Conversation and Solitude

Jun 15th, 2021 • 6 min

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 168:

Chapter XXIV.

Conversation and Solitude.

To seek and to avoid conversation are two blamable extremes in the devotion of those that live in the world, which is that of which we are now treating. To shun all conversation savours of disdain and contempt of our neighbours; and to be fond of it is a mark of sloth and idleness. We must love our neighbours as ourselves, and to show that we love them we must not fly their company; and to testify that we love ourselves, we must stay with ourselves, when we are only by ourselves. “Think first of thyself,” says St. Bernard, “and then of others.” If, then, nothing presses you to go abroad into company, or to receive company at home, stay in yourself, and entertain yourself with your own heart; but if company visit you, or any just cause invite you into company, go, in God’s name, Philothea, and see your neighbour with a benevolent heart and a kindly eye.

We call those conversations evil which are carried on with some evil intention, or when the company is vicious, indiscreet, and dissolute: such as these we must avoid, as much as bees shun the company of wasps and hornets. For, as when persons are bitten by mad dogs, their perspiration, their breath, and their spittle become infectious, so vicious and dissolute persons cannot be visited without the utmost risk and danger, more especially by those whose devotion is as yet but young and tender.

There are some unprofitable conversations held merely to recreate and divert us from our serious occupations to which we must not be too much addicted, although we allow them to occupy the leisure destined for recreation. Other conversations have politeness for their object, as in the case of mutual visits and certain assemblies brought together to do honour to our neighbour. With respect to these, as we ought to be most cautious in the practice of them, so neither must we be uncivil in condemning them, but modestly comply with our duty in their regard, to the end that we may equally avoid both ill-breeding and levity.

It remains that we should speak of the profitable conversation of devout and virtuous persons. To converse frequently, Philothea, with such as these, will be to you of the utmost benefit. As the vine that is planted among the olive-trees bears oily grapes, which have the taste of olives, so the soul which is often in the company of virtuous poopie cannot but partake of their qualities. As drones alone cannot make honey, but make it with the help of the other bees, so it is of great advantage to us in the exercise of devotion to converse with those that are devout.

In all conversations, sincerity, simplicity, meekness, and modesty, are to be ever preserved. There are a sort of people who make gestures and motions with so much affectation that they cause trouble to the company; and as he who could never walk but by counting his steps, nor speak but by singing, would be troublesome to the rest of mankind, so they who affect an artificial carriage, and do nothing but with airs, are very disagreeable in conversation, for in such there is always some kind of presumption. Let a moderate cheerfulness be ordinarily predominant in our conversation. St. Romuald and St. Anthony are highly commended for having always, notwithstanding their austerities, both their countenance and their discourse adorned with joy, gaiety, and courtesy; “Rejoice with them that rejoice” (Rom. xii. 15). And again I say to you with the Apostle. “Rejoice always but in the Lord. Let your modesty be known to all men” (Phil. iv. 4). To rejoice in our Lord, the subject of your joy must not only be lawful, but also decent; and this I say, because there are some things lawful which yet are not decent; and to the end that your modesty may be known to all, keep yourself free from insolence, which is always reprehensible. To cause one of the company to fall down, to blacken another’s face, to prick or pinch a third, to hurt a fool, are foolish and insolent merriments.

But still, besides that mental solitude to which you may retreat, even amidst the greatest conversations, as I have hitherto observed (Ps. ii. 12), you ought also to love local and real solitude: not that I expect you should go into the desert, as St. Mary of Egypt, St. Paul, St. Antony, St. Arsenius, and the other ancient solitaries did, but to be for some time alone by yourself in your chamber or garden, or in some other place where you may at leisure withdraw your spirit into your heart and recreate your soul with pious meditations, holy thoughts, or spiritual reading. St. Gregory Nazianzen, speaking of himself, says: “I walked, myself with myself, about sunset, and passed the time on the seashore; for I am accustomed to use this recreation to refresh myself, and to shake off a little my ordinary troubles;” and afterwards he relates the pious reflections he made, which I have already mentioned elsewhere. St. Augustine relates that often going into the chamber of St. Ambrose, who never denied entrance to anyone, he always found him reading, and that after staying awhile, for fear of interrupting him, he departed again without speaking a word, thinking that the little time that remained to that great pastor for recreating his spirit, after the hurry of so many affairs as he had upon his hands, ought not to be taken from him. And when the Apostles one day had told our Lord how they had preached, and how much they had done, he said to them: “Come ye apart into a desert place and rest a little” (Mark, vi. 13).

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