Solitude (Part 1)

St. Onuphrius

St. Onuphrius

Go, sit in a cell, and your cell will teach you everything.

— Abba Moses (4th century)

Great liking I had in wilderness to sit, that I, far from noise, sweetlier might sing, and with quickness of heart likingest praising I might feel.

— Richard Rolle (14th century)

A man that Studies Happiness must sit alone like a Sparrow upon the House Top, and like a Pelican in the Wilderness.

— Thomas Traherne (17th century)

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

— Henry David Thoreau (19th century)

In the seclusion of a cell… the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.

— Patrick Leigh Fermor (20th century)

I wondered how I could stop feeling attacked by the elements, and then remembered that I came here to be shaped by the experience of solitude in nature. In that moment, I relaxed my grip on who I think I should be and how the world should treat me, and opened myself to the process of change and growth.

— Robert Kull (21st century)

We don’t know the names of the first hermits, or exactly what drove them to flee their social world for the solitude of wilderness. Not every reason was spiritual, nor did every hermit aspire to higher consciousness. The woods and wastelands have seen their share of outlaws and misanthropes. But for many whose names we revere (such as Moses, Buddha and Jesus), as well as for countless saints who have successfully achieved anonymity, the desert, the mountaintop, the island and the forest primeval have been crucial habitats for the work of the soul.

You go to the wilderness both to lose and to gain. You lose habitual patterns and social roles, along with addictive comforts, clocks, calendars, distractions, noise, news, and the various stresses of public and personal life. You gain time, silence, solitude, freedom, wild nature, and the occasional attention of both angels and demons. If you don’t leave too soon, you may also discover a voice which has kept you company since the day of your birth, a voice which has waited patiently until your inner silence grew deep enough to hear it.

When Robert Kull was a young man, an American expatriate living in Canada, he quit his logging job and paddled a canoe deep into the interior of northern British Columbia, where he lived alone for three months. Psychologically and spiritually unprepared for such extended isolation, he almost “lost it” out there, consumed with fear of the vast unknown as his stable sense of self began to crumble. One night he left his campfire to lie down unprotected in the forest darkness. When a bear drew near, he was terrified, with no recourse but to call upon a higher power. “In that moment of surrender, I felt lifted and found myself floating in a pool of clear light. Looking down, I sensed myself lying peacefully on the forest floor. The world was no longer a hostile alien place, but my home. No true separation remained between me and the world.”[i]

During the weeks that followed, Kull felt so joyful, so “deeply integrated into the universe,” that he resolved to spend an entire year in wilderness solitude at some future time. But soon after returning to the world, “I lost my way, and the clear inner light faded.” It would be 25 years before he would keep that promise to himself, a long stretch during which he sought to recapture that original but elusive state of grace through meditation, self-analysis, and spiritual exploration.

Finally, in February, 2001, Kull set up camp on a remote island off the coast of southern Chile, where he would spend a year alone in the Patagonian wilderness. An abridged form of his journals, interspersed with later reflections about the experience, was published by New World Library in 2008 as Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes. It’s a marvelous read. By shunning a grand narrative thread or an authoritative single voice, Kull let his recorded thoughts, observations and experiences stand just as they were written, paragraph by paragraph, full of changing moods and contradictory voices. This documentary restraint allowed me to be in the moment with him. Each time I picked up the book over the past few weeks, I was immediately returned to that island solitude, its hardships and its beauties, its frustrations and its revelations. When the “year” was finally up and I resumed my accustomed life, I was left with the same question that Kull returned with: what happened out there, and has it left a permanent mark on me?

As the Lenten journey into metaphoric wilderness looms near, I want to explore the implications of Kull’s spiritual experiment for the rest of us. I will do this over the course of a few posts. Let me conclude this first installment with some thoughts about his approach.

Raised as a fundamentalist Christian, Kull eventually migrated to Buddhism. He still uses the word “God” at times, but speaks more often of a felt Presence, Something Greater, or mystery. His favorite term is alive or aliveness, always rendered vibrant with italics. Shorn of traditional theist attributes which might divorce the divine from the given world, this Presence is often interchangeable with “nature” or “universe.” Sometimes it has a voice, and responds to our attention, while sometimes it seems a more impersonal, all-embracing flow.

But constructing a coherent systematic theology is not Kull’s design. While he brings his own presuppositions to his observing, as do we all, his aim is ontologically humble. He is not trying to make an objectively comprehensive model of Being, but to describe his own experience when he opens himself to larger spiritual realities. While he draws on the wisdom of various teachers, his knowledge remains largely personal.

As he tells us, he wanted “to explore, through living, the physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual effects of deep wilderness solitude.”[ii] Formally, his project was an academic study for a doctorate at the University of British Columbia. But as he later wrote, “although my intention at the beginning of this retreat was to explore solitude through a purely secular lens, [I] have had to admit that I cannot fully live nor write about what is happening without using spiritual terminology.”[iii]

A Christian of the last century, having spent considerable time praying in a cave in North Africa, said that “the trouble with going to the desert is that you risk meeting God there.” And as the series of epigraphs at the top of this post demonstrate, there have always been a few of us willing to take that risk. Those who stay home are all grateful for anything they can tell us afterward.

What Kull learned on that Patagonian island is valuable for several reasons. One is the sheer length of his solitude. The Desert Fathers had visitors, and said mass together on Sundays. Thoreau also enjoyed visitors, and dropped off laundry at his mom’s house in town. But Kull had only one brief visit from park rangers. The rest of the time he was entirely bereft of human presence. He thus provides an uncommon source of data about human consciousness.

Such data is hard to come by. I once heard the scholar-writer Stephen J. Pyne read a brilliant paper on the otherworldly environment of Antarctica. White on white, often without any visible separation between ice and sky, the polar landscape is stripped of the visual cues and details by which we orient ourselves in space. Being there is like dwelling in an abstract painting. I asked Pyne whether prolonged exposure to such strange phenomenology might produce interesting forms of consciousness. Shouldn’t the polar outposts be treated like monasteries where the far edges of human perception could be explored? “Maybe,” he laughed. “But the fact is, everyone just stays inside the sheds watching videos and drinking.”

Kull’s experiment is also valuable for his suspicion of preconceptions. He tried to stay open to whatever happens, as free as possible from abstract ideas about the nature of psychological and spiritual experience. Of course this is not entirely possible. We are all products of culture, language, personal history, social location and other contextual factors. But while I would be interested to see what a theologian could do with the raw data, I am glad it was Kull and not the theologian (myself included!) who did the empirical work. Fewer ideas to get in the way.

Finally, Kull’s report is imbued with his own frailty and vulnerability. He’s neither saint nor guru, just a slob like one of us. Afflicted at times by feelings of spiritual failure, and liable to follow an experience of the oneness of all beings with an angry swipe at his whining cat, we feel the camaraderie of a fellow beginner. When he comes across Merton’s sweeping assertion that the “hermit’s whole life is a life of silent adoration…. a prolonged communion … ever in the presence of God,” Kull can’t contain himself: “[N]owhere does Merton’s statement find support,” he argues. “On the contrary. The mind and heart are all over the place, from the most trivial, mundane, and negative to the joyful, peaceful, and sacred. Solitude is like the rest of life, only with less opportunity for escape into diversion.”[iv]

I like to imagine Merton laughing in agreement.

To be continued in the next post

[i] Robert Kull, Solitude: Seeking Wilderness in Extremes (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008) xiv

[ii] Kull, 54

[iii] Kull, 214

[iv] Kull, 103

The ministry of nature

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I am losing precious days… I am learning nothing in this trivial world.
I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.   – John Muir

Every year I observe two holy weeks. One is the Christian Holy Week, the densely liturgical mimesis of Jesus’ last days of mortal life. The other is an annual solo backpack in the mountains of the American West. Both are total immersions into the sacred without which my year would be incomplete.

The sacredness of the American landscape has long been a powerful theme in American thought and feeling. To see the sacred in a Massachusetts pond, a Southwest canyon, or an old growth forest is not a denial of the physical in favor of a spiritual “elsewhere,” but a penetration to creation’s inherent depth. The material is not the opposite of spiritual, but its mediation, its container.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the American landscape painters known as “Luminists” made their canvases glow with a divine transparency, while the literary circle of Transcendentalists translated nature’s otherness into language. Emerson insisted that “the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as an apparition of God … A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole.” And when Thoreau withdrew from contemporary society to his Walden refuge, he found “something true and sublime,” where “the morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted.” Is not everyone who ventures “outside” seeking a similar epiphany?

I keep my walking stick by the front entrance of our home, a daily reminder that the path to God-knows-where is always just on the other side of the door. Two weeks ago I tossed the stick in my car, along with my backpack, and headed for Montana. After a couple of days hiking into the Beartooth mountains north of Yellowstone, I reached a large alpine lake, set in a rocky bowl above treeline, with splendid views of several 12,000’ peaks. From there I made a joyous ramble into the high country beyond the lake, where cumulus shadows glided slowly across immense sunlit walls. Three bald eagles circled over a stream-watered basin. Lush gardens of paintbrush, bluebells, asters and buttercups occupied the hollows vacated by melting snowfields. I dangled my legs over a precipice for a better view of the world below. I lay back in the fragrant grass to consider the radiant sky. I knew again the plenitude of summer, that timeless contentment where one feels, as Wallace Stevens felt, “complete in an unexplained completion.”

That night around 1 a.m., I got out of my tent to see the stars, but clouds had gathered since sunset, so I secured the rain fly over my tent and crawled back inside. I had just drifted off when a couple of large animals entered my campsite, their heavy footsteps awakening me to full alert. The rain fly only allowed a narrow view directly forward from the tent, so I could not identify my visitors, who were off to the side. I could only listen as they explored the camp. I heard breathing just beyond the tent’s nylon wall, a snorting sound that put an image of a bear in my mind. Was it a black bear or the more dangerous grizzly?

Then one of the creatures jumped past the front of the tent. The moon had not yet risen, so I saw only a shadowy blur. It was the size of a large dog, probably a juvenile. And its coat seemed to reflect light, even in the gloom. Could it be the white of a mountain goat, or the light gray fur of a grizzly cub? I just wasn’t sure, and I decided to remain still and silent within my tent rather than provoke an encounter by sticking my head out for a look, especially since I was now situated between parent and child, never a good thing with wild animals.

Imagination and solitude are a potent combination in the middle of the night. I breathed. I prayed. I tried to remember what I had read years ago in Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. I thought about St. Francis making peace with the wolf. I had enjoyed the wildness of the place as a spectator in the light of day. But now the wild had come to call on me directly. In the dark of night. What did it want to tell me: You don’t belong here? Your precious subjectivity is meaningless to the appetite of carnivores? What did you expect to find, so far from your human world?

Or: Be not afraid.

After a long hour and a half, the creatures departed. Just before they did so, I saw the silhouetted head of the juvenile, backlit by the rising quarter moon, pop up from behind a rock. It bleated, then vanished. No ursine growl, only a rather playful goodbye. When dawn finally came, I found tufts of fine white wool snagged on the branches of shrubs around my camp. Mountain goats indeed.

I drove out of the mountains through Yellowstone National Park, where wild animals are often visible along the paved roads – bison, bears, deer and elk. At every sighting, people abandon their cars, running toward a vantage point with their cameras and phones to collect a digital simulation of wilderness – something to keep and take back home. This commodification of the wild as consumable experience is a fascinating spectacle that only underlines our everyday alienation from nature. I can’t criticize. I did it too. I got a nice shot of a bull elk when the skittish tourists fled out of frame while I stood my ground.

But wildness can’t be adequately encountered a few feet from your car, or in short stops at viewpoints along an asphalt road. You need to go deeper, further, dwell in its otherness for a time, risk its strangeness, wait patiently until it is ready to deliver the news.