When I asked my PhD friend to reflect, after over 30 years of therapy with high-powered executives and pastors, why leaders have such a difficult time stopping and being still. He laughed. “Pete,” he replied with a smile, “They are terrified. They can’t stop. Their self is so tied into achievement, into their doing and work, they are afraid they will die if they stop.” This Isenheim Altarpiece painted by Matthias Grünewald some time between 1512 and 1516 captures the intense struggle to die to the false self. We see ugly demons trying to torment Anthony of Athanasius to leave the place of solitude with Jesus.
Each of us needs to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw and allow the gentle touch of Jesus free us. The shape of the discipline of solitude will look different for each of us. But one thing is sure — a fruitful life can only flow out of a direct and intimate encounter with Jesus. Solitude is its own end. It is the place where Christ frees us from the addictions of the world. While it is the place of great struggle, as Henri Nouwen says, it is also the place of purification and transformation. Anthony of Athanasius spent twenty years in solitude. When he emerged, he had become so Christlike, so filled with the love of Jesus, that his entire being was a gift to the world. People flocked from around the known world to be with this free, transformed man. May the same be true for us.