A due proportion of solitude…

The amount of solitude which is attainable or would be wholesome in the case of any individual life is a matter which each of us must judge for himself… A due proportion of solitude is one of the most important conditions of mental health. Therefore if it be our lot to stand apart from those close natural ties by which life is for most people shaped and filled, let us not be in haste to fill the gap; let us not carelessly or rashly throw away the opportunity of entering into that deeper and more continual acquaintance with the unseen and eternal things which is the natural and great compensation for the loss of easier joys. The loneliness which we rightly dread is not the absence of human faces and voices – it is the absence of love… Our wisdom therefore must lie in learning not to shrink from anything that may be in store for us, but so to grasp the master key of life as to be able to turn everything to good and fruitful account.

Caroline E Stephen, 1908 – Quaker Faith & Practice 22.30

It seems to me that for those of us whose lot is not to stand apart from others really do need to take seriously the fact that “[a] due proportion of solitude is one of the most important conditions of mental health.” In a marriage, or other committed relationship, each party surely owes it to the other ensure that they do have “[a] due proportion of solitude”. This is one of the greatest gifts those who live together can give each other, not only to allow each other reasonable solitude, and each gently to safeguard their own, but actively to work for a way of life that allows reasonable, loving access to times alone with “the unseen and eternal things”.

I find it slightly odd that the chapter in Quaker Faith & Practice devoted to close relationships doesn’t seem to deal with this explicitly. There are several moving and inspiring quotations on the spiritual dimensions of relationships which have a bearing on what I’m thinking of, but I can find nothing clearer. The most striking of these passages seems to me to be Christopher Holdsworth’s, from 1985 (22.06):

I wonder whether we do not need to rediscover the possibilities of a friendship in which the deepest areas of experience may be shared. Certainly that kind of openness seems to have existed in earlier generations among a group who were very significant in the life of the Society. Until this century it was not uncommon for Friends to travel in the ministry, following a real sense of leading in this direction. Often they went out in pairs, one older, one younger. The study of their travels shows, I think, that their friendship became one in which they could open to one another their struggles and failures, their hopes and visions, when they became for each other the way through to the presence of God. On their journeyings, too, they met with Friends in their homes, seeking times for worship and prayer together, sometimes with whole families, sometimes with individuals. In this way they shared help on the inner journey with those with whom they met.

Even this, though, doesn’t engage directly with the issue of solitary space within loving relatedness, though it shows clearly enough the deep basis of trust and friendship required to allow each other our necessary solitudes. Rachel Rowlands and other have written movingly of the need for, and the dynamics of, community (22.20-29) but I should be glad of other Friends’ perspectives on giving each other the precious gift of stillness and solitude. To be in such a relationship myself is a most blessed thing, and to be able to give as well as receive such a gift is one of our most cherished expressions of our love.

The mystery of faith within relationship is deeper than many of us know, I think, and a loving, respectful exploration of it is one of the great adventures of living, and loving, together. But in order to do so, experience suggests that times alone with “the unseen and eternal things” are as necessary as times together. Each is then able to bring back to the hearth of the relationship the fruits of their travels in the silent places of the heart.

I rather wish it were possible to encourage more of such gift-giving among Friends – or at least to know how common it is, and how other Friends have found ways to make it part of their lives together.

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