Perhaps Bob Dylan's writing has resonated with so many because of his capacity to state common feelings in an imaginative way.

All of us have an inner voice that acts as curator in the museum of our memories and feelings. Some do not like the museum and avoid going there. What about those who are afraid of solitude? What if your mind is constantly dealing with doubt, the need to prove yourself or dread? 

What if chaos is the most comforting of your feelings and nothing gives you much relief?

For people who suffer with depression, dependency issues or a competitive need to always be doing something, the practice of solitude and fasting may be unbearable. Not everyone can spend prolonged periods of time in silence and alone. If you are afraid of solitude, you are not alone. You are not less of a Christian, because of your anxieties.

What changes in us when we practice solitude? What glimpse of God to we gain that changes our interior life? Should we spend more time alone or more time in community?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.... Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.... Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.”[1]

So why bother? Is solitude too risky to the soul? Like all spiritual practices, we may need to start with small increments before attempting a silent weekend retreat at a cabin. Maybe five minutes of solitude is a good starting place for an overly troubled soul.

Nathan Foster describes a silent retreat in the mountains. While initially enamoured with the beauty of the natural landscape, he ended up in a panicked state and collapsing in tears after a mad dash up the trail.

Despite my setting, within fifteen minutes restlessness began to creep in. I spent the next half hour vacillating between pacing and leafing through my book. Then with unexpected force I was struck with suffocating emptiness. My heart raced. My palms perspired. It was the same darkness I had found while fasting. I quickly looked for a remedy. I had no phone, computer, TV, music or person I could run to. I felt naked and alone.
“Shh, be still, child,” echoed a voice in my head. With the voice came a new courage. It was time to embrace whatever this madness was. It was time to face the beast, jump off the high dive, and run toward my fears.[2]

For certain, solitude will reveal your inner state of being. That is a good thing when you are ready for it. Times of solitude can be emotional and stir up all kinds of thoughts in you. Do you live with a nagging doubt that God is not with you?

Henry Nouwen had this to say about the emptiness we may experience in solitude:

“Is God present or is he absent? Maybe we can say now that in the center of our sadness for his absence we can find the first signs of his presence. And, that in the middle of our longings we discover the footprints of the one who has created them.
It is in the faithful waiting for the loved one that we know how much he has filled our lives already. Just as the love of a mother for her son can grow while she is waiting for his return, and just as lovers can rediscover each other during long periods of absence, so also our intimate relationship with God can become deeper and more mature while we wait patiently in expectation for his return.” [3]

Suffering is common to humanity. If you are in a state of suffering, you know the power of pain to reduce you. Henry Nouwen is suggesting that spiritual loneliness may in fact be the first sign of God’s presence. You may not see the light, but that can also be attributed to blindness and not because of disobedience or unworthiness. God is just as present to the blind as to those who can see clearly.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1952), pp. 77, 78.
[2] Nathan Foster, “The Making Of An Ordinary Saint”, Baker Books ©2014, p.71
[3] Henry Nouwen, Out Of Solitude: Three Meditations On The Christian Life