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Interview: Maggie Ross, solitary and theologian

16 January 2015

'A life that is prayer is about being, not doing'

Solitude is an interior matter. In the event, we're all solitaries. I just have more solitude than most. Given my age, I can't live on a mountainside in a tent any longer, but hide in plain sight on top of a house in Oxford, and go about when necessary, quietly and anonymously.

In Athanasius's Life, the hermit Antony says: "Whether alone or with others, your life and your death are with your neighbour." Much later, Eckhart says: "If you're doing anything special, it's not God."

Solitaries appear at times of crisis in the Church. Each is unique. I am in not in touch with other solitaries. There's a small network of people I consult for personal support, but in financial terms, I'm pretty much on my own.

Two or three times a year I visit a friend in Devon. She has a smallholding, and is a solitary at heart. She likes to walk the moors with her two collies. I also have access to a bit of garden in Oxford, which is vital to my well-being. Every few years, I make a long retreat.

I go to the eucharist as often as I can find one that isn't just a lot of noise. This is extremely difficult to find; so often I have to settle for the least worst of the options.

Solitaries are born, not made. Everything in my life, good and bad, has contributed to living in solitude, and I give thanks for it all without exception.

My initial theological training was at Stanford University, with periti and observers at Vatican II, the group that later founded the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Monastic life provided further study. It was clear from the beginning that my vocation was solitary, but I felt it was important to have as much exposure to monastic life as could be managed. I am grateful to the communities that gave me hospitality.

I had eight years' training at a professional level in interdisciplinary psychoanalysis, centred on the interior life. In 1984, I was invited to Oxford to do research - though I am not a member of the university - and Oxford has been my main theological matrix, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Contemporary theological education prepares people either for the petty battlegrounds of academia or for the spiritual suicide of ordination. Evagrius's notion of the absolute relationship of theology and praxis has been lost. There are a few good people who are exceptional in this regard, but they wisely camouflage themselves. There is an absolute abyss between the clericus and ordinary people, who are implicitly denigrated by them, and most theological education just widens this abyss.

Also, so-called spiritual direction as it is practised today is destructive. It is both para-clerical and counter-productive, because it makes people more self-conscious instead of more self-forgetful, which is an important sign of spiritual maturity. Helping another is a charism of the moment, usually inadvertent, and can't be taught.

There are a lot of hungry people out there. The churches are full of noise. There is an idolatry of spiritual experience. The situation is dire. They find support wherever they can, in silence and solitude if they can find it, or with like-minded people, if they can find them. In a sense they're fortunate - though it may not feel that way - because they learn quickly that the task is essentially solitary . . . that communities are only as healthy as the solitudes that make them up; and that a life that is prayer is about being, not doing.

The interior pressure to write about silence - as essential to our survival and as a counterpoise to Western culture - was so great that I had no choice. But it has taken me all my life to write Silence: A user's guide. I've thrown away many drafts over the years, and in the end have used only about a thousandth of my research. I'm now working on volume two.

It can't be said often enough that kataphatic and apophatic approaches are two sides of the same coin. You can't have one without the other. The most kataphatic praxis is set in an apophatic context. The two reflect the way the mind works, as well as theological realities. For example, the mind identifies things by apophasis, telling itself what they are not rather than what they are. Crudely put, kataphatic relates to self-consciousness, and apophatic to deep mind. Ideally, there is a seamless flow between the story-making of self-consciousness, which is virtual, and the direct perception of deep mind, which reflects reality. In the end, we must all learn apophasis for the simple reason that we all die.

The Fire of Your Life: A solitude shared, and Writing the Icon of the Heart: In silence beholding are [my] books of essays. The Fountain and the Furnace: The way of tears and fire is a book about the gift of tears. Pillars of Flame: Power, priesthood, and spiritual maturity is a book about priesthood. Seasons of Death and Life: A wilderness memoir is a book about time as a solitary in a wilderness area in Northern California.

Writing a blog combines the ancient and modern ways of being a solitary very well. Paradoxically, it helps with the hiddenness, because the message can be emphasised while the personality is de-emphasised. Instead of crowds following the hermit into the desert, they can follow some thoughts online, and the solitary can remain in silence. Email is also a blessing, because the telephone shatters the silence. Solitude is never given for itself alone, but for sharing with others.

The number-one ascesis these days is to confine the use of technology to specific times in the day, and turn the machines off the rest of the time. You are not your online persona. There are always simple practices available, such as turning towards silence every time you catch yourself chasing noise in your head, or choosing the quieter route home, even if it takes a little longer.

A whale breathing at night in a calm sea with the aurora borealis dancing overhead: wilderness is essential to human health, even if we can't physically be in it, the mere fact that it exists affects us positively. We must preserve what is left at all costs.

Most of my anger has turned to grief.

It never occurs to me to ask whether or not I'm happy. Asking someone if he or she is happy just reminds a person of his or her discontents. Self-forgetfulness brings more than happiness; it brings joy. But joy is not something that you can claim, or even look at directly.

Of course there is laughter in the solitary life. If you don't have a sense of humour, you will go mad. Silence puts you in touch with God's laughter, "gamesumli pley" as the Cloud of Unknowing author puts it. But there is no way we can know for sure if something is "of God" or not: we have to do the best we can with our pro-visional discernment, and be patient.

As I have always swum upstream, it has been more a question of encouragement and support than influence. The people in question who are still alive would prefer to remain anonymous. I was profoundly influenced when I was four years old by the photographs in Life magazine of the Second World War concentration camps, and by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a few years later by John Hersey's book on Hiroshima; and when I was five years old, by walking into my first church, Washington Cathedral, then but a crypt, crossing, and two bays.

The books that have influenced me are numerous enough to require a book in themselves, but most of my work grows out of pondering the Bible. I love the richness of the Old Testament, but the most influential passages theologically are Philippians 2.1-11, Hebrews 2.14-15, and the Gospel of John.

Life is prayer. The underlying question in each moment is, "How is this not prayer?" and if it is not, to make it so.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers tell us that we are never less alone than when we are in solitude.

Maggie Ross was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Silence: A user's guide is published by DLT (£14.99; CT Bookshop £13.49 - Use code CT823 ).


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