Solitude: Third Sunday in Lent 07

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 11 March 2007

'Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lose our inner watchfulness.' St Anthony (AD 251-356)

That quote comes from one of the Desert Fathers, monks who in roughly the 3rd and 4th centuries after Christ, escaped the cities of their world and went into the wilderness, alone or in small groups, to forge the life of the hermit monk. The writings - 'sayings' from these monks have come down to us, along with stories of their lives, their quest for holiness and simplicity in the desert.

What do these Desert Fathers have to say to us in the busy urban lives that we live now? How can the insights of a desert monk possibly speak to those of us with full timetables, hemmed in with buildings and streets and cars and people and shops? We, whose homes are filled with the chaos of busyness and the responsibilities and demands of our children?

The Desert Fathers chose the way of escape, they pursued the luxury of the single, hermit life. While we might find much to admire in that, surely we, in our active, productive, lives have chosen the better way? We contribute so much more to the world...don't we? And even if we would like the life of a hermit...we don't have their choices, we can't just run away from our responsibilities even if we wanted to...can we?

Thankfully, life is not so binary that we need to make a choice between being a hermit on the one hand, and being a slave to the demands of our modern lives on the other. While some of us may be called more to one end of that spectrum or the other, most of us live lives somewhere in the middle, seeking to find a way of simplicity, wholeness, and peace with God, in the midst of the hurly burly of this world's life.

However, this middle way is something of a tightrope, and I suspect that our tendency is always towards being consumed by the busyness and ever increasing speed of our lives, unless we have in place some intentional practice of seeking simplicity. Because simplicity and wholeness and peace with God is not achieved just by inertia, by laziness. It doesn't come just by collapsing into a heap and escaping the world with a range of anaesthetics, from books to movies to drinking to drugs. To find simplicity in the midst of our lives takes a positive choice towards some practices of simplicity, not just a negative choice to 'be less busy'. A simple life is not necessarily 'easy.'

This is where I find this book to be a valuable source of insight: Paula Huston's 'The Holy Way: practices for a simple life.' This book is the story of a woman - an extrovert, like me, a busy woman, like me, a talkative, opinionated, ambitious, capable woman, like me. It's the story of her search for simplicity in the midst of her life. The book charts her lessons along the journey, along with some great simple summaries of some of the Christian tradition's great saints and contemplatives.

Her first chapter is on solitude. And it's probably important here to make a distinction between the solitude that is sought out, intentionally, with a sense of seeking God, and the kind of solitude that happens by default, when we find ourselves alone for a few hours, or when we live alone, or work by ourselves in an office. For example, I was at home by myself, when I wrote this sermon, but I don't consider that I was practising solitude particularly at that time. And solitude is not the same as loneliness, the aloneness that is not wanted or intentional, but that is a product of other factors in our lives, and that produces misery.

The kind of solitude that Huston writes about is the solitude of the hermit, the deliberate setting aside of other demands to be alone with God, and alone with the self, without other distraction, and without the normal routines of daily busyness.

Huston's experiment with including solitude in her life began with 15 minutes at the beginning of each day, when she would take a chair out to a far corner of her property, and sit by herself. After experiencing the value of this for a while, she added 15 minutes at the end of her working day. After which, she began walking by herself, for 45 minutes a day. The next step for Huston, was to seek out a weekend retreat, at a monastery a couple of hours drive from her home. And this pattern of regular retreating became a significant part of her ongoing journey into other practices of simplicity.

She was still working full time. She still had children at home, and a husband, and dogs and cats. She was still involved in voluntary and other social contributions. And she had a career in writing alongside her teaching and academic work. Which is to say, she didn't throw in her normal life in order to escape to a hermitage. She found ways of building solitude into her life as it was...but what she found was that this solitude propelled her into ways of seeing herself and her choices, that in the end, brought about other changes to the way she lived and to her 'being' in the world.

She describes some of the learnings from her practice of solitude. The first one, from just sitting under a tree for 15 minutes in the dawn and dusk, was a reconnection with the present moment, in nature. Being able to pay attention to a bird flying past, or singing in a tree. Being present to the sunrise and the sunset, and from there, a sense of reconnection with the rhythm and cycle of the day, and the season. And a sense of God's presence in the immediacy of the world around her. She describes this as being like the way she related to the world when she was a child - that pure experience of the moment, not the half-hearted attention of the adult who misses the flock of birds flying overhead, preoccupied with the future, or the task to be done.

The next thing she noticed was the almost hysterical, relentless press of her 'to do' list. Even though she was taking only 15 minutes out of the whole 24 hours available to her in the day, she felt the pressure of the things that she was going to have to do in the rest of the day, and a vague sense of guilt and panic. Rather than giving in to the pressure, giving up the 15 minutes and getting on with the to-do list, she was able to start questioning the to-do list- the vastness of it, the number of things she was attempting to get done in a day, and the exhaustion that often accompanied it. She was able to start asking herself whether all the things on her list were really necessary. She writes: 'I was starting to understand that a simple life begins in solitude because this is the only way we can see, as from a sudden distance, the crowd of unnecessary responsibilities threatening to trample us underfoot.'

She also learned a lot from the mixture of feelings that accompanied her first weekend retreat. She felt relief, a sense of spaciousness, but also self-consciousness, guilt, panic, and tearfulness. She worried about how she would fill the time, and worried that she should have been at home, with her husband and children, being productive. Sifting these feelings allowed her to ask that question so deeply connected to simplicity: who am I, if I'm not primarily a person who leaves a mark on the world, by being a mother, a wife, and employee, a contributor? She says: 'The prospect of genuine solitude had jarred me out of my identity in a way that no amount of quiet time within the safe environs of home could possibly do. I was shaken by the temporary loss of my spousal, maternal, and teaching roles, my activities, and even my familiar anxieties....What in that anonymous little room could possibly validate my existence?'

What indeed? It is only when we come to that place, that we can find out who we are in God, or, as Richard Rohr puts it, the person we were before we ever did anything right, or anything wrong.

This was the place that Jesus lived and loved from. In the gospels, we see a rhythm of Jesus giving out a huge amount of energy, but also retreating, sometimes alone, sometimes with his group of disciples, to a quiet place, an isolated place, to be with his Father. In Mark's gospel we read of Jesus rising early to pray, going up a mountain to pray through the night, and calling the disciples to a deserted place to rest. There's a rhythm there of being active, and surrounded by others, and then seeking solitude, to refuel, and to rest, and also I suspect to clarify and re-vision his purpose and his way, after the jostling and questioning and doubting that came at him day after day from others.

Solitude has been part of Christian practice from the beginning, and is an important part of our heritage as followers of Jesus. We can only keep space for the breath of God in us, if we regularly take time to breathe the air of God, away from the crowds.

I've thought of a few suggestions for how this could happen in our context, and in a minute, I'm going to invite us to share with each other what ideas and experiences we have of this practice of solitude.

One wondering I had was - lunch breaks. Do we have them? Do we have to eat lunch every day with our colleagues, or at our desk? Could we see lunch as a time of intentional solitude a few times a week - time to go for a walk, or to find a quiet place to sit alone?

Or, evenings. What about those evenings when there's nothing particular planned, so the default option is to make a phone call, drop round on a friend, watch TV, do a bit more work? What difference would it make if we could deliberately choose half an hour of that evening as solitude - to stay in, go to a room by ourselves, and simply be alone with God?

Is there a place in your house, in your garden, or a nearby park, where you could sit for 15 minutes each day, before other people get up, or at the beginning of the evening?

There are a number of retreat places around the place - the Fransiscan Friary where Betty works, for example, or the Mercy Centre in Epsom. At the back of the church is a handbook from Spiritual Growth Ministries with a list of guided retreats, many of them silent, that are happening this year. Maybe you'd like to book yourself in to one of those?

There are many times during the day when we're on our own, but not necessarily practising solitude. Such as, time driving in the car, or on the bus, or in a queue, or in a waiting room, or in a café when our friend is late to meet us. What would it take to turn these times into times of 'present aloneness' rather than simply gaps in the day, to be filled if at all possible with reading, listening to the radio, or talking on the phone?

I realise that I haven't offered many suggestions here that are very practical for people whose day is mostly taken up with small children. I'm very keen to hear from other people what works for you in this regard.

So, I have one question, and rather than trying to hear each other across the room, I invite you to talk with the people immediately near you about it. I'll bring round bits of paper, and if you are willing to write some ideas down on it that come out of your group, we'll print them in next week's newsletter, so we get the benefit of our shared wisdom.

What do you do in the midst of your life to enable solitude? (daily, or semi-regularly)