Can solitude present dangers to mental and physical health?

I am being called to a life of contemplation without joining a community. This phase of my journey requires solitude during a sabbatical to research and write my next monograph.  Are there any dangers to physical or mental health from such solitude? I do attend mass weekly and but I am minimizing my social activities.


Your first sentence all by itself raises some interesting questions. “I am being called to a life of contemplation without joining a community.”

At a glance it might appear the speaker is a person belonging to no community. I think you probably belong to a community. If so, have you thought about how your call to contemplative life may have been discerned and received from those comprising that human community?

Such reflection, I believe, will reveal a vitally important connection between community and the call to contemplative life. This point is really crucial. A person must be clear about this before venturing into physical separation and solitude from other human beings. A “sabbatical”, as I understand it, is actually a pretty deliberately circumscribed zone of solitude provided by an intentional community of scholars or a university.

You also speak of attending mass which is actually the supremely efficacious way of inserting oneself into the church community and the communion of saints. You’re on solid ground there. (“Minimizing social activities” is something that most people I know outside the monastery would probably benefit from.)

My point in these extended introductory remarks is to underscore the importance of situating solitude in the wider context of a community of faith. Does solitude present dangers to a person? Without due consideration to the points I’ve raised above, yes. In the ancient world, the desert was believed to be the abode of demons. We don’t talk that way today, but our own experience confirms the desert can be a dangerous place. That is because, in the desert, we have a new and intense experience of ourselves. The demons are in us. They live there comfortably and influence our lives in amiable partnership with us, largely anonymous because of the way Americans typically distract themselves with thoughtless conversation, entertainment, and busy-ness. In the desert, these distractions recede. We are brought home to ourselves and discover that we have taken in “boarders.”

We meet and engage the demons who live in us. Is there danger? Yes, there is danger here, but only for the person fleeing from the truth about himself. Such a person is easily deceived and so more likely to be ensnared by sin or despair. Embracing solitude, even very pronounced solitude, in the embrace of a community of faith, with the intention of engaging the truth about yourself, can be a grace-filled experience of renewal and even transformation.