When we were first told to stay at home, networks, organisations and individuals from the worlds of spirituality and meditation began posting resources and advice on the themes of solitude, silence and stillness etc. For a captive audience, here was neglected wisdom for our noisy, compulsively overactive world.
Familiar stories and sayings did the rounds.
‘Stay in your cell,’ urged the ancient Desert Fathers, ‘and your cell will teach you everything’. Blaise Paschal declared how the ‘whole misery of humanity is from a single factor, namely, not knowing how to sit down in one’s own room’. But there is quite a lot of misery locked in people’s own rooms at the moment, including the multiple stressers of unemployment, isolation, hunger and finance. Levels of domestic violence and mental health issues are escalating.
We learned Isaac Newton was studying at Cambridge when bubonic plague broke out. He self-isolated in a rural cottage for a year (or more?) and during that time he developed calculus and the theory of gravity. ‘So if you are isolated at home’, came the breathless punch line, ‘be like Isaac – do something productive!’ Well no pressure. As gravity had already been invented my productivity that morning was clearing a kitchen cupboard. We may also assume Newton had no income worries or bored, young children to keep occupied?
In fact part of what this time demands of us is that we live without being productive – at least in ways we have been accustomed to doing. In response to a deadly, unseen threat, familiar ways of being, living and doing have vanished overnight – work, social networks and much else.
Now silence is something I am drawn to actually, though I never find it easy. But by the time a Cistercian monk (a strictly enclosed, silent, monastic order) announced on Facebook ‘we have a thousand years of experience of social isolation’ I felt ready to do some damage. But that same day I read a newspaper article about someone who had spent months at a time, with 130 others, deep under the ocean, within the confines of a nuclear submarine. His advice was almost identical to the monk’s (minus the praying). Another journalist had phoned around several religious communities to ask how they coped with isolation. He found ‘that the nuns had cottoned on to the Silicon Valley trend for “micro-scheduling” – that is dividing your day into ever tinier increments – centuries ago’. The consistent advice, from behind monastery walls, in nuclear subs or working in cutting edge computer technology and media was – plan a shape to your life, break the day into smaller parts, allowing times alone and time together, time for work/study, recreation, food and exercise. And keep to it.
Monastic wisdom would add – stay ‘earthed’ and ‘in the moment’ of whatever you are doing at any one time (ie present and attentive – this is surprisingly difficult). And spend up to ten minutes in silent reflection/ meditation/prayer twice a day.
One of the familiar pushbacks to all those stories of heroically resourceful and productive solitude was – ‘well they were obviously introverts weren’t they?’
It is a very common assumption that certain ‘types’ of people (called ‘introverts’) will do this solitude and silence stuff quite easily and naturally , while others (called ‘extroverts’) do not. The former are commonly characterised as quieter, preferring their own company and less people/activity centred. The latter, by contrast, are active, outgoing and relationship oriented.
This has led to misleading understandings of both personality and spirituality.
To be ‘introvert’ or ‘extrovert’ (to stay with these binary terms) is not about whether you prefer company to being by yourself, or activity to stillness. Introverts are actually no more likely to be socially withdrawn than extroverts are to love people. In fact some expressions of extroversion are actually coping strategies for shyness. No, it is about where you get your main energy from. Those with a more introvert personality can be just as passionately involved in life ‘out there’. But they will need to draw their energy for this from a well-resourced, interior world. Those on the more extrovert end of the spectrum can and do value quiet and reflection and know their need of it. But the energy they will need for their more inward world must be drawn from their more outward engaging with life.
Teaching on spirituality and prayer has been much more hospitable to the varieties of human personality in recent years. ‘Finding the prayer style that suits your personality’ is the title of one book on my shelf. But if our social and spiritual styles are only centred around our preferences (and therefore our securities) we may struggle in those times when we find ourselves in a strange lands and facing uncertain situations.
I am a regular speaker on Christian holiday weeks and I also leading silent retreats. One is outward, activity based and busy. The other, silent, reflective and inward. There were always some regulars on the holiday weeks to whom I wanted to say – ‘why don’t you try a retreat sometime? Take time to stop, to grow in stillness and reflection’. And to some always coming on retreats I wanted to say – ‘why don’t you come on a holiday week – take your life and your praying out into more active life and relationships’. Both can be forms of escape. Both extremes can be ways of avoidance when what we really need are ways to grow. Each needs the other.
No one is simply one or the other of course. We are all on a spectrum. Most of us are a mixture and can move from to the other in different situations or according to need. One writer describes himself as an ‘extroverted introvert’. He complains his friends easily assume he is extrovert largely because that is the side of his personality they tend to meet at work or in the social activities they share. What we all need is to be in a creative, nurturing relationship with our own unique mix in all this. And here lies some of the challenge to us as we face our present constraints.
Something much more subtle is going on than those generalised, binary, ‘in’ and ‘ex’, terms allow. So a young woman who, for some years, has been very fulfilled living and working alone, running her own business from home, speaks of a bewildering sense of isolation and stress since social restrictions began. A couple with strongly contrasting personalities speak in strikingly similar ways of the strange ebb and flow of mental, physical and emotional energies they have been experiencing.
There are gifts as well as constraints in this time. While shared living in anxious times brings its pressures, many are also speaking a new valuing and prioritising of friendships. Others, while missing workplace stimulation, are caught out by the pleasure and energy they are finding in, among other things, not driving each day.
So here we are – and for the foreseeable future. What kind of society and church will emerge out of all this is simply not knowable yet.
The challenge is to live and respond in new ways. The familiar is not on offer. We are meeting and getting to know ourselves and each other in new ways. This is posing new challenges and offering new possibilities.
During a particularly difficult time in my life I remember telling my counsellor that I felt I had lost faith and any sense of who I was. ‘You don’t sound like someone who has lost faith or identity’, she replied. ‘But you are having to live out of a part if yourself you have not spent much time with before. So it is not surprising if you feel like a stranger to yourself’.
The world of spirituality and prayer faces a particular challenge at this point. I wrote earlier of the variety of expression that now characterises this world. But as the stories above reveal, it is still a world more often peopled by those drawn from the more ‘inward’ leaning end of the personality spectrum. This has become part of the stereotype and it needs to broaden. The great majority of books on prayer and spiritual life reflect the same preferences. Whilst these insights and practices on offer are centrally important, they are part of a greater whole. As Martin Wroe’s delightful poem illustrates (see below), if you do not start from that place it is easy to feel you don’t belong at all. If what we call spirituality has wisdom to offer us at this time it will be because it can enable us to respond and grow in unexpected ways and directions.
When you haven’t got a prayer
They say you’re available
on certain conditions. Quiet ones.
That if I can find an air of
It carries that still small voice.
But I don’t do quiet, stillness.
I am not tranquil except when
I am asleep
And then I am not available
As far as I know.
So, what’s the chance of a still
big voice in the noise,
Of hearing you in the roaring
The screaming mealtime,
The crowded train,
The supermarket queue,
The smoky, throbbing bar?
I know that time you weren’t
in the fire, the storm.
But everyone’s different.
Maybe Elijah was better at quiet.
You’re usually quiet.
I’m usually wired.
If I try for your silence,
Perhaps you could try for my
Your place or mine?
I know they say you’re in
But maybe we could meet
in town .…
Martin Wroe (b. 1961)
Used with permission
There are so many journeys going on. If some are learning to be silent, focused and attentive in new ways, others are learning ways of being more active, more directed and ‘out there’. Most often we are learning new ways of doing both. And God is all in all.
Like life in the confines of monasteries and nuclear submarines, we are learning both stillness and activity, noise and silence, inner and outer, alone and together.
And we do not yet see what we shall become (1Jn3.2).