A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Talking About Spirituality Today: 10

By Fr Tom Ryan sm

By Fr Tom Ryan sm

Five Gospel Loves:

e] Community and Solitude

We come to the fifth and final Gospel love: community and solitude.


Our human needs and desires are part of a larger pattern in life. Consider the two forces that hold the universe together: contraction and expansion. The force of gravity keeps everything in place. Without that unifying energy, the world would disintegrate. Things would fly off in every direction. It is what lies behind the human yearning to have bonds, to belong, to share life with others, to have a unifying centre in life. Here we find the need for community.



The typical and primary community is the family. It is here that our first and last experiences of love and belonging find expression. We are all aware how much the family is under threat. Further, there is a greater sense of the long-term harm and problems that arise in ‘dysfunctional’ families. Alternatively, there are other ways of understanding what constitutes a ‘family’ – beyond the traditional sense.

Beneath all these, there is the deep need to have a primary group to belong to which will generally involve a place we can call home. It will mean very basic sorts of ‘rules’ about spending time together. Even those who share a house or are flat mates typically put aside time each week for this – such as a leisurely Saturday breakfast.

This ‘time wasted with each other’ must be considered in the light of the spiritual life and the Church community. Think of how much Jesus appreciated the company of others. Our faith is nourished with others at the Eucharist.

People can also find it helpful to gain regular nourishment with and from others as part of a prayer group. Groups such as CLC (the Christian Life Community) can be very effective. The sense of belonging can be expressed through involvement in the wider community, as in voluntary organizations and interest groups.

All these various avenues can be particularly helpful for people who, for whatever reason, live alone. Of course, these days, regular internet contact or use of the phone or sms messages can be ways of keeping touch.phones

Nourishing this part of our lives will help nourish our relationship with God. Further, this community dimension of our lives is one of the many ways in which the Christian community is called to be a city on a mountain top, a light to the world.


The pull towards belonging and union with others is balanced by the other force – that of expansion. Scientists can observe how, since the Big Bang, the universe has continued to expand. There is an ongoing impulse to spread, multiply, create new forms of life. This is what lies behind the variety of our world. Its beauty comes from the many individual forms of life and of people. Each person is unique. This somehow needs to be nourished.

Au observes that solitude is time alone ‘for the sake of encountering ourselves.’ Without some measure of solitude in our lives, it is difficult to be at home with ourselves, with God and with others. Without it, a spiritual life is like a house built on sand ‘shallowly grounded and easily eroded’ notes Au. As has been said earlier in this series, we cannot give ourselves if we don’t have a self to give.Solitude Ryan 2

Spending time just with myself helps me to listen to my inner voices and to befriend myself as good company. Au cites the comments of an eleven year old boy when his parents were talking about the importance of solitude in all our lives: ‘is it like when I go into my room and sit in the corner by myself and the outside noises (like the banging of the pots in the kitchen) get smaller and smaller and the inside noises get bigger?’

We only need to look at Jesus’ example and his awareness of his own need to be alone. He needed to withdraw so that he could return and give of himself to others. Solitude is for the sake of the relationships in our lives – with God, family and others.

Finding the Right Balance

How do we balance community and solitude? This is very much a matter of temperament. Some people find the primary way they get new energy in their lives is through being with others. Others find they need time on their own to ‘recharge their batteries.’

Perhaps, as we get older, if we have been mainly extrovert in life, we will find the other side – the pull to solitude – will start to be a bit more urgent. Alternatively, someone of a general introvert make-up will probably find a need to mix with other people more than earlier in life.

As one of my priest friends once said: when it comes to community and solitude, it is up to each person ‘to mix their own drinks.’Solitude 2 Ryan


As we come to the end of this series on Talking About Spirituality Today, I am reminded of a conversation I had with another Marist priest some years ago before dinner. ‘Reg, what is holiness?’ I asked. In his gruff, gravelly, but wise voice he replied ‘The fullness of humanity.’ He was in very good company. St Paul prays for the inner self to grow strong by being built up, through love, so that we are ‘filled with the utter fullness of God.’ St Irenaeus writing around 150 AD says ‘The glory of God is the human person fully alive [brimming with life].’

We see that quoted a lot. But rarely do we see the rest of the sentence. Irenaeus then asks ‘What is life?’ His reply is ‘beholding God’ or ‘living in the presence of God.’

The First Letter of John makes that clearer. Our spiritual journey is one towards the future. While we already share in the divine life, what ‘we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is that, when it is revealed, we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is’ (3:2).

That will also mean He will see us as we really are. And we will see ourselves as we really are - in His eyes. That is when we will be our true selves – real. Velveteen Rabbit Ryan

‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day.

‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse.

‘It’s a thing that happens to you.

When a child loves you for a long, long time not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’



Wilkie Au, By Way of the Heart: Toward a Holistic Christian Spirituality (Paulist, 1989).

Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit.

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