It is easy to overlook those moments in the Gospels when Jesus withdraws from others. They come across as pauses, a rest between miracles, parables, and edifying encounters such as that with the rich young man. The work of Jesus’s ministry takes place amid others, and the exchanges can be taxing, as when the Canaanite woman asks his help and he replies that his bread is not for dogs. “And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:26–27), and Jesus relents. The souls he helps and tangles with make him weep and roar; he denounces, mourns, blesses, and heals. Disengagement allows for calm and quiet. Especially in Luke 4:42, his solitude marks a retreat from the madding crowd: “And when it was day, he departed and went into a desert place: and the people sought him, and came unto him, and stayed him, that he should not depart from them.” Here and elsewhere, the people press and beseech, and Jesus needs a respite.
But, of course, the isolation has a positive content. It’s not about getting away from others but about going toward something else. Jesus isn’t alone. He’s with the Father. Prayer can happen in company. Church worship is corporate prayer. But there must be times when a soul petitions the Father in solitude. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone,” but Jesus’s example shows the periodic necessity of making God your only companion. Too often the world draws you away from him, and so you must slough off your circumstances and address him by yourself, oriented toward nothing else, no outside distractions or commitments. The first commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Loving your neighbor comes second.
We are in danger of losing these replenishing, corrective moments of solitary faith. Silence and seclusion are harder to find, and fewer people seek them out. You find a lone bench in the park on a fall afternoon, gaze up at the sky through the branches, and begin the Rosary only to have a power walker march by barking into an invisible mic. It’s not just the noise, it’s his connection to absent persons, as if to say that being in one place alone with the Lord is insufficient.
Social media is the culprit. Texting, selfies, updates, chats, snapchats, tweets, multiplayer games, blogs, wikis, and email enable people to gossip, boast, rant, strategize, self-promote, share, collaborate, inform, emote, and otherwise connect with one another anywhere and all the time. The volume is astounding. Earlier this year, Facebook boasted 1.23 billion active users, while late last year Twitter’s 200 million users sent 400 million tweets per day. According to Nielsen Media, a teen with a mobile device sends or receives on average around 3,300 text messages per month, in addition to logging 650 minutes of phone calls.
Those habits, which researchers term “hypersociality,” dominate leisure time. Data analyst Bill Tancer found in 2008 that social media had passed pornography as the most popular type of search. The whole range of fallen human motives passes through the tools, but the prime one is, precisely, “I want not to be alone.”