From “The Eternal Now”
by Paul Tillich, 1886-1965
Sometimes God thrusts us out of the crowd into a solitude we did not desire, but which nonetheless takes hold of us.
The prophet Jeremiah says, “I sit alone because your hand was upon me.”
God sometimes lays hands upon us. He wants us to ask the question of truth that may isolate us from most people and that can be asked only in solitude. He wants us to ask the question of justice that may bring us suffering and death and that can grow in us only in solitude. He wants us to break through the ordinary ways of human beings that may bring disrepute and hatred upon us, a breakthrough that can happen only in solitude. He wants us to penetrate to the boundaries of our being, where the mystery of life appears, and it can only appear in moments of solitude.
There may be some among you who long to become creative in some realm of life. But you cannot become or remain creative without solitude. One hour of conscious solitude will enrich your creativity far more than hours of trying to learn the creative process.
What happens in our solitude? Listen to Mark’s words about Jesus’ solitude in the desert:
“And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”
He is alone, facing the whole earth and sky, the wild beasts around him and within him, he himself the battleﬁeld for divine and demonic forces. So, first, this is what happens in our solitude: we meet ourselves, not as ourselves, but as the battlefield for creation and destruction, for God and the demons. Solitude is not easy. Who can bear it? It was not easy even for Jesus.
We read, “He went up into the hills to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.”
When evening comes, loneliness becomes more lonely. We feel this when a day, or a period or all the days of our life come to an end. Jesus went up to pray. Is this the way to transform loneliness into solitude and to bear solitude? It is not a simple question to answer. Most prayers do not have this much power. Most prayers make God a partner in a conversation; we use him to escape the only true way to solitude. Such prayers ﬂow easily from the mouths of both ministers and laymen. But they are not born out of a solitary encounter of God with humanity. They are certainly not the kind of prayer for which Jesus went up into the hills. Better that we remain silent and allow our soul, that is always longing for solitude, to sigh without words to God. This we can do, even in a crowded day and a crowded room, even under the most difficult external conditions. This can give us moments of solitude that no one can take from us.
In these moments of solitude, something is done to us. The centre of our being, the innermost self that is the ground of our aloneness, is elevated to the divine centre and taken into it. Therein can we rest without losing ourselves.
Now perhaps we can answer a question you may have already asked: “How can communion grow out of solitude?”
We have seen that we can never reach the innermost centre of another being. We are always alone, each for himself. But we can reach it in a movement that rises first to God and then returns from him to the other self. In this way, a person’s aloneness is not removed, but taken into the community with that in which the centres of all beings rest and so into community with all of them. Even love is reborn in solitude. For only in solitude are those who are alone able to reach those from whom they are separated. Only the presence of the eternal can break through the walls that isolate the temporal from the temporal. One hour of solitude may bring us closer to those we love than many hours of communication. We can take them with us to the hills of eternity.
And perhaps when we ask, “What is the innermost nature of solitude?”, we should answer, “the presence of the eternal upon the crowded roads of the temporal.” It is the experience of being alone but not lonely, in view of the eternal presence that shines through the face of the Christ and that includes everybody and everything from which we are separated. In the poverty of solitude, all riches are present. Let us dare to have solitude, to face the eternal, to find others, to see ourselves.