On Dejection and Solitude

“The soul’s health is achieved not by a man’s separating himself from his fellows, but by his living the ascetic life in the company of holy men.  When we abandon our brothers for some apparently good reason, we do not eradicate the motives for dejection but merely exchange them, since the sickness which lies hidden within us will show itself again in other circumstances.” – St. John Cassian, On the Eight Vices, pp. 87-88 of The Philokalia

My immediate reaction to feeling depressed or discouraged is to think, “I need to be alone.”  The fact that I’m an introvert intensifies this feeling.  Because I know I re-charge through time alone more than time with people, my first reaction to weariness is also to think, “I need to be alone.”  The problem is, though, that alone doesn’t always work. St. John Cassian is right: fleeing the company of others is rarely the cure for dejection. 

While weathering a season of discouragement several months ago, I repeatedly sought comfort in being alone.  Often, Cassian’s words proved true of me: anger towards others intensified rather than abated, self-pity replaced confidence, and questions were multiplied rather than answered.  Dejection increased the more I withdrew.  Cassian writes, “unless our passions are first purged, solitude and withdrawal from the world not only foster them but also keep them concealed, no longer allowing us to perceive what passion it is that enslaves us. . . . Our passions grow fiercer when left idle through lack of contact with other people” (p. 85).  I found this true because I sought to be alone, rather than to be in solitude.

There is an appropriate place for solitudein the life of a disciple, but intentional solitude differs greatly from simply separating ourselves from other people, or abandoning our brothers and sisters in the Church.  To be in solitude is not to be alone, but to be alone with God. When we forget the presence of God and imagine ourselves to be truly alone, “the sickness which lies hidden within us will show itself again.”  Alone, dejection leads to other vices.  But in solitude, dejection is transformed. 

The story of Elijah at Horeb in 1 Kings 19 provides a helpful example.  Elijah, burned out on his ministry, runs away.  He flees all company of others, assuming himself to be alone in faithfulness to the true God.  But in solitude he directs his feelings to God.  Poor, broken, and tired, he cries out to God, “Enough! Take my life, Lord, for I am no better than my fathers.”  God responds by sending an angel to him and providing bread and water.  God does not let Elijah remain alone.  Likewise, when we enter into solitude – when we spend our time alone with a deliberate attention to God’s presence – God speaks, asks why we are alone, hears our complaints, and then . . . sends us back to the company of others.  Elijah had to be reminded that he in fact wasn’t alone: “I will leave 7,000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal.”   Then Elijah is sent back to his work as prophet, but now with Elisha as an apprentice.  But Elisha does more than learn from Elijah.  Verse 21 says, “Elisha arose and followed Elijah and ministered to him.”

Elisha arose and ministered to Elijah.  God’s response to Elijah’s dejection and his fleeing the company of others was to speak to Elijah in solitude, and then provide community for him.   As followers of Jesus, we should realize that our calling into the community of the Church is a pure gift of grace, not a burden.  And it is that gift of community that we receive healing and strength to resist the demon of dejection.  Praise be to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the God of relationship who calls us into community.

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