Christmas and the gift of solitude
Christmas can be a rather tricky thing. It can be the most exhausting and stressful time of the year, or it can be a moment of profoundest joy and deepest peace. While we hear songs that invite us to enter into that silent night, we also get easily harassed by all sorts of noises within and without.
Marcel Pagnol was supposed to have said once: “In life, humans first learn how to walk and to talk. Later they learn how to sit still and shut their mouth.” But in a world characterized by a sea of electronic gadgets, social media, and an infinite array of Web content constantly streaming into our minds and consciousness, sitting still and shutting one’s mouth has become precisely one of the hardest things to do. But to lose this capacity for stillness is to lose our humanity. How might we be able to gain it back?
We might be able to gain our bearings and protect our inner peace if we consider a unique gift of Christmas that is not often thought of, let alone experienced. It is the gift of solitude.
For many of us, solitude is the last thing we associate with Christmas, what with all the parties, gatherings, and reunions that quickly fill our calendars. But if we pause for a moment and look at the story of Him whose birth we celebrate, and follow His story till His death on the Cross, we might be able to see that one of the most precious gifts He gave us is solitude.
Although solitude is commonly understood as the state of being alone, and indeed presupposes being alone, it is not the same as simply being alone. The absence of company is not a guarantee of solitude, even as solitude necessitates being alone. Not only that, one somehow preserves this solitude even in the company of others.
How then is solitude a gift of Christmas? Didn’t God come down and become like us, so that He could be with us? Doesn’t His name, Emmanuel, mean precisely that God is with us? How can He be with us and gift us with solitude?
If we consider the life of Christ, we will see that it is marked by solitude from beginning till the end. The circumstances of His birth were characterized by rejection and isolation. Initially, no one else was there when He was born in a stable, save for Mary and Joseph, and a few animals. Indeed the nativity was a scene of isolation. Although for sure Mary and Joseph did not wish to be in those circumstances—we know that they tried to look for a room in vain—when they found themselves in that situation they maintained their serenity, which is a mark of solitude. That is why the scene in the stable does not strike us as an abject situation, but rather a most holy, deeply joyous, and profoundly uplifting event.
When Jesus grew up, much of His life was spent in relative obscurity and isolation, and we call it the “hidden life.” Those 30 years must have given Him the opportunity to engage His own self in solitude. He must have relished solitude, which allowed Him to grow in self-awareness and inner strength.
Even in His public life, Jesus maintained His solitude. Every now and then He would find time for Himself. After a long day’s work in ministry, when often huge crowds would press against Him from every side, He would deliberately seek a way out and retreat into a place where He could be alone in prayer. And when He died on the Cross, we all know how isolated He felt, and experienced what was perhaps His greatest test of abandonment. It was terrible enough that most of His friends deserted Him. Worst of all, He felt forsaken by His very own Father.
But because Jesus had for years been trained, as it were, in the school of solitude, and was careful to preserve that state no matter what He did and wherever and with whomever He happened to be, He was able to maintain His inner peace despite the most painful and dreadful experiences of isolation and abandonment.
That same solitude also allowed Him to enjoy the company of friends, reclining with them at table to share bread and wine. This seems to tell us that we enjoy most the company of that person who is at home with himself. We have heard that loving others as we love ourselves means that first we must love ourselves, for we cannot love others unless we do love ourselves. This
also means that we can only be truly with others if we know how to be with ourselves, apart from others. It means that we seek and relish solitude, for in dwelling in solitude we grow in strength, attain inner balance, and gain the proper perspective in life.
The nativity is that wondrous moment of God’s giving of His own Self. From the depths of His solitude He came down to be with us, that each one of us might also receive and embrace the self that has been given to each one of us, the very self within which God Himself will be born.
As Christmas draws near, we are once again invited to enter deeper into the spirit of
Advent, and we can only do so in the stillness of our hearts and minds. To be able to enter into that solitude—and dwell in it—is perhaps the single most important grace that we can ask to prepare ourselves for that event of God being born amidst us, and becoming like us.
Take it from Mary, who humbly treasured everything in the stillness of her heart. Take it from Joseph, who quietly accepted his rather undramatic and anonymous role in the story of our salvation. Take it from the shepherd, whose inner calm and peace allowed him to hear the beating of the heart of the babe born under a solitary star.
From them we learn that there is no path that leads to the manger except the way of solitude. And through them we see no greater gift of self that we can give others than the self that has been shaped by and draws its power from the stillness of solitude.
Remmon E. Barbaza, PhD, is acting dean of the School of Humanities, acting chair of the Department of English, and associate professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Manila University.
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