Years ago I sat with a Henri Nouwen book in which he suggested that the first of three steps on the spiritual journey is the path from loneliness to solitude. I remember the feeling of reading those words, a feeling which clung to me while I sat with a group of seminarians discussing the text. The feeling was one of foreboding. If I embrace this spiritual challenge, I must first face the loneliness that is endemic in my life.
More than a half century later, I still feel the challenge in his words but in this season of life I feel more hope in them. In this passage I see the necessity of embracing the impermanence that defines our lives whether or not we are willing. Long awaited children turn first into toddlers and then teens, the fast pace of an elementary mom is inevitably followed by the quiet of the empty nest. Though I can grieve any particular relational loss, and there are many for which I grieve, the simple truth is that if we are blessed with longevity we will outlive any number of relationships. If we are blessed with authenticity, we will also outgrow more than a few. In our younger years our collecting tends to offset the losses, but as we crest midlife we inevitably begin to discover more time with one who gives us breath.
One of my favorite elders is an artistic extrovert who’s life was filled with color and beauty and people, lots of people. Well into her 80’s she was making friends and stirring conversation. Blessed with family both in town and literally around the world, she loved to travel and to regale visitors with the tales. Yet for more than a decade this beautiful woman’s memory has been leaving her. For many years now she has struggled to piece together words for a conversation and her stories no longer make cognitive sense. Stranger still is the silence that now sits around us as we visit. I am struck by the smallness of a world filled now only with caregivers and visits by family members, and even those growing more sparse as months turn into seasons, seasons into years and now years into a decade. Yet as I sit with her and together we take notice of a bird flitting outside the window, I hear a lilt in her voice, her spirit vibrant even as her memory is gone. As I consider the solitude that I feel in her presence, I am reminded of Henri Nouwen’s invitation to move beyond the loneliness.
As the shape of my life pauses in this transition time, now with both an empty nest and a clear calendar, I feel the invitation with a more balanced mix of emotions. Realizing the futility of the alternative, I am more ready to face the loneliness that lies in front of the solitude that I now seek. For this next journey I am grateful for breathing lessons, for lengthening days, and for the patter of the rain drops that hold my tears.