my seductive visitors get tired of pounding on my door and leave me alone. The ‘Isenheim Altar’ painted by Grunewald shows with frightening realism the ugly faces of the many demons…The struggle is real because the danger is real. It is the danger of living the whole of our life as one long defense against the reality of our condition, one restless effort to convince ourselves of our virtuousness. That is the struggle. It is the struggle to die to the false self. But this struggle is far, far beyond our strength. Anyone who wants to fight his demons with his own weapons is a fool.” (Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, pp 27-28).

What Solitude Is


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