Learning in Solitude

Our social media editor has arrived in Germany and now offers these reflections. The journey here was rough. I asked myself the “Why am I doing this?” question over and over and over and over. My months of German preparation have proven less than helpful, but hopefully, my skill with the language will progress with time. And, most urgently, I feel very far from all the people and places I love. The three years aspect of my move has only just really started to hit me. Still, as friend of the Tokens Blog Michael McRay has advised me, I can break that daunting time period down according to visits home. Only 11 weeks, therefore, until I get home for Christmas.

My sense of being overwhelmed in this self-inflicted solitude has been eased somewhat by a reading project I’ve undertaken. I’m reading Christine Valters Paintner’s new book Desert Fathers and Mothers to review for the Englewood Review of Books. The second chapter is titled “Your Cell Will Teach You Everything.” There are thus quotes like:

If a trial comes upon you in the place where you live, do not leave that place when the trail comes. Wherever you go, you will find that what you are running from is there ahead of you. So stay until the trial is over, so that if you do end up leaving, no offence will be caused, and you will not bring distress to others who live in the same neighborhood (23).

The commentary that Paintner offers for one of the readings in this section is helpful. She says that if in our solitude we are tempted to “run away,” we should remember that “we bring along our struggles with us.” And I think that’s right. Lee once told me that the PhD process will make me face all the ugly character traits I’d rather ignore during this process. That seems to be happening and I’m only on my second day. Of course the benefit here is that as I face these certain traits, I will have the opportunity to grow! As Paintner says, during the process of being where we are,

“[w]e notice what situations ‘push our buttons’ and cause us to have a strong energetic response. These always point to some place within ourselves that is struggling for freedom, that is limited by judgment or wounding. As we grow in awareness, we become intimate with our places of challenge and slowly free ourselves from unconscious reactions rooted in these patterns (22).

In short, reading about the Desert Fathers and Mothers has proven helpful during these first days because it has helped me see that desert places will allow past insecurities and wounds to be addressed in healthy, freeing ways. I am indeed in a desert of sorts. Paintner says that one’s desert can be physical—i.e., the desert, or a monastery—but it can also be mental—i.e., the massive number of thoughts that go through one’s head in solitude (see, e.g., 18). The swirl of troublesome thoughts forces me to take stock and slow down and pray and undergo healthy change. So hopefully this time in mental wilderness will help me overcome character flaws and undergo healthy change.

Here's to the desert.

Craig D. Katzenmiller is Tokens’ Social Media Editor. In October, he will begin Ph.D. studies in Liturgical Theology and Ethics at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg.