Solitude is not something you hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present, you will never find it. –Thomas Merton
At first, I dismissed Merton’s quote. Yeah, yeah. Tell me something I don’t know, I thought.
But Marvin’s comment on an earlier post has me thinking about solitude. I thought of Brother Casey, who seeks out solitary places in which to pursue his spiritual practice. Solitude and prayer have seeped into his bones. While every bit a frail human being, yet he seems remarkably free of anxiety and remarkably full of peace.
In these months of travel, I’ve spent time in solitary places. Blair Valley comes to mind, where the light from the only other camper in the valley twinkled at night like a distant star. I’ve also been in campgrounds full of people—generations of families, young adults on party break, assorted odd ducks, like myself. The experience is certainly different, but I bring the same inner core to each. Were I practicing solitude in the sense that Merton describes it, I should be able to find solitude in either place.
“Are you ever lonely?” my daughter asked.
Her question made me pause.
When I first started traveling, I was gripped by what I can only describe as intense existential angst, and then I felt very alone. Once, I thought about making popcorn in my trailer, and suddenly the memory of Friday nights after work when I would hunker down with a movie and a bowl of popcorn gripped me like a pit bull with an intense sense of loss. The simple thought of popcorn, I realized, represented security and contentment, which I was feeling precious little of at the time. (I’ve since enjoyed popcorn in the trailer, sans movie, and without the emotional sucker punch.)
“No. I’m not lonely,” I told my daughter. Not anymore. Sometimes I’m self-conscious and shy. And sometimes I’m aware of being different and alone, but I’m okay with that.
Solitude has a different quality than merely being content to be alone. There’s a spirit in it. There’s stillness. And something alert. A place like Blair Valley may be conducive to solitude; “a place apart” may provide a nourishing environment, but I think solitude has more to do with what I bring to a place than what the place brings to me.
What I’ve become more aware of during these months which I’ve often spent in solitary places is my own inner hubbub—that nonsensical monologue that can trivialize the most grand and sacred space. I think this yammering (the Buddhists call it “monkey mind”) is all the more distracting and sharply focused because of the silence that so often surrounds me. I am the only noise around. I noticed that Brother Casey often carried his worry beads, and he used them to say the Jesus prayer—up to a thousand times a day. That would certainly squelch a lot of chatter.
So, I think Merton is right as far as it goes. Solitude is about attentive presence–and most of us spend our time inattentively not present. Solitude as an inner quality is as possible in Blair Valley as it is in a campground during spring break. It has to do with bringing a little piece of the desert with you no matter where you are.
Today is Good Friday, and I am looking for a church to celebrate Christianity’s high holy days. I’m looking forward to the Easter vigil, that painfully long and ancient liturgy at which the new fire is lit and spread among everyone present. As I leave the desert places in which I’ve spent these winter months, I’m hoping to retain their sense of solitude.
I’m just not sure how to do that. Any thoughts?