She lived in solitude,
and now in solitude has built her nest;
and in solitude he guides her,
he alone, who also bears
in solitude the wound of love.
In stanza 35 of The Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross describes the blessings of a soul that lives in the peace and quietude of a solitary “settled in God and God in her”. Like the bird that prepares her nest, which requires labor, the soul too needs to prepare for this receptivity.
The soul at this stage of contemplation lives in solitude, but this is not necessarily physical solitude. More importantly, this solitude is for the sake of the Beloved. The solitude St. John is mainly concerned with is in reference to detachment or poverty of spirit. The soul is not attached to any particular knowledge from the world or from heaven nor does the soul take any pleasure or derived any satisfaction from these. The heart is empty, like the nest, ready to receive the one she loves – God and Him alone. There is a receptivity of the heart that was not there before.
St. John describes a characteristic of this contemplation when he describes the traits of a solitary sparrow in stanzas 14 and 15. The solitary desires rest but not in anything or to have any other company or affections. This is the third trait of the solitary bird which “is usually alone and allows no other bird close to it; when another perches nearby, it flies away.” Thus in this contemplation the soul is “stripped of them all” it does not “allow within itself anything other than solitude in God.” God alone.
This solitude is a quietude of soul or the “quietude of solitary love”. (stanza 35, introduction). The soul withdrawals from other satisfactions, comforts, and the support of creatures. God alone guides the soul through the liberty of spirit. The soul has learned “to silence and quiet the faculties so that God may speak.” (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk 3, 4:4)
When two people are in love they prefer to be alone rather than being in the company of others. If these two lovers that we are speaking of meet while others are around, they are deprived of an intimate encounter. They may not even be engaged in conversation with others around them, but just the presence of others deprives the lovers of a delightful experience. When two people are in love, they will not disclose anything intimate with each other unless they are alone. It is the same with a soul in union with God. When God unites with the soul he does so to speak in solitude to the heart. He speaks by filling the soul with divine knowledge now, only because the soul is empty of other images and forms.
God wants to exalt the soul “by making her equal to Himself” because “the property of love is to make the lover equal to the object loved” (stanza 28, introduction) Again this solitude is not implying isolation from others and being disconnected from creation and the beauty that surrounds us. This solitude bestows oneness. It is about sharing the solitude of God. Solitude makes sense when viewed this way – it is keeping company with the Beloved.
In stanzas 34 and 35 of the poem, the Bridegroom “describes the soul’s purity” and “her riches and reward for laboring and preparing herself to come to him”. The soul prepares and labors, like the bird that prepares her nest. There is a peaceful solitude in the soul – a peace that was obtained in “her victory over self”. (stanza 34, 4) Liberty of spirit has been attained under the guidance of the Bridegroom.
St. John of the Cross teaches that exterior solitude can assist in interior solitude enabling the spirit to soar up to God. This exterior solitude is in imitation of Jesus who often sought places of solitude to pray – to the mountain, the garden, a lonely place. Contemplation does bring forth an inclination to remain alone and in silence. Like the first trait of the solitary sparrow that, “perches on the highest things” which is contemplation.
In this solitude, the soul is truly led and moved by God. Like St. Paul in Romans (8:14) says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Essential to reaching union with God is solitude and the desire to be deprived of all this world offers in exchange for the love of the Bridegroom. It is in solitude that God speaks to the heart as described by Hosea the Prophet (2:14), where God led her into the wilderness to “speak to her heart”.
As a solitary soul, and for the love of God, everything which is not God or does not lead directly to Him, is refused its entry. This solitude only has meaning if the soul is “alone in Him”. Solitude according to St. John of the Cross is not really a void rather it is concentrating all human faculties and resources for receiving the life of God within the soul like the nest that is empty and receptive to receive. It is not restrictive; it is remarkably deep and vast. A large unbounded wilderness that is deeper and more boundless the more solitary it is.
The fruits of this solitude come from the relationship between this interior solitude and union with God. True liberty of spirit is a fruit of solitude. For solitude is the way to divine understanding. In this solitude and silence, the soul’s only activity is surrender, abiding in the beauty of God which is enjoyed and shared.
St. Teresa of Jesus encouraged her nuns to cultivate the habit of solitude. She longed for solitude for herself and it was solitude that consoled her. In a deep mystical experience, she experienced intense spiritual pain when God placed her in this expanse of solitude. St. Teresa described the experience this way, “I am oblivious of everything in that anxious longing to see God; that desert and solitude seem to the soul better than all the companionship of the world”. (Book of Her Life 20:13) St. Teresa, seeing that to commune with God is a great grace, arranged for herself times of solitude where she would withdraw “into solitude to pray and read”. (Book of Her Life, 7:3)
In a letter to Ana de San Alberto, St. John of Cross wrote that “Those who seek satisfaction in something no longer keep themselves empty that God might fill them with his ineffable delight. And thus just as they go to God so do they return, for their hands are encumbered and cannot receive what God is giving.” In prayer, we can ask God to help us and “deliver us from these evil obstacles that hinder such sweet and delightful freedom”.
Only through purity of soul, simplicity and meekness can the soul enjoy the peace and quietude of being in God and God in her. The reward for all this labor is that God comes and speaks to the heart in this solitude where there is silence of the senses and spirit. Union with God is the goal of our journey – a union of likeness brought about through love.
We can imitate the saints in seeking solitude in order to enjoy God, to love Him, and be loved by Him. Can we make more efforts to include more solitude in our day? What activities could we eliminate in order to obtain more solitude?