In our previous article in this series on Union and Communion, “One Hand Clapping,” we took a look at a phenomenon that is becoming more and more widespread in our American society: social and personal isolation. The breakup of the family, the acceptance of drug use, the increase in homelessness, all these indicate a breakdown of community relationships. This breakdown in its turn results in an individualism that only widens the various gulfs between people, gulfs that make communication difficult to the point of impossibility. We are becoming a nation of zombies each living in their own world. At the same time, we all sense that we are made for communion, and we rage against anything that seems to separate us. Anger is becoming a new normal in social communication.

We have seen that solitary confinement that lasts more than 14 consecutive days is listed as torture. One survey of American prisons dating from 2019 states: “between 55,000 and 62,500 prisoners were held in-cell for twenty-two hours or more per day on average for fifteen days or more.”[1] The effects of long-term solitary confinement include:

  • Visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Hypersensitivity to noise and touch
  • Insomnia and paranoia
  • Uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear
  • Distortions of time and perception
  • Increased risk of suicide
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[2]

Are such effects only to be found in prisoners incarcerated in our country’s jails? I mentioned above in increase in anger notable in public places. Suicides “increased 37% between 2000-2018 and decreased 5% between 2018-2020. However, rates nearly returned to their peak in 2021.”[3]  Over 48,000 people died by suicide in 2021. One in four Americans suffer from insomnia[4]. The use of certain drugs can definitely cause hallucinations as well as distort one’s perceptions and one’s sense of time.[5]

Are we becoming a nation where solitary confinement exists without prison bars? Where individuals are walking around shut up in their own minds? Solitary confinement imposed from without reduces contact with external reality to an absolute minimum: four walls, a floor and ceiling, a bed and toilet, plus whatever you see and hear during the one or two hours a day exercise period. Starved of external stimuli, the mind turns in on itself and feeds on what it finds there.

But there is another form of solitary confinement that is not imposed by others. The door of this confinement is not closed by someone else but is pulled shut by oneself. I can withdraw into myself and pull the door closed behind me, shutting out the outside world. To a certain degree, this is necessary for simple sanity. There is too much input, too many perceptions for me to handle. I am assailed by too many voices, too many images. I need to choose which ones I allow into my mind, and I must shut the door on what doesn’t help me. This is part of growing in wisdom. Just as I do not allow anyone and everyone to enter my house, so I do not allow anything and everything to enter my mind. I choose what I allow within, and I show the door to what does not help me.

But I never lock the door completely. I never shut myself up so totally that I lose contact with reality. In penal solitary confinement, the key to the door is held by another. In personal solitary confinement, I hold the key, and if I choose, I can lock the door against reality and throw away the key. Then I am truly shut into myself. I am truly alone.

We saw in our previous article that Nelson Mandela, enduring years of solitary confinement, wrote, “There is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks. Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything.”[6] When I shut out all reality and reduce reality to myself, I lose all points of reference. What is real? What isn’t? What can I know? How can I know it? We see that drug use has the effects of changing my perception of reality: “Drugs interact with the brain and body to alter moods, emotions, and behaviors by changing brain chemistry and a person’s perceptions, and by impacting how individuals interact with the world around them.”[7]

A certain level of self-questioning is normal and indeed necessary for growing in wisdom, but too much self-doubt can destroy one’s integrity and wholeness as a person. We see a striking instance of this in the New Testament. The Gospel of Luke opens with Zechariah, a priest “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”[8] Zechariah had entered the Temple to offer incense to the Lord, and “there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” The angel reassured him, saying, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord…even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, … to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Understandably, Zechariah was amazed. Such a promise had not been heard of since the time of Abraham and Sarah, nearly 2,000 years before. It seemed impossible and Zechariah objected, “I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” Yet he was troubled by more than the physical impossibility, for he began his objection saying, “How will I know that this is so?”

This can seem to us a reasonable question. After all, if a stranger appeared and promised us some impossible good, we would probably mistrust him also. And Gabriel’s response — “because you did not believe my words, … you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur,” — strikes us as cruel and excessive.

However, there is more to Zechariah’s reaction than appears on the surface. We can compare his reaction to that of Abraham and Sarah, who first received the same promise. God promised Abraham that Sarah would have a son, and later he repeated the same promise to Abraham and Sarah. Both of them laughed to themselves, and Abraham urged God to favor Ishmael, but clearly their disbelief was directed at the event itself: it was too good to be true! But neither of them expressed any mistrust of the messenger.[9]

Zechariah’s reaction is also puzzling since he is not asked to do anything unusual. He is not sent to convert a pagan nation like Jonah, or to confront an unbelieving king like Isaiah, or to face a den of lions like Daniel. He is not asked to do anything except to continue his married life and to name his son John. So why is he mistrustful? What causes his disbelief?

Another odd aspect of Zechariah’s reaction concerns his mistrust of his own judgment. He is a priest of long standing, blameless in the sight of God, and yet he did not trust his own discernment of spirits. Even though Gabriel removed his fear, a virtual proof that God is at work, Zechariah could not decide if the message came from God or not. A priest is an intermediary between God and human beings, but a priest who cannot recognize what is from God is a dangerous intermediary. He can lead people astray. For Gabriel to close his mouth prevents Zechariah from misleading others.

When Gabriel makes a similar announcement to Mary[10], we hear a very different question in reply. As with Zechariah, the angel’s presence filled Mary with fear, and he had to banish her fear and assure her that she was loved and cherished by God. He makes a similar prophecy that she will have a miraculous son, but Mary’s response is quite different from Zechariah’s. As a virgin, she knows that for her to give birth is a miracle far greater than any in Israel’s history. She does not question God’s ability to do as He promises. She does not doubt the angel’s word, or her own understanding of the message. She does not doubt anything, but she does want clarification. She wants to know how this development of God’s plan fits in with what she has understood until now to be God’s will for her. Either as a virgin consecrated to God for life or as the wife of Joseph, she wants to know how this new promise fits in with her previous knowledge of God’s will. How do the two pieces fit together?

Gabriel answers her question and shows that both her previous knowledge of God’s will and this present development belong together. Mary accepts the explanation and gives her fiat. There has been no hesitation in her responses. She has no doubt of God, or of the angel or of herself.

How can we explain these two different responses? In her “Life,” St. Catherine of Genoa writes that Jesus once said to her, “he who trusts in me must never doubt himself.”[11] Mary has no self-doubt because she trusts in God. She trusts that He will give her the light that she needs to see clearly and to choose wisely. She is praised for her trust by Elizabeth when she says, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”[12] The Greek verb pisteo means both “believe” and “trust,” but its primary meaning is “trust.” Trust is simply belief, faith, put into action. Mary trusts in God and therefore she can trust in herself and in her own judgments. She doesn’t need to double-guess her decisions. She has no barriers between her mind and reality. She perceives reality in the light of God’s grace, and she perceives it rightly, and she acts on her perceptions.

We see this lack of self-doubt in only two other persons in the Bible: we find it in Adam and Eve before the fall. The description of them in the state of grace says that “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”[13] In reading this verse, we tend to focus on physical nakedness and the shame that we feel from it. But in studying the biblical use of the word “naked” and “nakedness,” we realize that it refers to more than a physical state. It refers to our awareness of our weaknesses, of our tendency to sin, of our faults and failures. We feel naked because others perceive the weaknesses that we don’t want to see. Our interior defenses have been swept away. We have lost the mask behind which we hide, the image of ourself that we hold onto and that we try to project in the sight of others. Adam and Eve were created without weaknesses. They had no faults, no tendency to sin. They had no need of any emotional or psychological defenses. They were free to be themselves.

This applies even more to Mary, who was led at every instance of her existence by the Holy Spirit. She was totally free from any need of interior defenses, totally open to reality for she was totally open to God.

This is the opposite of aloneness, the opposite of any form of interior solitary confinement. This is perfect wholeness in oneself and perfect harmony with God and all reality. This is what we were in the beginning, what we are meant to be. This is part of what we lost with original sin, and in our next article we will take a look at what this loss involved.


[1] https://solitarywatch.org/2022/06/16/long-awaited-prison-census-shows-more-than-75000-people-in-solitary-confinement/

[2] https://afsc.org/solitary-confinement-facts

[3] https://www.cdc.gov/suicide/suicide-data-statistics.html

[4] https://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-releases/2018/june/1-in-4-americans-develop-insomnia-each-year#:~:text=BALTIMORE%20%E2%80%93%20About%2025%20percent%20of,of%20Pennsylvania%20which%20will%20be

[5] https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/How-drugs-affect-your-body

[6] Nelson Mandela, “The Long Walk to Freedom”

[7] https://americanaddictioncenters.org/health-complications-addiction/central-nervous-system

[8] Cf. Lk. 1, 6 & ff

[9] Gen. 17, 15ff and Gen. 18, 9ff

[10] Lk. 1, 2

[11] Catherine of Genoa (Life and Doctrine – Chapter 19, 1551)

[12] Lk. 1, 45

[13] Gen. 2, 25

Image: The Annunciation, by Pieter Pourbus, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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