The Solitude of the Dusky Cave

When I first saw the title of the epic novel Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel García Márquez, and got that it meant “one hundred years of solitude,” my heart leapt in anticipation. But 500 pages later, I finally grasped that the protagonists of the story didn’t get their promised seclusion; the title seems to have meant something else!

And let’s turn our thoughts to spiritual solitude.

For some believers, there exists a sweet solitude of the lone rider (“God and I”); but for others there is the hostile drawing into themselves (“I Alone, Without God”), an implosion.

We are all familiar with how Adam and Eve put on masks to hide themselves:

the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. (Gen 3:7-8 NRSV)

Now in fact, this was a symptom of an earlier refusal to live in God’s presence; they had turned a cold shoulder to God even before they covered up and ran away. The very act of eating the fruit was already a signal of their independence – not the emotional self-actualization of the adult, but the sulky leave-taking of the runaway child.

Emil Brunner wrote of this dark side of solitude in his 1934, Unser Glaube.[1]

Evil essentially is only the supposition that we can get along without God. This idea, “for my life God is superfluous: I am my own master,” is the poisoning of the spring of human life; from this source all life is poisoned. The sin of Adam and Eve “ye shall be as Gods” does not mean to have the idea that one is God, but to endeavor to be independent of God. Free from God, away from God is to be God-less, evil. Against this all the Commandments [in particular, the commandment to love God] are directed.

I imagine that Adam and Eve’s rebellion forms the basis for C. S. Lewis’s description of idolatrous solitude; Ransom has been dealing with the Lady (Eve) and the Devil, and as a fallen human being he turns within himself, even to the point of isolation from God, in order to regroup:

As soon as the Lady was out of sight Ransom’s first impulse was to run his hands through his hair, to expel the breath from his lungs in a long whistle, to light a cigarette, to put his hands in his pockets, and in general, to go through all that ritual of relaxation which a man performs on finding himself alone after a rather trying interview. But he had no cigarettes and no pockets: nor indeed did he feel himself alone.[2]

The key is that, in that unspoiled Paradise, the sense of God’s thereness could not be escaped, as it could be in the fallen planet Earth, and it felt like Someone was constantly looking over his shoulder:

… nor indeed did he feel himself alone. That sense of being in Someone’s Presence which had descended on him with such unbearable pressure during the very first moments of his conversation with the Lady did not disappear when he had left her. It was, if anything, increased. Her society had been, in some degree, a protection against it, and her absence left him not to solitude but to a more formidable kind of privacy. At first it was almost intolerable; as he put it to us, in telling the story, ‘There seemed no room.’ But later on, he discovered that it was intolerable only at certain moments – at just those moments in fact (symbolised by his impulse to smoke and to put his hands in his pockets) when a man asserts his independence and feels that now at last he’s on his own. When you felt like that, then the very air seemed too crowded to breathe; a complete fullness seemed to be excluding you from a place which, nevertheless, you were unable to leave…Taken the wrong way, it suffocated; taken the right way, it made terrestrial life seem, by comparison, a vacuum. At first, of course, the wrong moments occurred pretty often. But like a man who has a wound that hurts him in certain positions and who gradually learns to avoid those positions, Ransom learned not to make that inner gesture.[3]

That’s okay for people who live in Eden, but where does that leave the Christian who inhabits a fallen planet?

If one person associates spirituality with bright lights, noise, worship bands, high decibels; then an opposing error might be, not just lowering the decibels, but turning the volume off, the delighting in the complete absence of the Other (including the Lord), or like Ransom, saying, “Just give me a five-minute break, Lord, and I promise I will then click back on.” These people might flatter themselves on their self-sufficiency, when in fact they might be picking the venomous fruit that separates them from God.[4]

We will end with the prophet Elijah, whose flight to Mount Sinai has stoked many a sermon on psychological dysfunction. While hiding in a cave, Elijah heard a furious wind, then an earthquake, then a raging inferno. God did not choose to speak with him through them. But God did choose the medium of silence; or perhaps it was near-silence.

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave… (1 Kings 19:11-13 NRSV)[5]

And there God spoke to him, like Adam and Eve, “at the time of the evening breeze.” Elijah could not even point to the loud noises as reasonable cause to withdraw into himself; when God spoke every so slightly, Elijah was obligated to go forth from the solitude of the dusky cave, and to glorify the God who is present, and enjoy him forever and always. With no five-minute breaks.

And we have in the gospel the divine promise, that Christ is ever Immanuel, ever God with us; and the command of Christ, that loving God with all our being, thus being ever exposed and accessible to him, is our greatest work; and the words of Christ, which could for some sound like a threat but are intended as promise: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:20b)


[1] See Emil Brunner, Our Faith, Chapter 11, “The Ten Commandments and the Double Commandment.” May be read online at

[2] C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, Chapter 6. May be read online at

[3] C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, Chapter 6.

[4] I do not give much credence to the terms “introvert” and “extrovert”, because I regard any attempt to divide human personality into two, three, four, or even sixteen (I’m looking at you, Myers and Briggs!) categories as artificial and reductionistic. Nevertheless, those readers who self-identify as “introverted” will perhaps feel that their particular temptations fall into this description.

[5] The Hebrew qol demamah deqqah of 19:12 is not easily deciphered. It is traditionally a description of words softly spoken, thus a “still small voice” (KJV, similarly the ESV, NJB); or perhaps it refers to a sound without words, “a gentle breeze” (CEV, see also NASB, REB, and the Septuagint’s “sound of a light breeze”); or yet again, perhaps it is the inaudible “sound of sheer silence” (as above, NRSV).

“The Solitude of the Dusky Cave,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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