[I continue to write Lenten reflections based on my collection of photos taken since I was a young teen.]

This slide from 1968 shows the pier in Dunedin, Florida at sunset. I took the photo when I was a summer intern at First Presbyterian Church there. I remember it as a stressful summer, youth ministry for which I was ill-prepared. It waDunedin Sunset.jpgs healing then to end many Dunedin days by walking over to the pier to watch the sunset.

I chose solitude as the theme today not because I walked there alone; Joan and I spent those romantic evenings very much together, hand-in-hand. But as I have looked at this view through the years, I see  something I didn’t notice when I “snapped the shutter.”

The sunset is lovely, and the boat heading in adds some interest. And there are some people on the pier. Wait. There are couples on the pier. Except for that one guy on the end. Alone.

Leaning on the railing, watching the boat, waiting for the sun to disappear on the horizon…in solitude. We could make up all kinds of stories about why he’s there alone. An evening ritual? Is he shedding the stress of his day? Is he missing someone he loves, or loved? Is he meditating or praying?

I mentioned that he was alone. He isn’t though, is he? There are perhaps eight other companions on the pier. (I think that closest to him there may be a couple sitting on a bench.) But while not alone, he is definitely in solitude. I wonder if he is more than content with that…or, is he terribly lonely?

I’m remembering a jazz instrumental by guitarist Larry Carlton: “Alone/But Never Alone.” Its contemplative tone suggests a promise of God’s faithfulness, not exactly a leap here: the same album included an exquisite solo version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” We may be physically apart from other people, or just feel alone. We may feel cut off from God, but, as Carlton’s title and the canon of Holy Scripture assure us, we are never truly alone.

Even Albert Woodfox, locked in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison for 43 years, (one of the so-called “Angola Three”) was not alone. I don’t know enough of his story to know whether he knew that, but I know it. Was he lonely? Of course. Was he alone? Depends on his/our theology.

But enough about aloneness/loneliness. There is this other word, solitude. I think of walking a quiet neighborhood street alone with my thoughts. A good thing. I consider a monk’s retreat from his/her community, moving into a hermitage for time alone (but never alone). A good thing. I imagine Jesus in the solitary confinement of the wilderness for forty days. Turned out to be a good thing, beasts and temptations aside. Or Jesus on the cross, not far from beloved family and friends, taunting soldiers, a condemned man hanging between tortured thieves. Jesus surrounded, but in solitude (with his psalms, thirsty and forsaken). A Good Friday thing.

In solitude we deal with our temptations, our failures, our forsakenness, and (may as well say it) our sins. But it is also in solitude that a voice says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” It is in solitude that we can pray with Richard of Chichester (1197-1253), “May I see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.”

Consider this in your own solitude sometime. It’s from Thomas Merton, who, as a Trappist monk, knew the solitude of the hermitage. “My only task is to be what I am, a man seeking God in silence and solitude, with respect for the demands and realities of his own vocation, and fully aware that others too are seeking the truth in their own way.”

As an introvert, I do value solitude as a spiritual gift. But even the most extroverted among us must carve out some time to be alone/but not alone. Quiet the heart. Settle the spirit. Breathe in the silence. Seek the truth. Watch the sunset — or the sunrise — by one’s self, not always, but  now and then.

It is in solitude that peace is most likely to find us.