A busy summer has not left much time for blogging. But I did read A Time To Keep Silence, the memoirs of Patrick Leigh Fermor while staying in three different monasteries across Europe in the 1950s. I picked up the book primarily because one of the monasteries he visited was a cave monastery in the Cappadocia region. Having just visited Turkey this spring, I was interested in Fermor’s experience of staying in one of these caves. Unfortunately, his chapter on Cappadocia was much shorter than the others and he only visits the sites, rather than spending an extended time in them.
While his recollection of his time in Cappadocia was brief, his account of the experience of silence and solitude is an interesting read. Before arriving in Cappadocia, Fermor spent time in the Abbey of St. Wandrille and the Trappist monastery of La Grande Trappe. One of his initial observations is that the “monastic life is so at odds with the outside world that it often inspires immense hostility.” The disciplines of simplicity and silence stand in stark contrast to the normal routines of everyday busyness. Yet during these times of silence he found something deeper inside himself that came to desire this sensory deprivation. He concluded his time at St. Wandrille by writing,
If my first days in the Abbey has been a period of depression, the unwinding process, after I had left, was ten times worse … The process of adaptation – in reverse – had painfully to begin again.
Fermor’s observations reminded me of my own experience with extended solitude. By solitude as a spiritual discipline, I am not referring to sitting by yourself in a coffee shop or watching TV during a quiet evening at home. I am speaking of intentionally removing yourself from all that normally provides distraction for an extended period of time in order to pay attention to what is truly happening in the deeper parts of your soul.
My own experience began several years ago when I spent a week in a cabin in the mountains by myself. I had set aside the time to further some writing projects, but also to get away for some self-examination. But I was not prepared for what I was about to experience. The first day was filled with the anticipation of having finally arrived at my destination. From airports to rental cars to driving up winding mountain roads, I was excited to finally kick off my week-long retreat. My first challenge came that night. As the sun set, the woods were soon filled with the noisy sounds of critters buzzing and unseen creatures rustling just outside the light of the cabin. It was difficult to sleep without the familiar sounds of traffic noise and the pitch darkness that set in, absent of street lights, was unsettling.
The next day things got a bit wacky. Starved from the normal diet of music, commercials, and the general noise of city living, my mind began to wander to weird places. Then I became obsessed with my next meal. What am I going to have for lunch? What about dinner? When I took an afternoon nap, it was restless, full of bizarre dreams. Then that night, I woke up in a panic convinced someone was in the room with me!
The following day, I was trying to process why this time of solitude had started out so disconcerting. Then I read a verse out of the Psalms, “Even in the darkness, you are there.” And suddenly I became calm. I am convinced that the presence in the room the previous night was a spiritual presence. I began to realize that part of the task of extended solitude was to strip away all that normally distracts us. Our minds are so used to being distracted by noise – whatever form that may take – that our mind will kick and scream for distraction before finally submitting to stillness and quiet.
With that newfound perspective, I slept peacefully the rest of the week and embraced the solitude of that cabin. Since then, I have had the occasional opportunity for other times of retreat. There is a similar adaptation process, but I can now move through it much quicker, having identified the transition. And now, I crave these times when I can unplug from the world around me.
What I enjoyed about A Time To Keep Silence is Fermor’s own journey of feeling initially uneasy to a sense of depression to acceptance and finally embracing the solitude of the monasteries he visited. I have heard others speak of similar experiences, so I know my experience is not unique. Times of extended solitude are wonderful for those brave enough to take the journey!