Covid 19 and Solitude

As a hermit, I have had a few requests during lockdown for ideas on how best to live in imposed solitude.  I have generally tried to avoid responding – I like to be on my own, so it is difficult to put myself in the position of those who don’t!  But during a recent conversation about prayer in lockdown, I was encouraged to share some of the experiences which initially coaxed me into hermitage, in the hope they might be of use to those who are less comfortable with the situation.

Many people, I know, have surprised themselves by the ease with which they have embraced lockdown. I am not sure this writing is really for them – they have found their own way into being at home in solitude, and one of the lessons quickly learnt about being alone is that everybody does it very differently. My snippets might well not resonate. There is no “right” way to do solitude.

Raphael Vernay (OSB hermit) wrote: The hermit is simply a pioneer … in the way of the desert which the whole of humanity must follow of necessity one day, each one according to their measure and desire.  This eremitical vocation, at least embryonically, is to be found in every Christian vocation, but in some it must be allowed to come to its full flowering in the wind of the Spirit.  It is not enough to affirm that the thing is good in itself, it is necessary that the Church and society do something, so that this life may be realizable, so that each may at least touch it, be it only with the tip of their little finger.

Hermitage is a lot about being grateful for very ordinary stuff,  savouring the detail.   Here are 4 small dishes,  a smorgasbord of hermitage highs, in which to dip your little finger …

1. Beginning with something concrete, a refreshing absence:  I know many people are using their lockdown to clear-the-clutter in their homes.  There is a great sense of space and freedom in the newly ordered kitchen cupboard, the pared back wardrobe, the empty spaces on the bookshelf.  

The temptation is to begin collecting again, to find more, better stuff to occupy the freed-up space.  But rather than looking forward to filling it up again, we can choose to inhabit the space ourselves, transform the emptiness into an entity to celebrate – a positive, definitive “thing” in its own right.  

We can spend time contemplating an ordered sock-drawer, a newly emptied shelf, a blank wall – appreciating its form and beauty – enjoying its own unique integrity.  God is with us. This is prayer.

2. Extrapolating from the empty wardrobe, like those puzzle images which interlock dark and light to give different pictures depending on perspective, we can sometimes more easily recognise presence, when we reflect on absence. As we can find substance within an empty space, so too we can embrace and explore our aloneness as a mirror and reflection of the company that we crave.  

As a friend put it, “For me personally, solitude is always tempered by the fact that I discover I am not really alone. God is there of course, and the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, but so too are all the people I carry in my heart.”  Absence can reawaken us to the people that we love.  God is with us; God loves with us.

3. In a similar way, instead of dismissing the sense of loss we might experience at the end of a party, or a visit from the grandchildren, or the end of a zoom meeting, we can dare to wait there a little longer and explore the unfamiliar landscape. Suddenly alone again in space, perhaps surrounded by the detritus of celebration, perhaps just standing in the kitchen sipping a glass of water before bed, slightly unnerved by the emptiness, the sudden vacuum of sound; there can be, if we leave ourselves open to it, a thrill of potential within that space.  It might feel initially like anxiety, or regret, sadness or even fear, but we need not avoid these reactions. Stick with the sensations a little longer and relax into them, try to taste them, savour them even.  

That edge, that point of liminality* between society and solitude can be a creative space if we are prepared to let ourselves be absorbed into the moment and not rush on to the next thing.  God is with us in the void.

4. But it is not always possible to stay and wait in the liminal* space, the edgelands.  The good news is that once we learn to recognise and nurture that sensation of presence-in-absence,  we can relocate that sensitivity into activity as well.  

Too often whilst we are doing one task, we can find ourselves planning for another which suddenly seems absurdly pressing. Mindfulness is an increasingly familiar concept, the notion of being in a place, rooting ourselves in the present, “resisting the urge to the next moment” (Quaker spirituality). It is not always easy to achieve, and we might benefit from an idea or motto, to anchor us.  

One such idea is to take seriously the worth of our ordinary everyday humanity.  From a Christian perspective, Jesus chose being human as the best way of loving God. His humanity is the full expression of his being Christ.  Our own humanity is formed in the image of his, so the fullness of our Christ-ness is expressed in our humanity too.  Whatever we are doing that is human (which, for the most part, is whatever we are doing – weeping, worrying, laughing, dancing, catching up on emails, washing the dishes etc. etc.), is the fullness of Christ, the best thing to be doing, the best way to be loving God.  We might remind and reassure ourselves of this with a little mantra, “this is what I am doing”, or “this is how I am being human right now”.   God is with us in our humanity.

Hope this has been helpful.  God bless you in the adventure of your isolation!  God is with you.  

*Liminal:  at a boundary or transitional point between two conditions, stages in a process, ways of life, etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *