I seem unable to enjoy solitude, as I am sure is true of many of my contemporaries. Actually, now that I have no partner or children at home, I have many chances for peace and quiet but find myself reluctant to take the time to enjoy these moments or relish in the low-decibel environment of my home. I believe I have gotten used to all the noise around me and feel odd without some music or radio or TV program in the background whenever I do things around the house. I have often traveled alone and, while that has opened adventures to me, the only negative is that I have often found myself lonely, perhaps the price I have paid for the freedom I crave.
I have been thinking more about this lack of savoring what is closely available to me ever since I attended a women’s retreat recently where we studied the life and writings of a 14th century mystic, St. Julian of Norwich. She chose to spend almost all of her adult life in one room attached to a village church. As a mystic, she found that her connection with God was most reachable when she was alone. She never left her small room; food and wastes were passed in and out of the cell. She had three window sections: one opened to the chapel so she could hear the mass and share in services from the confines of her tiny space; one window was used for food and necessities; and the other opened slightly to the outside, so seekers of spiritual wisdom could talk with her.
St. Julian found that her connection with God was most reachable when she was alone.
She communicated to others through writing and speaking to the occasional visitor, but more time than I can imagine must have been spent in silence, meditation, and prayer. St. Julian found a metaphor for the presence of God in the tiniest thing, a hazelnut, which she saw in its complexity as a microcosm of our tiny part in the whole of creation, her wee place infinitesimal but appropriately valid and cherished amongst the multitudes of humanity.
My first reaction to hearing of her quest, fashioned in this manner, was incredulity; how could anyone absent herself from the sun, grass, flowers, seasons and, most obviously in my mind, the touch of fellow human beings? It seemed impossible. Mysticism, in the face of the plague and religious fervor, was more prevalent in that era, and even now there are monasteries and convents and Buddhist temples that encourage the ascetic life. I admire her choice but can’t imagine making it myself.
Another saint, removed from Julian by years and location, was India’s Mother Teresa, who also chose a life of deprivation but seldom experienced the peace and quiet of isolation. I had the pleasure of meeting her when I went to India, before she became renowned and revered. Here was a woman who gave up what society considered the world she should inhabit, but hers was one surrounded by masses of people, by contact with suffering, and by an intense energy beyond the power of many. In spite of my interest in traveling to and helping people in third world countries, I would not be able to devote my whole life to that. I find her choice solitary and admirable.
Emily Dickinson was also a woman who led a life of, as one of my professors wrote, “infinity in a tiny room.” Her world was one proscribed by society’s attitudes towards one who didn’t conform. A spinster, quite shy and yet able to walk the streets around her Amherst home in comfort, she leapt over the constraints of her solitary life to envision the riches of the world outside. Even when she might have wished to lead a more conventional life, perhaps through a love that, sadly, was unrequited, her imagination flourished and provided her a rich source of inspiration. The modern reader can only admire her choices.
These three women found their own paths to a connection with a transcendent reality and a deep spiritual life, in many respects because it was unconventional and often solitary. Their lives have enriched ours in ways we, who experience noise, busy-ness and angst, can only imagine.