This book is the gentlest book I’ve ever read. I’m not even quite sure what I mean by that, but it is.
So what have I learnt? Well, the life of the solitary is not easy. The same difficulties I have when trying to ‘settle’ to prayer strike those whose choice is a ‘settled’ life of solitude. “Yet the almost continuous conversations that go on in most of our heads most of the time when our minds are not otherwise engaged, proved a more intractable problem, and hinged on learning little by little to live as fully as possible in each present moment, and occupying myself with just one task at a time so as to break the ingrained habit of multi-tasking”. That helps me understand one reason I often find concentrating in prayer difficult. It’s because it virtually every other arena of life, multi-tasking is seen as positive. When we try to focus solely in prayer, we are going against much of our training and upbringing. In her early days in the cabin overlooking Bardsey Island, she describes worry about just sitting and watching and waiting, realising that everyone else was terribly busy doing things. She says she ‘had never felt so helpless’, and yet she was still content to wait.
She recognises an intricate relationship between her own life and progress, and the place in which she is living. She often ties together her own internal experiences with the weather and seasons that surround her. She sees a rhythm in the ebb and flow, and goes some way towards embracing this. It feels like she becomes a part of her place, and perhaps that’s a challenge for each one of us. Tied in with this, she researches carefully her surroundings and the Christian history of her place. Bardsey Island is steeped in it, and pilgrimages have been made there for centuries. She learns of how Christianity shaped her place, and how her place helped define a distinct flavour of Christianity in that part of the world. She learns much from the past, but doesn’t allow it to stay there. She tells also of a pilgrimage to Skellig Michael, off the coast of Ireland. An island similar in many ways to Bardsey Island. As she looks deeper into the life of those early Christian communities, she reminds us that, “Humility and service go hand in hand with holiness and even as I write these words I realize how counter-cultural they sound.” Surely we, too, should recognize such truths, and pursue them regardless of how counter-cultural they are.
Throughout the book, there is such a strong message about ‘place’. “The sense of ‘inhabiting’ a place in the way former generations often did, is rare for us now.” Perhaps this, too, is a challenge for us.
“For some years now when I have been asked how I live, how do I pray? Do I have a rule; a timetable; how do I spend my time? I have come to reply: ‘I just live here.’ There is nothing special or spiritualized about a solitary life. It is just one way of responding in faith to God. Every life has a rhythm punctuated by the need to eat and to sleep, to work and to relax with enjoyment or sadness, contentment or anxiety. It is no different for a hermit.”
Maybe that’s the same for all of us longing to live a holy life. Maybe we should be able to respond, ‘I just live here’.
This book is a gentle and beautiful exploration of the solitary life in contemporary times.
As usual, the above link will take you to the Amazon.co.uk website, and I’ll get a minute amount of commission if you choose to buy 🙂