Solitude and Silence: a few thoughts

No one has written any better about solitude and silence in recent centuries than Thomas Merton.  His long essay, “Notes Toward a Philosophy of Solitude,” as found in Disputed Questions, is the most profound exposition of the topic in English.  His classic short preface to the Japanese edition of Thoughts in Solitude is a masterpiece.  The first line begins, “No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.”  Amen.

There are degrees and varying depths to the solitude and silence that people experience.  However that be the case, there is no spiritual life without some elements of solitude and silence being there.  There are a rare few for whom solitude and silence is almost total–they have been given this rare gift which really has no name, and they look at us with their sad-joyful, beautiful eyes unable to communicate the Mystery that envelops them.  Yet what flows through their heart, the silent love and compassion, is what holds this universe together.  Then there are the more numerous for whom the solitude and silence is more diluted, for whom human communication still has a vital and blessed role–Merton would be one of these; Theophane the Russian recluse would be another.  Then there are the many more for whom solitude and silence are momentary but necessary punctuations in the flow of a busy life and without which they not only get lost in the surface of things but also without which they lose contact with their own heart.  One example is the writer Anne LeClaire.  Besides her novels, she has written of her experience of taking every other Monday totally off–a day of silence and solitude away from family and friends.  She tells us: “Like too many of us, I mistook a busy life for a rich one….”

Silence and solitude are TOTALLY countercultural today. (Not that there weren’t people in the past for whom solitude was anathema in their religious and social practices.  Martin Luther, for example, had not a clue about the significance of solitude and hated it with a passion.) Silence and solitude cannot be bought, sold, marketed, used — well, there are its counterfeits which are peddled by a few pseudo-religious salesmen.  Actually religion is quite a big business today–it has been coopted by this consumer culture like almost everything else.  Religion has been drawn into turning itself into a commodity that is bought and sold, advertised, marketed, etc.  But real solitude and silence is totally “out of it”–there is nothing there that can be sold to you; there is nothing there compared to the hypnotic fantasies of virtual reality games. That’s why silence and solitude seem totally unintelligible and incomprehensible to most modern Westerners and their Third World “wannabes.”  We are increasingly self-absorbed, dumbed-down educationally not to think or see clearly and critically, entertained endlessly into a mindless stupor of virtual reality, addressed by our leaders in sound-bytes and slogans, and constantly enticed to buy, buy, buy….  Walmart and other such stores sell these small DVD players that can be mounted on the back seats of cars–supposedly so that your kids can watch movies or play games while they are in the car going somewhere.  That which is fantasy and unreal is now preferable to what is real, which has become “boring.”  Of course postmodernism has been deconstructing all kinds of distinctions, so why not the distinction between reality and unreality.  In such a world silence and solitude become more than functions of a religious/mystical path–they become radical gestures, positions of social and political resistance, affirmations of a basic humanity.  We can borrow a marvelous term from the era of Soviet Russia–people who resisted the system called themselves “refuseniks”–they refused to be cogs in the communist machine.  Today we need people who refuse to be cogs in the consumer machine.  People who discover the meaning of silence and solitude in their lives, to whatever degree, begin to join the ranks of the refuseniks.

Among the buzz words of our era are “connectivity” and “social networking.”  While a lot of good and useful functions can be found for all the technical innovations of our era, the fact is that we are way beyond any such apologia for all our electronic communication.  Just look around any modern urban setting: so many people on cell phones, even when they are with other people or driving; so many people walking about text messaging almost non-stop; so many people with something stuck in their ear listening to something else, etc, etc.  Take a look at this letter written by a young person to the magazine Adbusters:  “It has come to the point that I feel incomplete and isolated when I don’t have my cell phone.  My phone has become an inconvenience, sometimes, for those around me.  My parents have taken it away during dinner because I can’t keep up a conversation without pausing to check if I have a text message.  I am out of the loop if I don’t check Facebook multiple times a day.  I constantly crave music when I don’t have my iPod earphones snuggled in my ears.  Technology is running my life.”

That feeling of being “incomplete and isolated” mentioned by the young person above is what people fear the most.  There is a profound truth behind that fear–the human being, in Christian theology, is a being of communion in the image of God who is also Pure Communion of a transcendent order.  The human being is a pure relationality, not an “isolated island of self-sufficency.”  Something like this is also said by all the other great spiritual traditions.  However, this sense of communion, of oneness with all of creation in fact, is not at all the same as electronic connectivity and social networking.  One has to get beyond an ego sense of identity; one has to discover one’s real heart.  And the paradox is that this is done by allowing oneself to plunge into the seeming “aloneness” at one’s core, the loneliness that one meets there–instead of running away from it through external connectivity.  Silence and solitude, to whatever degree, play a real but paradoxical role in our becoming truly and fully human and divine.

But so many people fear silence and solitude to any degree; as mentioned above for many young people these are almost incomprehensible.  There are some good reasons for this alienation from the depths of one’s being.  Listen to this quote from Adbusters again:  “Someone who is poking around in the fog of his or her own self is no longer capable of noticing that this isolation, this ‘solitary confinement of the ego’ is a mass sentence–that millions of people in all the highly industrialized countries are also pacing the prison cells of the self.”  There are two metaphors here for the ego self: the fog, and the prison cell.  To have no deeper sense of identity than one’s own ego self is to be lost in a kind of fog.  You have a hard time distinguishing between what is real and what is not real.  But there is something more scary–the ego self is a kind of isolated confinement, and again if that is your basic sense of identity, then comes the desperate measures to alleviate this seeming isolation and enclosure by the facilities of modern technology.  In a sense, if I am communicating with you, I exist; if I am not communicating with you, do I really exist?  One of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life is that the only way to break out of the isolation of the ego self is to plunge into the reality of solitude and silence. To meet the seeming nothingness at the core of our being.   It is there that we discover our true heart and our true identity, and it is there that all creatures begin to speak their name to us in the silence of our common transient being.

Let us return now to the topic of those for whom solitude and silence has become a way of life, not just a temporary abode. These people are generally called hermits.  Modern western society is probably the first social order in which such a life is beyond comprehension.   That’s why it is so difficult to speak about such a life in our context.  In general hermits seem to be especially bad in explaining their life!  Its “strangeness” to our contemporaries and its precariousness makes many modern hermits insecure and defensive about their life.  Among other things they tend to fall into the trap of telling you “how important” it is what they are doing–they begin “marketing” and “advertising” their life.  One can readily understand that because everyone believes that what they are doing is important or else why do it!  However, hermits tend to make the importance of what they are about into a message.  Hermits should look at their “hermiting” more as breathing–not something you proclaim to the world as being important, but it sure as hell IS important.  You should dwell in solitude the same way as breathing–just do it.  However, a few words about the rationale of the solitary life and a kind of existential description of its dynamic is possible even in our time.

One amazing thing about hermits now and in ages past is the tremendous variety and diversity of living that life.  There is no one pattern or one way of living the call to solitude and silence.   There are some who have had a very clearly marked out path, and they may be affiliated with some religious order or with a church.  Then, at the other extreme, are those who never had a “plan” to be hermits but find themselves thrown into a solitude they cannot explain.  They may not even be ostensibly religious.  And then there are so many in between these two.  Merton mentions somewhere that there was a report of a man who was living as a hermit in the woods of Kentucky, who had been there since the 1940s but was only discovered by others around 1960.  When asked what had brought him to the woods, why was he living like this, he simply replied, “Because of all these wars.”  Merton’s comment: “A true desert father!”

Examples of the diversity:  There is Fr. Lazarus, a Coptic hermit in the Egyptian desert who was once a university professor in Australia.  There is Willard MacDonald, who ran away from the Army when he was drafted because he did not want to go to war–lived as a hermit deep in the northern wilderness of Nova Scotia.  There is the incredible tradition of Chinese hermits, Taoists and Buddhists.  There is a fascinating and mysterious story surrounding the Russian Emperor, Alexander I(1777-1825).  He seems to have died at age 48, but his death was shrouded in secrecy and there arose rumors that his death was faked and he disappeared into the wilderness of Siberia to be a hermit.  He had been the hero of the resistance against the invasion by Napoleon(commemorated by Tolstoy in War and Peace), but he grew more and more “mystical” in his interests and inclinations.  What further makes this an intriguing story is the mysterious and sudden appearance years later of a hermit-staretz in Siberia by the name of Feodor Kuzmich.  No one knew where he came from or who he was, but he seemed to be very learned, could speak many languages, and received both nobility and peasants with a dignified presence.  Needless to say there were all kinds of rumors that this hermit was the old emperor.  And by the way, he DID look like Alexander if you aged him about 20 years and added a big beard!  At least so said the witnesses.  Modern historians are not too convinced.  But in Russia they loved their hermits, and the idea of their beloved Tsar being a hermit was just too irresistible!

In the United States there is a long tradition of secular hermits that is very interesting.  Thoreau, of course, is the most famous, even though he spent only a few years in relative solitude.  But his writing about it, and how it seemed to form the foundation of his view of the emerging American society, forever cemented the idea of  solitude, “hermiting,” with being a social critic–at least implicitly. Thoreau already saw in the middle of the 19th Century that whatever else you might want to say pertaining to the life of solitude and the value of silence, it WAS going to be countercultural within the context of what America was becoming.  Edward Abbey in his periods of solitude in the desert is a more modern example of this. But the hermit’s way of being countercultural is largely not so much in fingerpointing but just silently being “different.” The hermit’s critical stance is one that transcends all social categories–it is one with that empty space that the Chinese Taoists speak of; it is one with the wind blowing through those pine trees; it is one with the owl hooting at night; it is one with the rain filling the gullies.   The old defunct magazine, Life, did a big spread on American hermits in December of 1983.  They are all “odd birds”–and more power to them!

Returning to the explicitly religious hermits, there is a Catholic House of Prayer in Texas, where there are several religious hermits in residence.  What is of interest is the name of their place: Lebh Shomea — in Hebrew that means A Listening Heart.  What a marvelous way to “name” the hermit life.  In reality one cannot name the hermit life in its essence, but this is as good as it can get–one can go in many different directions with this name.  The human world does not collapse under the weight of all its illusions and delusions and darkness and meaningless speeches and noises because all over the globe there are those few who dwell in silence and solitude in so many different circumstances but with one Listening Heart.

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