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Books: A classic read on the importance of solitude gains new resonance in a 24/7 world

Out of Solitude small

MATTHEW SMEAL, a writer and photographer who specialises in the humanitarian sector, finds “a depth that belies its simplicity” in Henri Nouwen’s 1974 book, ‘Out of Solitude’…

Henri Nouwen
Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life  
Ave Maria Press (revised edition, 2004; first published 1974)
ISBN-13: 978-0877930723

Out of Solitude


“Despite its brevity, Out of Solitude is brimming with a depth that belies its simplicity. Nouwen says much with little while…evoking peace and solitude in every page. There is no hurry. Nouwen’s style is the perfect companion to his subject. The result is a refreshing and contemplative reading experience to be savoured.”

In the foreword to Out of Solitude, Thomas Moore writes of author Henri Nouwen: “Nouwen creates solitude with the tone and style of his words. He evokes the very thing he is writing about.”

It is worth considering. Out of Solitude – Three Meditations on the Christian Life, is a short work – 63 pages including the preface and foreword. With its large print and wide margins, you could devour the book within an hour. 

But that is not the point. Despite its brevity, Out of Solitude is brimming with a depth that belies its simplicity. Nouwen says much with little while, as Moore alludes, evoking peace and solitude in every page. There is no hurry. Nouwen’s style is the perfect companion to his subject. The result is a refreshing and contemplative reading experience to be savoured.

Though Out of Solitude was first published in 1974, its relevance and need then can only be amplified now in such a digitally connected and COVID time that we live in 45 years later. 

With a daily challenge of communicating disasters and humanitarian work around the world, I have found the need for silence and periods of intense peace. Nouwen’s book became something of a revelation, a new friend to take solace in.

The book’s premise hinges on Nouwen reading in Mark 1, that “In the morning, long before dawn, [Jesus] got up and left the house, went off to a lonely place and prayed there”. The sentence comes as a sanctuary amidst an intense period of Jesus’ ministry: calling the first disciples, driving out evil spirits, healing many including a man with leprosy and a paralytic; and being questioned by crowds of people. 

The more Nouwen considered this “nearly silent sentence” in Mark’s Gospel, the more he had “the sense that the secret of Jesus’ ministry is hidden in that lonely place where he went to pray, early in the morning, long before dawn”; that it was in solitude that Jesus found “the courage to follow God’s will and not his own; to speak God’s words and not his own; to do God’s work and not his own”.

Nouwen writes three meditations: Out of SolitudeWith Care, and In Expectation. He begins each with a Bible passage (Mark 1:32–39; Mark 6:32–44; and John 16:16–22 respectively), then moves to an introduction to set up the coming body of the meditation where he unpacks the significance of solitude, care, and expectation; and concludes each section with an insightful bookend: drawing the reader back to the salient points of each meditation’s Bible passage which now radiate with new perspective.

For those working in the humanitarian sector, there is need for quiet. Days are spent absorbing information on another unfolding disaster, of more human suffering, of protracted crises without end; of summarising and distilling that information and making it palatable for various audiences.

For me, those times of solitude have often come (pre-COVID) during the long journeys home – crossing a country and fighting sleep in the back of a 4WD while watching a passing foreign landscape; sparse hotel rooms in forgotten towns and cities; hours strapped to an aeroplane seat in forced solitude, alone amongst faceless passengers; and quiet hours curled up in a corner of yet another airport waiting for a connecting flight. 

They are times to digest, to process – or at least to begin that journey- of things seen and stored in an ever-growing memory of pain and devastation. Time thereafter is spent on a beach, in the bush, somewhere quiet – somewhere in solitude, alone with God and the quest to make sense of the brokenness and somehow make a better world for all.

But everyone’s lives are busy. We are never truly alone in our digitally connected world. Times of real solitude – where we can be fully alone with our thoughts and with God – are increasingly difficult to find. But, as we see through Nouwen, they are crucial for our relationship with God. Even Jesus needed “to find a lonely place” and spend time with his father. Even Jesus acknowledged that, ‘By myself I can do nothing’ (John 5:30).

Out of Solitude is a book that rings true for embracing the solitude that Jesus found so restorative; for understanding the need to care for others, and then embracing the rising expectation of Jesus’ return. In the final meditation, Nouwen reminds us of Jesus’ words, “You are sad now, but I shall see you again, and your hearts will be full of joy” (John 16:16).

Out of Solitude is, therefore, a hopeful book. It is a book for now, yet it is a book of reflection and a book for the future. In an age of uncertainty, in a time of COVID and digital connectedness, it is a book that encourages time in solitude to, as Nouwen says, “discover that being is more important than having”.

Matthew Smeal is a writer and photographer who specialises in the humanitarian sector. He works as a communication specialist with Baptist World Aid Australia.




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