Category Archives: Solitude

A still voice…

I have often wondered why hills seem to be so popular with prophets and mystics. Moses climbed Mount Sinai, as explained in Exodus 19,

At the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain…

Jesus “went out to the mountain to pray; and… spent the night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6.12) In fact he made a habit of it: “many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (Luke 5.15b-16)

George Fox climbed Pendle Hill,

As we went I spied a great high hill called Pendle Hill, and I went on the top of it with much ado, it was so steep; but I was moved of the Lord to go atop of it; and when I came atop of it I saw Lancashire sea; and there atop of the hill I was moved to sound the day of the Lord; and the Lord let me see atop of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered.

(from Fox’s journal, quoted in Quaker faith & practice)

Part of it may simply be that climbing a hill is an act, not of some naive attempt to get physically closer to a God conceived of as “up there”, but of deliberately putting ourselves in the way of hearing from God. It may be the same impulse that leads us to silence and stillness in the awareness of God’s presence. A prayer like the Jesus Prayer, the “prayer word” in Centering Prayer, or the word “maranatha” in Christian Meditation, at least in part, seeks to do the same thing, to lead us to a state of inward withdrawal from the world of getting and doing into a condition of inner receptiveness, as Jesus explained:

But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

(Matthew 6.6)

(For what reward could God give us better than the gift of God’s presence?)

William Penn summed it up,

And you, young convinced ones, be you entreated and exhorted to a diligent and chaste waiting upon God, in the way of his blessed manifestation and appearance of himself to you. Look not out, but within… Remember it is a still voice that speaks to us in this day, and that it is not to be heard in the noises and hurries of the mind; but it is distinctly understood in a retired frame. Jesus loved and chose solitudes, often going to mountains, to gardens, and sea-sides to avoid crowds and hurries; to show his disciples it was good to be solitary, and sit loose to the world.

Quaker faith & practice 21.03 

[also published on The Mercy Blog]

Outstaring the Ghosts

The psalmist says, ‘You hide those who trust in you in the shelter of your presence.’ For ‘hide’ we might read ‘heal’. To sit with with our buried hurts and pains in the presence of the Lord is to allow ourselves to be healed by him. We no longer become involved in trying to sort them out, nor do we recoil from them. We sit quietly. We are beginning to have the confidence to outstare our ghosts.

Sometimes when people meditate or pray without words they are accused of trying to anaesthetise themselves to deaden their pain. But what we really do in our quiet prayer is to face the pain, engage with it, and transform it into energy for loving.

Benignus O’Rourke, Finding Your Hidden Treasure: The Way of Silent Prayer

Richard Rohr wrote, in one of his Daily Meditations (back in 2010 – it’s long been taken down):

We have put our emphasis on trying to love God, which is probably a good way to start—although we do not have a clue how to do that.  What I consistently find in the mystics is an overwhelming experience of how God has loved them.  God is the initiator, God is the doer, God is the one who seduces us.  All we can do is respond in kind, and exactly as Meister Eckhart said, “The love by which we love God is the very same love with which God has first loved us.”

The mystics’ overwhelming experience is this full body blow of the Divine loving them, the Divine radically accepting them.  And the rest of their life is trying to verbalize that, and invariably finding ways to give that love back through forms of service, compassion and non-stop worship.  But none of this is to earn God’s love; it’s always and only to return God’s love.  Love is repaid by love alone.

Our prayer, as contemplatives, is not something that is for ourselves alone, nor even – as if that were not sufficient – simply our response to our perceiving of the immensity of God’s love. I think this cannot be emphasised strongly enough. We need to understand that our life of prayer, especially if we are called to the contemplative life, is not a solipsistic, “self-actualising” activity, or some kind of relaxation technique aimed at producing a pleasant, stress-free state of mind, still less a quest for any kind of psychedelic experience. The contemplative vocation is as much as anything a call to intercession, and to a life lived in the shadow of the Cross.

Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, in Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life, write:

Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them… but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises.

The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. No one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty – to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life.

A Camaldolese monk once wrote: “Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also ‘paying’ for humanity.” Suffering is part of the hermit’s vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one’s chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.

What the Fredettes write applies, of course, to the contemplative life however lived, whether in community or in physical solitude. The contemplative life has always been to a great extent a life lived in hiddenness, and in our own time, when the culture of celebrity and notoriety is continually whipped up by the press and social media, it is deeply counterintuitive to seek to live this way. These days relatively few of us live in true solitude, and still less of us in the more or less enclosed forms of community traditionally inhabited by contemplatives – the Carthusians, for instance, or the Poor Clares – and so we live not so much hidden lives as lives hidden in plain sight, ordinary, unrecognised and quiet. This hiddenness is really more a way of just getting out of the way – of standing still enough to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of mercy.

This life of inner solitude and hiddenness – for it is hidden from our own selves within as well as outwardly – is in many ways lived for others. We stand out in the wind, and in some mysterious way we relive Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai, when the Israelites said to him, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

The ghosts we outstare are not our own merely; somehow in the silence of prayer we find ourselves confronting the ghosts of those we live amongst, touching the shadows that our post-Enlightenment age casts across all our lives, touching, as did the monks of Mount Athos during the years of the Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s atrocities, the dark skirts of chaos and cruelty that brush continually against our civilisation. Yet our prayer does, as I wrote yesterday, “tend… always to stillness, to wholeness of mind and spirit, to the peace of God, beyond our understanding…” It is that peace we seek for those with whom our prayer and our lives are inextricably caught up, just by being frail, temporary human things.

[Originally published on The Mercy Blog]

Drift lines

It is just over a week ago now that I had a cardiac procedure carried out at the Dorset County Hospital, which by great good fortune is just across the road from us, and has an excellent cardiology unit. I was able very carefully to go to meeting last Sunday, feeling tired and somewhat battered, but already in better health than I had been for a long time.

I have written elsewhere about the liminality inherent in life itself. Sitting in meeting last Sunday it came to me that I was conscious of this in a new way now. I had heard on Saturday that a Friend from our previous Area Meeting, a man I had felt close to since being one of his visitors when he applied for membership some years ago, had just died from precisely the condition for which I’d been treated.

Richard Rohr once wrote, in a slightly different context,

The edge of things is a liminal space – a very sacred place where guardian angels are especially available and needed. The edge is a holy place, or as the Celts called it, “a thin place” and you have to be taught how to live there. To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one. When you live on the edge of anything with respect and honour, you are in a very auspicious position. You are free from its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.

Margery Abbott, in her excellent Pendle Hill Pamphlet Quaker Views on Mysticism, writes, 

…mysticism as known within the Society of Friends is our awareness of (or belief in) God’s presence, individually and in the corporate Meeting for Worship, an awareness that results in a changed perception of the world and a willingness to be guided by the Spirit, the Inward Light, the Christ Within. Quakerism is strongly prophetic – it is about listening for that which is eternal and bringing the divine word to the world.

We are liminal creatures, we humans; the difference between us is never so much a difference in liminality as it is a difference in our awareness of it. Over recent months I have been blessed to see this liminality for myself with a new clarity and immediacy. Our lives here seem so all or nothing to us, so identified with who we are, that we forget we live on the shoreline of something so much deeper and wider than we have imagined, the ground of all that has been made. We are just beachcombers, really, walking the drift lines amid the seaglass and old lumber, dazed and entranced by a light we cannot understand.

A Life with Ravens

Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them… but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises.

The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. One one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty – to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life.

A Camaldolese monk once wrote: “Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also ‘paying’ for humanity.” Suffering is part of the hermit’s vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one’s chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.

Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life

This calling to a life of interior solitude (see my other recent post here) has been growing on me more and more strongly, and becoming clearer, in recent years. The essence of this way is not so much physical solitude – though it does necessarily involve what Caroline E Stephen (Quaker Faith & Practice 22.30) called “a due proportion of solitude” – but an interior hiddenness which avoids excess or conspicuousness, or seeking for roles or causes.

The ravens of the title are of course the ones who brought Elijah bread and meat in the wilderness (1 Kings 17.2-6). A life with ravens is a life dependent upon God not only for existence but for meaning. The shadows that fell across the Kerith Ravine were the shadows of God’s purpose, and the loneliness to which he had called Elijah was sustained by the ravens of God’s grace.

I wrote elsewhere, “It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift.” The hiddenness to which I am increasingly drawn is a way of getting out of the way – of standing still enough to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of mercy.

The dark and puzzling times in which we live can so easily draw us into taking sides, feeling we must “join the fight” against this or that injustice, or “struggle” against forces beyond our control or understanding which threaten the very existence of humanity. These military metaphors contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety and guilt, where nothing we can do is ever enough, and any rest or stillness is a betrayal of our comrades-in-arms. But grace is not mediated by aggression, and peace may not be found by way of war. Craig Barnett wrote:

…the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ – allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

Hiddenness appears to me to be not so much a matter of hiding away as hiding in plain sight, just as true simplicity is often more about the avoidance of a complicated life than the embrace of a heroic primitivism! To be “quiet and unrecognised” is deeply counterintuitive to a society driven by opposition and notoriety, and  threatens the paranoia so assiduously cultivated by mass media who, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

To face not only the suffering of our sisters and brothers, human and otherwise, but the misunderstanding of our own inner political selves, and to embrace them in our love and our compassion, within the awareness of the presence of God, is a peculiar form of prayer. It is more like a form of penance, really. But it is in this contemplative practice itself that we make real the mysterious interconnectedness of all that is made, and through which our own solitary prayer seems to bring healing and hope in even the “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23) itself.

Hermits in disguise

There have probably always been hermits-in-disguise: the old woman living alone at the edge of the village, the family man who, as the years went by, gradually retreated into a place inside himself where his wife and children couldn’t follow. Maybe these people were quietly living a life of inner solitude, a wordless faith that remained unexpressed even to themselves. Perhaps they were the unsung spiritual heroes and heroines on the way to the life of being rather than doing that so many religious traditions consider the peak of spiritual development. Or perhaps they weren’t. Maybe they were just grumpy misanthropes or dysfunctional types who couldn’t cope with the demands of relating to others. God only knows.

It’s often forgotten that monastic communities began as groups of hermits who gathered to support each other in what was a fundamentally solitary enterprise. (‘Monastic’ comes from the Greek monos, alone.)… the experiences reported from [solitude’s] frontline seem to confirm Thomas Merton’s claim that hermits are the real McCoy, more serious about getting close to God than their community-minded counterparts. It’s a view that transforms them from anti-social creatures to explorers of a realm beyond the frontiers of known religious experience, prepared to take greater risks and endure more hardship than the average person.

Alex Klaushofer, The Secret Life of God: a journey through Britain

Living a life of interior solitude, as a Quaker or in any other religious tradition familiar in the West, is a strange and sometimes chancy business. It is easily misunderstood, as Klaushofer hints in the passage above, and it is vulnerable to the human impulse to dramatic gestures, spectacular renunciations, and other wasteful mistakes. Eve Baker wrote, on this very subject, “Dramatic gestures are easy, simple faithfulness requires more effort.”

I have been strangely blessed by a relationship in which “[a] due proportion of solitude” (Caroline E Stephen, 1908, Quaker faith & practice 22.30) is all but taken for granted. In a marriage, or any 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”. It seems to me that such a journey is one to which I have not only been called, but astonishingly equipped, through no virtue of my own.

I have quoted elsewhere in full Fr Laurence Freeman’s Advent Address last year, but in this context part of it may help express what I am getting at:

The word ‘wilderness’ in Greek is eremos, an uninhabited place. This gives us the word hermit, one who lives in solitude. In meditation we are all solitaries.

Meditation leads us into the wilderness, into a place uninhabited by thoughts, opinions, the conflicts of images and desires. It is place we long for because of the peace and purity it offers. Here we find truth. But it also terrifies us because of what we fear we will lose and of what we will find.

The more we penetrate into the wilderness, the solitude of the heart, the more we slow down. As mental activity decreases, so time slows until the point where there is only stillness – a living and loving stillness. Here, for the first time, we can listen to silence without fear. The word emerges from this silence. It touches and becomes incarnate in us. It incarnates us making us fully embodied and real in the present.

Only here, where we cut all communication with the noisy, jeering, fickle crowds inhabiting our minds do we see what ‘fleeing from the world’ means. What it does not mean is escapism or avoidance of responsibilities. It means to enter into solitude where we realise how fully, inescapably we are embodied and embedded in the universal web of relationships.

I am coming gradually to realise that for me, the danger of “escapism or avoidance of responsibilities” is not so much to be found in turning away from the news of politics, the agitation and conflict of social media, but in allowing myself to become caught up in them.  “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Matthew 24.6)

I am not separate from God, ever. I could have no existence outside what is, for I am. I am intricately part of what is, and all that is is held in the ground of being, which is God. I’m more interested, as RS Thomas once said (The David Jones Journal R. S. Thomas Special Issue (Summer/Autumn 2001)) in the extraordinary nature of God. But that implies – how can it not? – the realisation that I am inextricably involved with all else, human, animal or otherwise, that is. How else could prayer work?

More on being a Marsh-wiggle

Yesterday I wrote of the call to a kind of solitude in prayer and openness to the Spirit leading to “mov[ing] deeper into the saltmarsh of the spirit, closer to the edge of the last sea…”

I’m aware of some ambiguity here. Am I suggesting a life of physical solitude, moving away from marriage, and the companionship of Friends, to a distant shed or cabin in the woods, as some, notably Thomas Merton and Brother Ramon SSF, have done? Catherine Doherty wrote of a poustinia in the marketplace: a hermitage set among city streets, with some kind of an outreach, an “apostolate” in the Roman Catholic terminology. Is that what’s involved? I have asked myself these questions for many years, and the answer seems gradually to be emerging in a way simpler and stranger than I had imagined.

Eve Baker writes:

The desert to which the solitary is called is not a place, but something that must be there below the surface of ordinary human existence. It is nowhere, a place of thirst after God…

The disciplines of solitude will be different for everyone. Maintaining an inner cell of quiet will be a greater struggle for the person with family obligations or for those whose life involves working closely with other people… It is like having a compass in one’s hand, pointing to the true north. The busyness of life will swing the needle, but it will return again to the same direction.

I have found myself with very few family obligations, and since taking early retirement after an accident, few definite obligations to other people. But my heart is easily divided, and I far too readily fall into old patterns of treating contemplation as raids into the unknown in search of material. I have been a poet, and an improvising, occasionally composing musician; it is hard to break habits developed over many years

For me, I am coming to believe, there has to be a pattern of a very interior asceticism. As Baker writes, “Dramatic gestures are easy, simple faithfulness requires more effort.” It may be that I have to some degree to restrict my involvement in the busyness of Quaker life. Certainly I must be extremely careful of unthinking creative commitments!

Eve Baker again:

Prayer is not so much a matter of specific occasions, forms, words, but a constant orientation towards God which becomes habitual. This is the hidden life which goes on inside the external one which differs little from any other human life except for the hidden search for solitude, silence and simplicity…

I am beginning to find, all over again, the essence of the tax collector’s prayer in Luke 18.13-14, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” The more transparent one’s life becomes to the light, the more that light shows the stains, the broken edges of the heart. This is a very ordinary thing, not at all arcane. Certainly it is nothing to take credit for. The light is what it is; gradually one is laid open, that’s all, and the thing is not to take the offered baits of distraction and easy solace among familiar or shiny things.

There’s a lot I don’t understand; but the saltmarsh of the spirit lies wide along the horizon, and the wind from the sea carries the clean scent of distance.

On being a Marsh-wiggle

I have struggled for much of my life with what might be described as my calling, my primary vocation, or whatever term might better be used to describe what I am supposed to do with my “one wild and precious life”, to plunder Mary Oliver again.

I have known since childhood the power of solitude, of lonely places; and I have always been most at home alone in the grey wind, without a destination or timetable, or sitting by myself in a sunlit garden, watching the tiny velvety red mites threading their paths on a warm stone bench. I used to think it was my duty to enter that world on some kind of a quest, looking to see what I might find, what treasure I might bring back to the known world.

Eve Baker writes, in Paths in Solitude:

The solitary is the bearer of the future, of that which is not yet born, of the mystery which lies beyond the circle of lamplight or the edge of the known world. There are some who make raids into this unknown world of mystery and who come back bearing artefacts. These are the creative artists, the poets who offer us their vision of the mystery…

But a raider is not at home: his raids are fitful incursions into a land not his own, and what he sees there he sees as raw material, uncut stones he may haul back into the world of action and reward, there to be cut into poems, music. The real treasures of the hidden world are scarcely visible to a raider, nor, like Eurydice, will they survive the journey back to the known world.

Eve Baker goes on:

But there are also those who make solitude their home, who travel further into the inner desert, from which they bring back few artefacts. These are the contemplatives, those who are drawn into the heart of the mystery. Contemplatives have no function and no ministry. They are in [that] world as a fish is in the sea, to use Catherine of Siena’s phrase, as part of the mystery. That they are necessary is proved by the fact that they exist in all religious traditions. Contemplatives are not as a rule called to activity, they are useless people and therefore little understood in a world that measures everything by utility and cash value. Unlike the poet they do not return bearing artefacts, but remain in the desert, pointing to the mystery, drawing others in.

Marsh-wiggles live, in CS Lewis’ Narnia, out in the salt marshes beyond the hills and the forest, and farther still from the cities bright with trade and pageantry. Their simple homes are set well apart from one another, out on the “great flat plain” of the marshlands. Puddleglum, the marsh-wiggle we meet in The Silver Chair, comes up with, when his back is against the wall, one of the most remarkable statements of faith in Lewis’ fiction:

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones… We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia… and that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull as you say.”

Perhaps contemplatives are only kidding themselves. Perhaps they are, to take Baker’s semi-irony literally, quite useless people. But our uselessness may yet be a good deal more useful in the dark and doubt of humanity’s pain than all the utilities of the marketable world.

It seems that life as a marsh-wiggle may be closer to my own calling than I would have guessed. To move deeper into the saltmarsh of the spirit, closer to the edge of the last sea, may mean the giving up, not of love and companionship perhaps, but of many of the comfortable certainties, and the familiar tools of the raider’s life. A wiggle’s wigwam is good enough, maybe.