Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Existential Solitude

     The vows I took as a hermit are Solitude, Silence, and Simplicity. They are traditional; I didn't come up with them myself. I knew that my understanding of them was patchy and uneven, and trusted that I would grow into them over time. And so it has been, a little here and a little there. I've only been a hermit for 4½ years, and I know I still have a long, long way to go before I ever really understand what I've gotten myself into. 

    This past week, I think I have gained a new and deeper insight into the power of Solitude. I wonder how much it is relatable to people who are not hermits, the rest of you out in the world? I'd guess there is value in it for many of you as well, in a world where we are told there is now an "epidemic of loneliness." I would be glad to hear from any readers who want to share your perspective, either in a comment on this post or by using the contact form on the right sidebar.

    So I moved into my new home here in rural France just over six months ago. I've written here about how I've struggled with loneliness as a solo expat, in a country whose language I do not speak well. What has made the loneliness so much harder to bear is the near proximity of a lovely but inaccessible cloistered monastic community, right after a year spent alone in an touristy urban desert elsewhere. I came already starved for human connection, and found here a bunch of people I could naturally connect deeply with, except that we are divided by the cloister wall. 

    Anyway, starving is not a great stance for starting new relationships. We go in greedy to fill our own need instead of sharing mutually, instead of taking the time to discover and delight in who they are in themselves, separate from our desires. This kind of approach to a new relationship is more like the vices of greed or lust or gluttony, rather than the virtues of charity, hospitality, and generosity. But my need is real, we all (hermits included) need human connection, and I am in fact alone in a new country. So then what?

    It's lucky after all that the monks are so cloistered. It has slowed me down in my rush to become instantly best friends forever with every one of them. I want to join, to be accepted as a postulant, a member of the family, or at least to be allowed to live in one of the hermitages on the property. But it's a cloistered community of men, and I'm a woman and ineligible to join. Which, I think, turns out to be a good thing, because I'm forced into patiently waiting for friendship to develop gradually, instead of swamping them with my neediness.

    The deeper nature of this current struggle, with the pain of loneliness and the craving to connect deeply, has finally come clear to me this week in talks with both my American and French spiritual directors. This is not about situational loneliness, it is about existential loneliness. It is about coming to terms with the deep well of isolation that each one of us carries inside, honoring it, opening up to it, holding it sacred, even when it is brimming over with tears, and letting go of the urge to fill it with human love.

    There is an inner void, an unquenchable emptiness, that we seem to be always rushing to fill -- with "productivity," with food, with sex, with drugs or alcohol, with social media or entertainment, with shopping, with whatever. We're unwilling to face pain, or doubt, or loneliness, or even boredom. We self-medicate with all kinds of substances and behaviors, but while these drugs may soothe, they do not heal, and in the end they harm us, too. 

    What I am now realizing is that I have never become reconciled to my existential solitude. I can live contentedly alone as a hermit because most of the time, I feel the presence of God almost as palpably as another solid human being right beside me. But that is not guaranteed, and even the greatest of the mystic saints went through periods of deprivation of the felt presence of God. And then what? Then I am made to confront my own inner void, and the uselessness of all the means I have used to try to stuff it full of what does not satisfy.

    But now, here is where it becomes beautiful..... once I become willing to let that inner void remain empty, to accept it with tears and all, what I find is not a desolate wasteland of alienation but a glorious, sacred expanse, an inner space as vast and magnificent as outer space. I find that my inner solitude is not a wound, not a lack at all, but a place of infinite potential. It is a fertile fallow landscape, a field of wonder and possibility. It is what Thomas Merton called the "point vierge," that holy, undistorted, uncontaminated, uncompromised essential Self (as opposed to the Ego). It is the fertile place where my naked self can meet the Divine face to face, and in our meeting something old always dies and something new is always conceived, in power and freedom.

    About a month and a half ago, just as this period of spiritual dryness (not feeling the divine presence) began, in my meditation God appeared, not with me, but within me. He was in an inner room that was dusty, cobwebbed, dim and dingy, littered with old broken and forgotten things. And my felt sense of His presence was dim, just sort of flickering in and out. And since that day, nothing. I have prayed for guidance on what I must do to clean up this inner room. I understood that it does not depend only on me, that God also does the work, but what is my part to play?

    That is the context for this week's new clarity about the nature of the aching void within, the existential loneliness. Letting that space be a sacred space, letting it be always potential and never filled, is my offering to God, and God's gift to me. Embracing my inner unquenchable hunger, thirst, loneliness, neediness, might just be the starting point for all further growth toward holiness. If I can recognize and embrace the sacredness of this inner space, treat it with honor and delicacy and wonder, then I might begin to find it gradually transformed by the light, the beauty and fragrance of God. Amen.

    And then, too, if I am content to let my inner void remain unfilled, then I am capable of meeting my neighbors in mutual integrity, with gratitude for their gifts, with generosity toward their needs, with wonder for each one's uniqueness. Honoring my existential solitude becomes the ground for more genuine connection.

    And this is where I would love to hear from readers, including those of you who have not taken vows of solitude. What would it mean to you to honor your own inner space? How do you try to fill it, and what might it mean to you to just let it be empty? What wonders might you find within yourself, if you were willing to go through the veil of tears to explore that place of mystery? Have you done this work already? What have you found in your heart of existential solitude?

❤❤❤ PEACE ❤❤❤

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