Working to halt today’s intertwined social, ecological, and spiritual crises is a pressing task requiring more than ad-hoc activism. It requires a deep praxis flowing from a strong and healthy inner self. The famous ancient axiom “know thyself” has become crucial in a modern global society that barrages us with fragmented information that contributes to the construction of our similarly broken identities.
In Solitude and Compassion: The Path to the Heart of the Gospel, which consists of 20 chapters divided into three parts, Gus Gordon writes that “One of the fundamental dynamics we discover in human existence is the interplay and sometimes tension between solitude and solidarity.” He argues that both the Buddha’s and Jesus’ teachings foster a healthy balance between our inner self and concern for others. Through this comparative method, Gordon releases the powerful message of both teachers and the traditions their teachings spawned.
The Buddha taught that humanity’s life purpose was to find enlightenment through a lifetime of serious meditation, study, and solitude. Enlightened individuals understand clearly that all beings are interconnected in an impermanent universe. Thus, Gordon maintains that for Buddhists, “The spiritual path … begins with a period of retreat from the social world, like a wounded deer looking for a solitary, peaceful spot to heal her wounds.” This period is necessary for a Buddhist to develop the spiritual maturity required to effectively and positively impact the world.
The Buddhist tradition of solitude is analogous to the ascetic traditions of the Christian desert fathers, who, in the third and fourth centuries, started practicing a “hermit” spirituality that required practitioners to meditate, pray, and work at the hermitage. By freeing themselves from external concerns, they believed their souls would gravitate toward the Divine. Like the Buddhists, these spiritual hermits sought “enlightenment,” an intimate relationship with God that would translate into more compassionate relationships with their neighbors.
Similarly, Jesus balanced his inner needs while heeding his contemporaries’ pleas for justice. In the book’s most notable chapter, “Jesus and His Radical Gospel,” Gordon reminds us that Jesus was a layman who, through his intimate personal relationship with God, perceived “compassion [as] the core value in [his] interpretation of the Torah, and it was in conformity to this paradigm that Jesus insisted that the people of God were to structure their collective life.” Jesus’ personal relationship with God reinforced his belief in compassion, which led him to challenge the corrupt and unjust political and religious structures of his day. This threat to the status quo resulted in Jesus’ crucifixion, a death penalty reserved for the Roman Empire’s most detested enemies.
Sadly, according to Gordon, Christianity has consistently domesticated Jesus’ radical message of solidarity by prioritizing personal spiritual growth over social justice. As a result, writes Richard Rohr in the book’s preface, “We have ended up worshipping Jesus almost as a substitute for actually following him in either message or method.” Jesus’ radical solidarity with his marginalized contemporaries is exemplary. We should also be attentive to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ retreat from the towns to the desert, where he would attempt to deepen his inner spirituality.
As Jesus’ life and teachings show, this spiritual chasm between attentiveness to the inner self or to others is false and ultimately unfulfilling. Concerning ourselves solely with “I” can lead to a closed-in, narcissistic spiritual paradigm. And working for social justice and peace without recognizing our true identities, passions, and vocations will often result in shallow exercises grounded not in authentic concern for justice, but in placating our egos.
Gordon also explores the negative consequences of living in a society that overemphasizes the pursuit of wealth, success, and pleasure at the expense of our families, justice, an environmentally sustainable planet, and our inner self. Our entertainment- and power-driven society has made many of us unable to cope with solitude and silence. It is a true paradox that while our society is overly materialistic and individualistic, our inner “individual” selves have disintegrated rather than strengthened. We have become what Gordon calls a “herd society”— a society that follows the unjust and unsustainable status quo. We have also become callous toward the oppressed and marginalized of our day. This has led to an increase in social injustice, environmental degradation, and an empty, nonprophetic spirituality.
Though Gordon’s book is scholarly and often technical, anyone with passion for justice will find this book inspiring. Above all, it presents us with hope that the interrelatedness of solitude and solidarity will indeed birth a powerful spiritual model capable of saving our planet, our oppressed neighbors, and ourselves. We all have the capability to balance solitude and solidarity and thus do our part in forging a global civilization of justice and peace. As Gordon states, “Every person is primordially oriented to both the mystical transformation of the inner self and to an active participation in the transformation of the world.”
César J. Baldelomar, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, is director of the Pax Romana Center for International Study of Catholic Social Teaching, www.pax romanausa.org.