[aesop_character img=”http://www.shoreline-editions.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Lynne.png” caption=”Lynne Ling” align=”right”]
Welcome to our second issue of Editions, created to complement the conversation packs we will be producing at regular intervals over the next few years.
Jennifer Kavanagh is a Quaker, a writer and someone who champions the simple life. She tells how changes in her life circumstances led to fundamental decisions about how and where to live.
Jill Baker was president of Methodist Women in Britain from 2011 to 2013 and now leads women’s retreats to Lindisfarne. She reflects on different stages in her life which have alternated between busyness and space and time alone.
Jonny Wilson has just completed a BA in Contextual Theology, and put his book learning into practice when he went on his first silent guided retreat – he tells us how he got on that first time with freshness and humour.
Ruth Harvey wrote in Editions 1 about her early childhood on Iona. Here she reflects on aspects of life since – times alone when as ‘an extrovert at heart … all the synapses in my body yearn for real-time connection with others’.
I am fascinated by the stories told in these pages, all with the simple brief ‘please give a personal account of aloneness’. I love that we have both an introvert and an extrovert declare themselves! I love the sense of learning over time, and I love the account of meeting a new friend Jesus on retreat.
What would you write given the same brief as our contributors? I would welcome your responses to these stories and to the accompanying conversation pack and will share a selection on our website.
We are grateful for the sponsorship of the resource by Methodist Women in Britain who suggested the overall theme and also contributed to its production.
Note: Scroll down to read this issue of Editions. This is designed to display best on a tablet device or laptop, and a page turner version is also available here, but a hard copy of this beautiful A3 publication, printed on high quality paper, can also be purchased from our shop for only £5.00 + p&p.
[aesop_chapter title=”The silence of solitude” subtitle=”Jennifer Kavanagh has discovered the difference between loneliness and solitude” bgtype=”img” full=”on” img=”http://shoreline-editions.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Kavanagh.jpg”]
About twelve years ago I sold my flat, gave away many of my belongings, and embarked on a nomadic life. My conscious aim was to live more lightly on the earth, to go where I was led. It was only in hindsight that I realised that at the root of my journey was a need to move, as the Dutch priest, Henri Nouwen, puts it1, from loneliness to solitude.
My life has been very peopled – with family, friends, and with partners. After a long marriage, children, and two six-year relationships, I finally understood in my heart, if not in my head, that I needed to accept my aloneness – and learn not only to live alone, but live without the support of a significant other. A recently reclaimed faith had brought me to the still worship of the Quakers; I hoped that allowing myself to be alone with that silence might bring me to a more contemplative life.
And so I advertised for a “hermitage”. It took me initially to an attic flat in Stroud, before a couple of months wandering in the Outer Hebrides, a brief period on a Native American reservation, and five months in a little wooden house by the sea in Dorset. Although I struggled to let go of my attachment, I revelled in the freedom of my new life.
Though I continued to seek for other diversions to fill the void, I found periods of serenity and short bursts of joy. Eventually I learned that I had to sit with my yearning and inaction, to go through a boredom threshold, in order to emerge with a sense of timelessness.
In the Outer Hebrides, after a walk on a wild South Uist beach, I wrote in my journal:
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#625744″ text=”#fff9f5″ height=”120″ align=”left” size=”1″ quote=”“Completely alone, a sense of self in the solitude. It is what this trip is about: to find that sense of interior self. A real consciousness of self without that barrier confusingly called self-consciousness which is about worrying how one is perceived. To obtain the former is why I am here, stretching the solitude, what I found in the desert, what I find so hard when living with, or even next door to, anyone. Worry about being heard, interrupting anyone. The joy of liberation at real solitude, paradoxically “losing oneself” as in music or a good book. No interruption of sound or sight, just the natural world and myself in it, part of it. Thank you, God. But, so close to that joy is sadness – part of the same non-duality; also, more mundanely, a yearning for someone to share it.”” parallax=”off” direction=”right”]
A year later I found my own hermitage; it’s in the city, and to my surprise I’m still here.
My old central London office is now a flat. I came here over ten years ago, intending my stay to be a short one. But it’s become my own little place. It’s a space of extraordinary quietness, with a precious patch of sky amid the brick walls to the rear, and a womb-like enclosed sitting room, where I can write and be. People-watching has replaced my joy in the natural world. I am an observer, yet part of all I see. I am active, engaged, among people much of the time, but no longer either attached or lonely. Looking back at my journals from ten years ago, I realise how much more settled I am in solitude, no longer yearning for this or that, though still trying to find a good balance between stimulus and a more contemplative state.
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#353900″ width=”100%” align=”right” size=”2″ img=”http://shoreline-editions.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/stonelight.jpg” quote=”“I am active, engaged, among people much of the time, but no longer either attached or lonely”” parallax=”off” direction=”right”]
Some years ago, at a session of Quaker Quest, an outreach programme where people can learn about Quakers and share their spiritual paths, small groups were addressing the question “What does the word God mean to me?” In my group a middle-aged woman shared her experience.
When I was nineteen, I had a stroke. I was in a coma for months. I could hear everything that was going on, but no one knew it. I couldn’t communicate in any way. I felt enclosed in a bubble, and I was so lonely. Then God came into the bubble and sat down next to me.
The silence that followed her revelation was filled with our wonder and the movement of our hearts. Such a beautiful image. At times of loneliness, it has returned to me as a confirmation of what I found in my wanderings. That we are never alone. In our own bubbles of preoccupation, all we have to do is create a space for God to enter in.
[aesop_chapter title=”Diary of a surprised introvert” subtitle=” Jill Baker looks back on her life and shares some key moments of self-discovery” bgtype=”img” full=”on” img=”http://shoreline-editions.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/extrovert.jpg”]
1959-1994 (or thereabouts)
I grew up getting acquainted with a sociable, extrovert God who wanted to converse with me all the time – I prayed and God, in return, talked to me, inspiring me with wonderful stories, sending prophets, priests and preachers to help me understand how to live. I prayed for ideas and, as ideas were given, acted upon them – making sure I was a busy, useful, innovative, engaged Christian. Home could, at times, be quiet and reflective, but church was a big, noisy family where I learned that God thrived on company, so presumably I should too. The following years of student life, Christian Union, marriage, buying a house, getting involved in the local church, giving birth… all continued in the direction already set – faith was essentially something to be worked out with others, in groups, worship, programmes, holiday clubs, conversations.
In the midst of the crazy, noisy years of child-rearing, comes the gift of a new nourishment; evening after solitary evening on the balcony of an isolated rural Caribbean manse – children in bed, husband at one meeting or another, and just me, with a diet of moonshine and aloneness… journalling my life away, journalling my life closer. I begin to sense a God who has now grown up enough to sit quietly at my side and make no additional demands on my over-tired body at the end of a long day. My feet are set on the road to discover how aloneness could feed and restore me. The scratching of a pen in a notebook against the chirping of crickets and tiny frogs on countless tropical evenings becomes the climate in which I can make sense of a new culture, sense of a God who is much bigger than I had ever guessed and sense of where I might fit into this wide horizon.
[aesop_image imgwidth=”content” img=”http://shoreline-editions.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Baker1.jpg” align=”center” lightbox=”on” caption=”“amazed at my newfound ability to sit still, to say nothing, to hear nothing, to think nothing, simply to be alone…”” captionposition=”left”]
Back in the British connexion… so many more distractions here – meetings in the home, parties, TV, boys entering teenage years and no longer in bed by 7pm, caring for elderly parents… Where are those precious evenings? Being led through the Myers-Briggs personality testing gives me permission to “come out” as an introvert – it is such a relief to understand, at last, that I really do need that space. Now the challenge is to build a life which makes it possible. Aloneness is still a tightrope; attending an African Methodist Conference I am taken to rented accommodation and told to rest until I am collected “later”… I rest for a while, I read my book for a while, I catch up with my journal, I sit on the doorstep to feel the warm sun, I watch the insects, I send my daily allowance of one expensive text message home, I try to pray, but fail, totally distracted by
my own aloneness. Will no one ever come to collect me?
A minor test of aloneness compared to what was to come.
Half of my heart has been clawed out of my chest; breathing is as much work as I can manage today. Opening my eyes I see only empty spaces, closing them only deep dark wells into which soon, inevitably, I must fall. Grief must be the hardest aloneness of all. The void in my life has a very particular shape, the void in my life is the shape of my eighteen-year-old son, Peter, who has died by his own hand. Every grief is different, but every grief is about learning to live around a chasm which constantly threatens to engulf the griever and every griever must learn to do that alone. Others grieve, others grieve for Peter, but each of us does so in our own way. I am alone in this grief as never before; Peter was part of me, I was part of Peter. The tearing of the fabric of this relationship is very hard to bear; this aloneness is very hard to learn. This aloneness will be with me until I too have died.
I sit on a swinging seat under a cold, clear blue Atlanta sky, tinged with pink at the horizon as the sun sets on a February day. Between lectures, meals, group times and worship I have been given time for silence and I feast upon it, amazed at my newfound ability to sit still, to say nothing, to hear nothing, to think nothing, simply to be alone. Alone, yet dimly aware that I am not alone.
[aesop_chapter title=”Daisies and stones” subtitle=”Jonny Wilson began to see Jesus as a friend while on retreat in North Wales” bgtype=”img” full=”on” img=”http://shoreline-editions.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/stonedaisy.jpg”]
Learning about Christian spirituality and about being on retreat is very different from actually going on retreat. I made my first retreat in 2013 after finishing the first year of my contextual theology course. My favourite module was entitled, ‘Growing Relationships with God’ in which we considered ideas such as the Desert Fathers and Mothers and Lectio Divina as well as retreats. Growing up with a very rigid Christianity, these new – yet old – ideas were resonating with me in deep, refreshing ways. I just had to experience what time spent alone in silence with God was all about which led me to St. Beuno’s in North Wales.
The first few days were slightly disorienting. ‘What do I do all day? I know there are meal times but there’s a lot of hours to fill besides that. What happens at meal times? It’s going to feel weird just sitting in silence opposite someone whilst they eat. What do I do at the Eucharist? I’m not a Catholic, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.’
Thankfully my spiritual director was excellent at guiding me gently to find a rhythm. It was a real battle though and my director kindly reminded me that falling off a bike requires getting back on again. Just as the idea of cycling isn’t a write-off after not mastering it first time, nor is the day ruined because a flow isn’t found immediately. Finding a rhythm that wasn’t dictated by the regular routine of morning traffic, work meetings or household tasks was strange initially and yet, slowly, almost as each minute slipped into the next, quietly liberating.
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ img=”http://shoreline-editions.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/stonedaisy.jpg” quote=”“never in my life did I imagine sitting on a bench in the Welsh sunshine inventing a game involving daisies and stones with my new friend Jesus!”” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]
I began meeting God in Jesus and seeing him as a friend for the first time. I sat with my new-found friend on many different benches around the grounds and spoke about the relationships in my life. He was gentle, funny and insightful in what he prompted in me. We even made up a game together.
Never in my life did I imagine sitting on a bench in the Welsh sunshine inventing a game involving daisies and stones with my new friend Jesus! It was either madness on my part or a new-found beauty that was previously hidden.
I went home feeling lighter, more hopeful and having met a very real, personal and caring God in just a matter of days. As part of the ‘Growing Relationships with God’ module we examined the idea of a ‘rule of life’. Going on annual retreat was something I committed to as a result of that first retreat. The life it contained I had never experienced elsewhere before.
In 2014 I booked into St. Beuno’s once again. When I arrived the sun once again was shining and the sunset that evening was glorious. I could not remove the grin from my face. It felt so good to be back and I was looking forward to catching up with my old friend Jesus. That night, however, the loneliness began to feel more like an unwelcome guest than a positive presence.
I had been working alongside my studies in my second year at college which resulted in little spare time in the lead-up to going on retreat. I thought all would be well once I got back into the silence but having handed in end of year assignments on the Monday, a very difficult conversation on the Wednesday and then heading away on the Friday it was all a bit much. I slept terribly the first night and the following day restlessness grew into anxiety and being alone in silence felt like the last thing I needed right then. 24 hours after arriving, I left.
What did it all mean? I realised that I needed time to prepare to enter into the silence. The speed with which I was operating before retreat coupled with not enough time to slow down before going meant the transition from busyness to stillness was too much for me to handle. God still met me in the distress and questioning of why I couldn’t stick the silence the second time round after enjoying it so much the first time. Gerard Hughes’ throwaway line in God of Surprises, “the answer is in the pain…” summed up my second experience of retreat.
I’m looking forward to my third retreat this year however. Lessons have been learned and the joy of being alone with God is too good to miss out on.
[aesop_chapter title=”Glimpses of aloneness” subtitle=”Ruth Harvey shares the lessons aloneness has brought her” bgtype=”img” full=”on” img=”http://shoreline-editions.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/climber.jpg”]
Isobel was over 70 when she first lived alone. All her life, in a busy family, as a student, as a young wife and mother, as an active volunteer, she had lived with others. So when she found herself alone at the graveside of her beloved, this is what she said: ‘Don’t wait until you’re a widow to live by yourself. Make sure that at some stage in your life, you choose to live solo, you choose to experience what it is like to live alone.’
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Don’t wait until you’re a widow to live by yourself. Make sure that at some stage in your life, you choose to live solo, you choose to experience what it is like to live alone.
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I have never relished time alone. The thought of a silent retreat, or a whole day to myself has never drawn me. I suppose I’m an extrovert at heart, someone who finds energy from being with others. And while I have learned to spend time alone, and can see and feel the value, all the synapses in my body yearn for real-time connection with others. Given the choice of an empty or full railway carriage, I’ll choose the one with people. Playing an instrument only came alive for me when playing in groups. The thought of dancing alone always seemed strangely odd. Cooking a meal for one rarely worked.
The rock climber is alone. Tiptoeing between cracks, holding on for dear life, at once thrilled and terrified by the utter solitude. Held in place on the rock-face by walls of thin air and skilled strength, no one but the lone climber can determine the next step. A partner, present at the end of the umbilical rope, is also distant leaving the climber alone, dance-clinging on the vertical stone.
I turned the corner in the airport, heading up stream with the masses to the departure gate. I was alone, heading off, to spend the best part of a year thousands of miles from home. My whole body was racked with grief and awe. The finality of turning that corner and feeling alone in the midst of millions remains touchstone: in the absence of familiar faces and souls, I felt the bond and richness of love.
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There are many remarkable facts about pregnancy and childbirth. One is that two hearts beat in one body. Another is that childbirth is a bit like rock-climbing. The utter lonesomeness of the contractions engulfing all, compelling this one out of the two. And the partner, at the side, offering words of encouragement and strength, but unable to join in the journey. The labourer, like the climber, attached yet utterly separate, dance-clinging to the rock face of this labour of love, adjusting each muscle with precision and instinct, planning the next move, aware only of the power and the strength and the agony of clinging, and letting go.
The body politic is like the body of Christ – we celebrate our differences, and, with our diversity, remain united. I have lived 30 miles south of the country of my birth for most of my adult life. At once at home and alive in my chosen land, the separation, and the isolation I still feel was underlined in not having a vote in the 2014 Referendum. The result of the 2015 General Election left me feeling even more isolated. Until, that is, the passive sense of ‘having been abandoned’ was replaced by the active remembering of my own choice, and my own voice. I realised, through the pain of separation, how utterly connected and united we remain. I may not feel I have a voice at the centre of government, but I surely have a voice within the citizens’ political movements and the faith networks speaking for Gospel-politics of justice, peace, reconciliation and solidarity and love.
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Sitting on a pebble beach, on the shores of the freezing North Sea, in a land where all language is foreign, and isolation feels complete. Searching, drilling deep down into the shingle and finding a tiny shiny slither of stone, sparkling like a gem. Noticing the curve and the corner, each unique particle of that fragment of the earth’s core – the insignificant beauty. Eyes lift from the particular and settle on the 100 mile horizon – over oceans of unremarkable drops of water, noticing the curving horizon, the transient movable edge that dips round the earth and connects, gravity-sensitive, each blessed particle.
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In solitude we discover
that being is more important than having,
and that we are worth
more than the result of our efforts.
In solitude we discover that our life
is not a possession to be defended,
but a gift to be shared.
It’s there we recognise that
the healing words we speak
are not just our own
but are given to us:
that the love we express
is part of a greater love;
and the new life we bring forth
is not a property to cling to
but a gift to be received.
‘Out of Solitude’
Ave Maria Press 2004 www.avemariapress.com
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