The Greenbelt Festival of 2012 was a watershed for me. It followed a bleak, lonely period in my life, and I arrived full of grief. But as the festival progressed it turned into a long, deep draught of cool water. There were the usual reunions with old London friends met just once a year, and three transformative talks. The setting of each is etched in my memory, in my nostalgia for the Cheltenham Racecourse venue - for this was the last festival there. (One of its big attractions, for me, was events in rooms with names like "Gold Cup".)
The best of the three talks was one by Simon Parke, promoting his new book Solitude. Parke was a former vicar who worked stacking shelves in a supermarket while writing books on spirituality. He had written one about mysticism and one about the Enneagram. His latest was about the seemingly simple idea of solitude.
Parke's argument is that solitude can be a gift and an opportunity, a "pathway to inner silence" for those who think of inner silence as desirable and are willing to risk seeking it. For down the ages, it has been considered a blessing by people wishing to deepen their spiritual life. And Parke isn't invoking the idea of spiritual life only in a specifically Christian sense, for his book is replete with the insights not only of the familiar religious figures but also non-Christian and secular thinkers and seekers. The book is an assembly of such insights, a tapestry woven together by Parke in a series of fifty short chapters, each on a particular topic, in the form of an imagined dialogue with the reader. You have to read the book to understand how effective it is, how light and simple and yet profound. But here is a sample of Parke in person, which conveys its flavour.
This quality of lightness and simplicity was conveyed in Parke's talk in the (as usual charmingly incongruous) room at the racecourse. The perspective afforded by his words was an entirely novel one for me. Much of my sadness in the preceding year and a half had come about through the conviction that, having lost someone who had been very close to me, I was alone and therefore lonely, and there was nothing good to be found in loneliness.
Parke helped me realise that my state of aloneness could be transformed; that transformed aloneness - solitude - was a thing that many thoughtful people longed and looked for. (In my last post I described the experience of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who for years badgered his abbot to allow him to be a hermit.) The question is mostly one of attitude. Loneliness is a bad thing but solitude need not be. In his chapter 8 Parke explores the difference:
Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely; of being happily alone. It's a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself, and through oneself, with God and the world around. Solitude is something desirable, something to be sought; a state of being alone in the good company of yourself.
Loneliness is not simply a matter of being alone, but the feeling that no one really cares what happens to you. It's the painful awareness that we lack close and meaningful contact with others, which produces feelings of being cut off from them.
Such insights were honey to me, and they started the process of changing my perceptions about being alone. (Indeed one of Parke's best insights is that, on the above analysis, one can end up more lonely in company than by oneself.)
Through the events of recent weeks, many of us have been thrown into a much greater solitude than is normal to us. But on his website Parke has made the point that mystics like Julian of Norwich deliberately "self-isolated" in their quest for fruitful solitude. Furthermore Ruth's earlier post on this blog draws a similar parallel, in the context of a cloistered Dominican nun.
Moreover what this community of Foundation has been demonstrating, with great energy, is that none of us is cut off from others; that we do not lack close and meaningful contact with people. Far from it! We may be physically alone but it is a fruitful solitude, knowing that we are connected with others that care about us. Connected through technology, but more importantly through shared worship and prayer - and most importantly of all through friendship and love.
We may be solitary for now, but we are far from lonely.
The above image is a photograph by Thomas Merton, "Wood".