Some years ago, researching a book about the little-known spiritual life of Britain, I embarked on a quest to find modern-day seekers of solitude. I wasn’t sure that they still existed in today’s noisy secular world: the days when the land was filled with religious recluses are long gone. But, by happy chance, I got an interview with a rare hermit and, to my greater surprise, discovered a network of people pursuing solitude while living ordinary lives.
Now, with the world in the grip of a pandemic, solitude has gone viral. Unprecedented numbers of people are confined to their homes, putting those who live alone into a state of literal solitude while the rest are restricted to the company of their households.
In this mass experiment in social seclusion, most of us are beginners in the art of solitude. So I went back to my interviews with seasoned solitaries to see what I could learn from the experts. Here are my findings.
1. Solitude is something people have always craved
Hermits exist in most religious traditions, suggesting that the desire for solitude may be an essential dimension of human experience. The first Christian hermits originated in the Egyptian desert in the third and fourth centuries (the word ‘hermit’ derives from the Greek eremia meaning an uninhabited region). From them came the monastic movement — ‘monos’ comes from the Greek for ‘one’ — as hermits came together to support each other in the difficult enterprise of living apart.
Solitaries abounded in medieval Britain, with hermits and anchorites attached to churches, monasteries and the homes of the wealthy: in the fourteenth-century there were around a hundred in Yorkshire alone. The British mystic Richard Rolle felt the pull of solitude so strongly that he threw up his place at Oxford University and, cobbling together a hermit’s garb from his father’s rain hood and sisters’ frocks, set off in search of solitude. ‘My brother is mad!’ lamented his favourite sister.
2. Solitude comes in mysterious ways
‘The life of the Christian solitary is essentially something to which God calls — it is not a thing that anyone can choose for her or himself.’ According to the website of the Fellowship of Solitaries, spiritual solitude comes in response to an inner call although a change in circumstances ‘such as retirement, the loss of a life partner or a setback in health may be a spur’.
The Fellowship’s organiser John Mullins put the point in a way that has a peculiar resonance in the Time of Corona. When it comes to solitude, ascetic practices of the kind traditionally used by hermits to distance themselves from worldly concerns aren’t necessary because ‘life throws stuff at you, and eventually you are in a place where everything is stripped away and you have nothing to hold on to’.
When I met her at nearly eighty, Fellowship member Joyce Nethersole was looking back of a life lived in pursuit of solitude. She had entered an Anglican convent after feeling ‘the call’ as a teenager but, twenty-eight difficult years later, concluded that she wasn’t cut out to be a nun and left to pursue an independent life of solitary prayer.
3. Solitude isn’t always about withdrawing from the world
For Stephen North, another Fellowship member, a full-blown crisis led him to explore a deep-seated need. A family man and social worker, his life had fallen apart when he was convicted of assault for defending his child against a playground bully. Influenced by Paths of Solitude by Eve Baker — the writer who had been running the Fellowship since the early 1990s — he experimented with different forms of seclusion.
His search took him across country to live separately from his understanding wife; they saw each other one weekend in three. ‘What I found was that doing the full-time job, also having to cook, clean, wash, garden — there was actually less space then,’ he told me. So he went home and established a loose routine in which moments of solitary prayer punctuated the day.
4. Solitude involves openness to others
Lived properly, the life of solitude has to accommodate the needs of others.
In the early 2000s, I spent a day climbing the deserted paths of Lebanon’s Qadisha Valley — also known as Holy Valley — in search of a hermit. When I eventually found him, Father Escobar took the time to talk to an exhausted woman desperate for an interview. He’d been teaching theology and clinical psychology in Colombia when he heard the call. So, having heard that that Lebanese mountains were one of the few places that offered real seclusion, he learnt Arabic and joined a local monastery. Two years later he got permission to ‘go apart’ and took up residence in a cave.
Yet the hermit had plenty of company. ‘I talk to neighbours and to people who come for confession, young people with problems with their families,’ he told me. He was following a long-standing tradition of hermits dispensing counsel to the locals, some of whom acquired so many disciples that they lost their physical solitude.
For Mullins, a busy social worker himself, such flexibility is vital: ‘If you don’t have generosity and charity, if you’re holding onto “my solitude”, it almost becomes the modern me-time.’
5. Solitude takes you into uncharted territory
Harold Palmer’s life of solitude began in the 1970s when the Franciscan monk sought seclusion on Northumbrian hilltop in a borrowed caravan. Visiting him decades later, he gave me a tour of the hermitage he had built with the support of friends and the local community, complete with library, chapel and cells for others wishing to join him.
But these were just the outward manifestations of a rich and unpredictable inner life. ‘It’s a very interesting journey, because you’re not shown everything to begin with,’ he told me. ‘You only find things out on the way. You have to live day-to-day.’
‘I became aware of those people who have lived this sort of life in the past,’ he continued. ‘It was as though I was in a cardboard box, and suddenly the bottom fell out of the box. I was like Alice going down the rabbit hole and I was in Wonderland. The Wonderland was communion with the saints of Northumbria, the holy people who lived here in the past.’
The Fellowship website describes the experience of solitude poetically: ‘It’s rather like falling in love — it has the same element of adventure.’
6. Solitude is for …
And yet, Brother Harold went on to make clear, life as a full-time hermit often involves struggle and doubt. All of which raises the question: what is the purpose of solitude? Why bother?
‘It’s not the silence,’ he said. ‘It’s what the silence is for. The silence allows that part of us which is deep inside of us, which you call the heart, to come to the surface. It’s what happens in the silence — being aware of presence.’
This sense of presence is just one way of articulating what can happen in solitude, an experience which is difficult to communicate and is expressed in different ways in different spiritual traditions.
Like many contemporary spiritual teachers, Eckhart Tolle is drawing on the resources gathered in solitudes past to offer advice in the Time of Corona. The author of The Power of Now points to the inevitability of adversity on a personal or a collective level ‘as we are experiencing now’. He argues that it is fear, as well as the virus itself, which impedes our access to the inner state allowing us to be at peace in the present moment.
7. Solitude is a state of mind
Ironically, for those living in crowded households in the Time of Corona, solitude seems to be the hardest thing. Being in a small space with others can be a heaven or a hell, depending on the people, the relationships, and the moment. When confinement is involuntary and prolonged, the biggest challenge can be to see any good in the situation at all.
Wisdom can come from those who have actually been in prison. In Damascus before the current Syrian war, I met Yassin Haj Saleh, a political prisoner under the Assad regime for sixteen years. ‘Prison changed me deeply, and perhaps not for the worse,’ he said. ‘I prefer my situation now, more than if I hadn’t been to prison.’
He described how at first he had been beset by the frustrations of continuous proximity to others, such as the way a jail mate slurped his tea, and the humiliating loss of privacy: ‘Then you develop a different kind of privacy. There is internal privacy. You regain your self-respect.’
Insights also come from the Prison Phoenix Trust, an organisation which describes itself as supporting ‘prisoners in their spiritual lives through meditation, yoga, silence and the breath.’ I had initially got in touch with them about going to prison myself (neither they nor the authorities would let me) and have been getting their newsletters ever since. They are a treasure-trove of wisdom into how to cope with the challenges of unwelcome confinement.
The letters from prisoners published in them are testimony to the possibilities of evolution that can come out of the silence of meditation — an inner, if not a physical, solitude. One prisoner writes of how it has changed him: ‘The guy I used to be couldn’t listen to people for long without starting to think of myself and judging, even though the other guy had not finished saying what he meant’.
In the Time of Corona, a friend writes to me from lockdowned Paris. She’s on the balcony of her tiny flat, her children playing behind her, the blue sky stretching overhead. Her head, she says, is ‘empty’.