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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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