How to be alone

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How to be alone

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New urban fathers

18 Theses on the Desert Fathers and Mothers

I began to experiment with solitude soon after I became married.  This is not quite as strange (or amusing) as it might sound for true solitude is not an escape from people but a dance, as it were, with intimacy.  We all need a different balance, but we all need to find that balance between intimacy and solitude which feeds our souls.  We all need to find a way in which we can be alone with ourselves and with our God.  This can take very different forms but without it our spiritual life -- indeed our whole life, becomes shrivelled and less than the Spirit filled adventure it can be.  Below I go on to share my own experiences with finding the right amount, and right kind of, solitude to enable me to live to the full in this crowded world.  Certainly I enjoy solitude and need more of it, and of a more radical kind, than most people but perhaps it will still be of some help to you as you seek to find the right balance between solitude and intimacy in your own life.

Beginning at an end

I will begin with describing a three-week retreat which I undertook in October/November 2006 which in many ways was the culmination of 10 years of searching and exploration.

I undertook the retreat at a cottage in the Welsh hills just over the English border.  I have rented the cottage four times in the past five years.  It is the last house at the end of a lane which winds up into the hills, the nearest other house is a good few hundred yards away and not visible.  Knighton, a small market town, is five or 6 miles distant.  The cottage is therefore quiet and secluded but not excessively remote.  From the front of the house there is a beautiful view of fields, hills and Knucklas viaduct.  To the back of the house the hills rise up to the open moor which is excellent walking country.  Not far from the house, 10 or 15 minutes walk, is a small knoll where there is a small windblown Larch tree.  This is my favourite place in the whole earth.

The cottage itself is unremarkable.  Two bedrooms.  A large dining room/sittingroom downstairs and a smaller lounge where I spend most of my time.  It is not perfect in every way but it is comfortable and warm and I am familiar with it.  It has most of the normal conveniences except that it lacks a washing machine.

My parents drove me to the cottage and my wife picked me up at the end and stayed a few days.  Usually I go with a friend to the cottage but he was not available.  This framing of my retreat with dependence on other people reinforces for me the communal nature of a retreat.  On the day I arrived we went to the supermarket and stocked up on food for the three weeks: it is good that the cottage has a freezer.  When my parents left I soon felt lonely and also developed an unpleasant migraine.  But it was not long before the loneliness and the migraine faded away.  I had a strong sense of connection with people during my time at the cottage.  I had asked people to pray for and with me during the three weeks -- even preparing a card for people to remember me with and had had a meeting for prayer and sharing before I went.

Gradually the pattern for my retreat developed.  I had a few ideas beforehand based on my previous experience and on reading the desert fathers.  I had decided it would be good to do some work, to limit contact with the outside world to the weekends but basically just to try and be quiet and open.  This is the pattern of my days that developed:

7 a.m.

Waking up.  This is my normal time for getting up a couple of days I slept in and a few days I woke early

7-8 a.m.

Again I adopted my normal practice on waking and spent an hour or so in prayer and Bible reading

8 a.m.

Breakfast

8-10 a.m.

Reading from a book on the desert fathers.  I read a chapter a day.  This was the main reading I did during my retreat.  I did not read a great deal -- less than two books in three weeks.  At 9:45 I listened to the daily service.

10 a.m.-12 p.m.

Work.  Writing on my laptop.  I had some ideas of the work I would do but my reading on the desert fathers came to dominate my thoughts and after a few days this dominated my writing.  The desert fathers suggest that physical work is best but that is not possible because of my disabilities.

12-1 p.m.

Prayer in the spare bedroom.  I stuck up some icons and pictures of the desert fathers and followed a standard routine comprising a new prayer and another prayer which I have used for many years.

1 p.m.

Lunch

2 p.m.

I would often go for a short walk.  Sometimes it was too wet and I didn't go, at other times I went for a longer walk.  My disabilities prevented me from walking too far.  I only occasionally went to my favourite knoll but did have a powerful experience there watching the aerobatics of a raven.

3 p.m.

I listened to a radio dramatisation of the Pallisters (by Anthony Trollope) that I had previously recorded and a radio series on childhood.  These were relaxing and very enjoyable as well as connecting me with the world of other people in a helpful way.

5 p.m.

I began to prepare supper.  I ate my ordinary diet during the retreat

6 p.m.

Supper

7-9 p.m.

Reading and listening to music.  I read part of Brian Keenan's novel Turlough

9 p.m.

Generally I watched some television before I went to bed.  I was pretty selective about this and had brought some videos to watch although I'd didn't actually watch them.  I generally watched fairly serious programmes without excessive excitement or sex.

10-11 p.m.

To bed.  Occasionally I stayed up later or got up because I couldn't sleep but generally I slept soundly

 
This is the general structure of my day but it was interspersed with a number of other activities.  I wrote a fair number of poems and meditations.  I read most of a book of poems by John Clare and spent a lot of time watching the birds and wildlife, standing or sitting on the porch outside the house.

 My health was generally good during the time and I was careful to follow the exercises which I need to keep my chronic pain at bay.  My back, however, was quite painful during most of the retreat and made quiet meditation difficult for much of the time.

But what was most important was being quiet.  I enjoyed living life at a slow pace: having time just to be still.  I loved the quietness of the environment, although there were times when a farmer made a lot of noise banging in fence posts, but it felt like an acceptable, necessary noise which I could embrace.  I enjoyed the solitude even though occasionally people would walk past the house -- and I did once get visited by Jehovah's witnesses!  It was a time when I could embrace what was rather than be pushing to achieve.  This is why I didn't push myself to walk more than I felt entirely comfortable with, why I didn't read an enormous amount and why I didn't follow a strict ascetic regime.

Watching television is instructive in this regard.  If the house did not have a television it wouldn't have bothered me but as it did I used it to relax and get something to think about.  Nonetheless, as I said previously, it was important to watch the right kind of programme -- not something that would distract me or create a false emotional state.  I was particularly glad to watch a programme about Lord Longford and Myra Hindley which raised many interesting issues about spirituality and personal awareness.  What was important was to find a balance between discipline and freedom and discover that, in fact, they are not in opposition but will work together to enable me to make the use of my solitude.

Learning solitude

Personal awareness and a personal discipline which arises out of a sense of our own rhythm seems to me to be a key to the use of solitude.  Over the years I have experimented with various forms of solitude.  Initially I tried staying in a few religious communities but found that I wasn't comfortable with having people around me, nor somehow with the religious culture.  Maybe this is because my upbringing is nonconformist rather than Catholic but nonetheless I found I needed somewhere with more sense of space.  I tried a couple of locations but found them to uncomfortable or too cold.  Particularly because of my chronic pain I find I need somewhere reasonably comfortable and in which I can be confident that I will be able to manage my pain rather than it become an overwhelming distraction.  I would not, for instance, have tried a three-week retreat in a place which I did not previously known.

Secondly I found it good to bring my laptop both so that I could do some work and also so that the writing could help me reflect on what I was experiencing.  Without this I found that I got bored.  The discipline of work has long been a part of the monastic experience and given that physical labour is not possible for me I had to find something to replace its disciplines.  Writing with a small amount of walking to give me physical exercise seemed to work well in this regard.  Previously on retreats I had walked much more but it had a kind of obsessive quality to it and it was good to rein this back and only walk in a very modest way.  I find that everything must be geared to giving me that sense of quietness and stillness in which I find I can be open.  For me this is a place of enormous creativity, a place which remakes my soul and strengthens me for my ordinary day-to-day life.  For during, what is after all a relatively short period, I am always very well aware of the world to which I must return.  I achieve some distance from it but that is still my life not this brief moment of quiet and reflection.

Issues

I felt that during my retreat things really came together for me.  I felt confident that I knew what to do.  I also felt I got the preparation right -- reading relevant literature, getting people to pray with me and having my heart and mind in the right space.  Having some time to reflect and write about the retreat subsequently has also been really useful and greatly increased the value of the experience.  I felt very connected to the people with whom I had shared my retreat and, indeed, with the wide world but a few issues still remain for me.

I followed the example of the early desert fathers in being more sociable during the weekend -- which meant for me phoning my wife.  But I lacked a spiritual father for the retreat.  I am aware that this is something that I'm lacking in my life at the moment even though it is at the heart of the desert fathers tradition that I was trying to follow.

I also wonder about my diet.  Fasting is central to the desert fathers tradition and as I reflected on this it seemed to me that its modern equivalent is a simple lifestyle: a simple diet highlighted by times of feasting both on Sundays and on feast days.  My health would certainly preclude a severe restriction of my diet but I feel that the simplification of my daily meal combined with a more celebratory meal on Sunday would contribute to the rhythm of the retreat.

Having such a three week retreat is not cheap.  To hire such a remote cottage costs at least 200/week off season and probably more, even though other costs are minimal.  This seems to be a typical cost for more guided retreats but you can pay a lot more.  It is also not easy to get three weeks off work.  A week's retreat is obviously more manageable although I certainly found that the longer time gets me into the rhythm of the retreat in a unique way.

Steps to Solitude

To conclude I will try to draw together something of what I have learnt about 'how to be alone'.

1.      It is important to build up one's experience of solitude slowly.  To be alone is a different way of living and requires skills and understanding which can only be gained gradually

2.      We must also find our own way to do it.  This depends both on our personality and the opportunities we have for solitude.  A very gregarious and busy mother might find it difficult to snatch more than the occasional quarter of an hour of solitude.  On the other hand someone who is housebound will have acres of solitude which they must find some way of embracing and making the most of.

3.      Solitude is not just about sitting quietly.  The desert fathers worked incessantly -- even making rope during worship services.  Solitude works better if it exists in a purposeful context.  Physical work gives such a context but when this is not possible then some other framework must be found.  This work should not, however, simply be an extension of one's day-to-day work.  There needs to be a definite break from ordinary anxieties.

4.      Solitude is not an escape from life.  What happens when you are still is that your fears and anxieties come to the surface.  Anger can be a constant companion, as can other deep-seated emotions such as sexual desire.  These cannot be conquered by willpower.  Following the teachings of Anthony de Mello I have found that all you can do is be aware of what you are feeling -- regard your feelings in a detached almost humourous way -- realising that your feelings are not all of who you are.  Our identity is hidden in God and is not revealed by the insubstantial flickerings of our feelings and anxieties.

5.      It cannot be emphasised too greatly how disturbing solitude can be.  This is the main reason why people avoid it, they may call it boredom but in fact I believe it is nearly always rooted in the terror of actually feeling what is inside of us.  Solitude is not an easy life -- it is not a holiday but takes us into uncomfortable places where we have to struggle in new ways.  If it is seen as an escape it will not be successful.  In many ways it is about learning to love -- dealing with those interior demons which prevent us being fully human.

6.      Finding a rhythm in the solitude is important.  This may be the kind of daily rhythm which I have described or in the midst of daily life a time set aside for solitude and quiet.

7.      Prayer, in my experience, has two main forms on a retreat.  First there is a more formal liturgical prayer which provides a structure for the day and for the week.  For me this is rooted in two prayers that I have memorised and in listening to the daily service.  Secondly there is a freer form of prayer which might be called contemplation.  This may use a meditation (I like Anthony de Mello's) or it may just be silence.  To some extent a retreat is the time to dedicate one's whole life to contemplation -- whether you are walking, cooking or just enjoying those first few moments when you wake from sleep.  The structure which we create for our retreat provides us with the freedom to simply meditate on life and in that discover both our anguish and the well springs of joy.

8.      Good reading can be very useful in solitude, but we must avoid filling up our emptiness with other people's words.  It is good for us to read things which stimulate our thinking and take us somewhere new, if we are just stuck in conventional ways of thinking solitude will not be fully productive.  Reading also has no privileged status, listening to tapes or music and films or television programmes can be just as beneficial providing they are the right kind of material and are not used just to fill time.

9.      The right location is also important.  I really enjoy somewhere isolated and spacious which lets my heart breathe.  Others might find this too scary.  We each must find the right place for us.  But almost certainly this needs to be somewhere which removes us from our day-to-day life in some way -- even if that just means not answering the door and leaving the phone off the hook!  I like the 1960s song 'Up on the Roof' which describes the use of the roof as a retreat from urban life.

10. Our world finds solitude disturbing and you will almost certainly encounter resistance as you seek to find solitude and spend time on your own.  There are all kinds of reasons not to spend time doing 'nothing' as they might say, but there is also a vast expanse of uncharted territory to explore which does not require travel to exotic locations.  It needs only the courage to face up to what is within our hearts and souls.  This will always be the last frontier.