|Sangomusha - my first hermitage|
An article in a recent newspaper reports that after an extensive survey of 841 scientific studies, a University of California professor has concluded that solitude might be good for you: “single people tended to be happier in their jobs, more likely to stay in touch with friends and family, more self-reliant and less inclined to negativity.”
Well, I could have told them all that about three decades ago, when I went on the first of many ventures into temporary hermeticism in some or other tattered cottage. So could a plethora of hermits, recluses, wanderers, monks and mystics over the last couple of millennia. Not that all such solitaries were entirely balanced, I suppose: living for years on top of a stone pillar like Simon Stylites is seriously weird. But having been brought up in forested mountains, an only child thrown largely on his own devices, I worked up skills of self-sufficiency, of facing fears alone, and of joyous kinds of discovery that don’t need to be shared with anyone for their power. A condition Socrates called autarkeia. (How distant that seems from the Age of the Selfie, where the Selfie doesn’t actually exist until narcissistically revealed to the world via Facebook or Instagram, so it’s really an Otherie.) It’s not that I don’t treasure conversation and comradeship, I do; but I am still most profoundly content when I am alone, a fact which bemuses and doubtless frustrates certain friends.
It’s kind of warming to find solitaries down the ages – who are rarely entirely solitary in practice – indirectly affirming my life-style. Solitude is not after all – as Anthony Storr also argues in his psycho-analytic study, Solitude (1988) – a pathology to be shunned, but a “valuable resource”. At the same time, Storr concludes, it’s not about achieving some perfect and lofty state of enchantment: “If life is to continue, one cannot linger forever in a state of oceanic tranquillity: ... the hunger of imagination, the desire and pursuit of the whole, take origin from the realisation that something is missing, from awareness of incompletion”. Indeed, many solitaires whose accounts I’ve read seem at once wisely in equilibrium and soulfully restless. Solitude is something of a paradox.
I’ve recently been reading Peter France’s book Hermits (1996), which devotes chapters to various sets of recluses and monkish types, from the early Christian Desert Fathers to the poet Robert Lax on Patmos. I do like deserts and islands, but am ‘naturally’ drawn most strongly to forests, and so I find this thought, from the “small, rather weak and very ugly” Russian monk Macarius, writing from the Siberian forests around 1834, especially attractive:
Man finds peace of mind and benefit for his soul in forests. We see that in former times people used to withdraw into thick forests and there, away from worldly vanity, through prayer and ascetic labour, sought salvation. Just one look at the evergreen conifers of our homeland gladdens the eyes, portraying a symbol of our hope for eternal life which people go to the deserts to seek ... The forests which surround our monasteries should be preserved from destruction by all means in order to prevent the word ‘wilderness’ from finally losing its meaning.
This is echoed by the four-stage Hindu path. The third stage is vanaprastha, the forest ascetic: “When the householder sees wrinkles in his skin and grey in his hair, and in the son of his son, let him retire to the forest.” The final stage, sannyasa, total renunciation, is that towards which a person naturally matures. As the guru Sri Ramakrishna put it: “The last part of Life’s path has to be walked in single file.”
Peter France includes a chapter on the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, easily my favourite Christian writer. Like quite a few of these alleged solitaries, Merton was a compulsive communicator and writer. And not only about the monk’s chosen life of solitude and meditation. I return frequently to his volume Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1968), not because of its religious thought, but because Merton was so in touch with the public world: he discusses the Vietnam War, American racism, modern materialism and multiple other subjects with a razor-sharp analytic mind. He says much that we could all apply to our own situations even today. Another volume of his essays entitled On Peace (1962) should be required reading for every power-inflated world leader, from Mugabe to Trump. In fact, in Conjectures, Merton writes only once about solitude: “Solitude is to be preserved, not as a luxury, but as a necessity; not for ‘perfection’ so much as for simple ‘survival’ in the life God has given you.” This is not so that you become insulated or removed, but so that you are better placed to love those who most closely depend on you, much as their demands might disturb your peace of mind: “Unlike the great benevolent and public movements, full of noisy and shared concern, [this basis for love] is not foggy, diffuse, devouring and absurd.”
I first encountered Merton’s work in 1985 when I was cycling rather aimlessly through New England, puffing across the bottom end of New Hampshire, when I accidentally bumped into the outer fringes of Hurricane Gloria. I took shelter from the thrashing winds near what turned out to be a monastery, known rather Pooh-ishly as Hundred Acres Monastery. Which it wasn’t really, or was no longer. It had been a Trappist monastery once, but only one of the original monks remained – the now elderly Father Paul – surrounded by various waifs and strays, some religious, some not, some even women. I asked Father Paul whether, given this motley crew, whether he was still able to run the place on Biblical principles, or what?
He mulled gently on that for a while, then said: “I find the Bible very puzzling. It’s very opaque to me.”
I cheered inwardly: here was a man who been a monk for literally half a century, who still found his faith’s founding text mysterious, who did not pretend to have The Answers.
I pressed, “But you must have some sort of rules to keep the place together, and functioning. What rules for residents do you have?”
He thought about that for a while, too, then said: “Supper is at six. That’s all.”
And so it was, as I discovered, living there for a few weeks while I earned some badly needed funds working for a blasting company. Amongst the residents of Hundred Acres at the time was one Wayne Teasdale – odd and gangly, very intense, hyper-intelligent, vastly read and a prolific writer on mysticism; we spent hours walking the roads through those wonderful autumnal New England woods talking of faiths and mystics from Rumi to Meister Eckardt, from Bede Griffiths to Merton, most of whom I had never heard of.
Wayne Teasdale claimed to have had a vision of God – with the aid of a spot of LSD. There was another resident, Barry, as Christ-like a being as I had ever imagined, compact and unthreatening in mind and body as a block of basalt. He agreed Wayne had had a profound vision, but not as deep as his own experience of the ‘Godhead’, or the ‘One Principle’, or the ‘Ground of Being’ – I was impressed that he didn’t want to affix a name to ‘it’. Barry was building himself a real hermitage back in the woods. Vision or not, he was taking no chances: as an engineer he was building it like a land-based survival raft that would safely ride out the upheavals of any miscreant earthquake.
More lyrical, meandering and personalised than Peter France’s survey is Isabel Colegate’s account of hermits and solitaries, A Pelican in the Wilderness (2002). The title comes from my favourite Renaissance poet, Thomas Traherne: “A man that Studies Happiness must sit alone like a Sparrow upon the Hous top, and like a Pelican in the Wilderness”. Ironically, she notes, few hermits were ever truly solitary; they were often quite social, living in coenobitic communities, or awkwardly being pursued by a public hungry for wisdoms. Colegate ranges widely, from Syria to the Skelligs, from Krishnamurti to Charles de Foucauld in the Sahara. But that’s as far south as she or Peter France go.
Really, have there been no sub-Saharan African hermits? The search is on...