This weekend is Easter (our only 4 day weekend!) for myself and many of us, Passover for many more and Sikhs and Hindu’s have Vaisakhi and in a week or so Ramadan will be starting also. It will be very different this time of course. I must confess I have never enjoyed Easter since 2013 when my mother died on the thursday night before Good Friday and so as Easter changes date each year I have the actual date and the Easter anniversary to take care of.
I’ll be celebrating Easter largely with a leg of lamb, the traditional Easter food in the U.K. and will be alone. I find it interesting of how so much of the news makes mention of people finding it hard to be alone when many of us are always alone. We don’t even have the worry of someone close to us getting ill or dying and know if it happens to us then no-one will be there us. So in practice it is pretty much life as normal.
In large parts of today’s world, loneliness has reached an epidemic much larger than the Coronavirus. and it is well known to have serious and negative impact that loneliness has on our health. The U.K. even created a government post for the Minister of Loneliness, maybe they will be calling me on Zoom at any moment now!
It’s important to remember that solitude or being alone is not the same thing as loneliness which is feeling alone. I am almost always in solitude and often lonely too but it’s possible to be alone and not lonely or indeed stuck on a packed out London Underground train and be hugely lonely.
At this time of year which is special for many I thought it might be interesting to remember that some have found solitude essential for inspiration and not just my writing my latest book!
In her book “A Room of One’s Own,” author Virginia Woolf, offered an extended meditation on the writer’s need for solitude. So did many poets such as William Wordsworth (whose 250th birthday was this week) wrote on “the bliss of solitude” were especially eloquent in their praise of solitude. Poet Marianne Moore has even argued that “the cure for loneliness is solitude.”
The best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,”artist Agnes Martin reflected in her final years. “Oh comforting solitude, how favorable thou art to original thought!” wrote the founding father of neuroscience in his advice to young scientists. The poet Elizabeth Bishop believed that everyone should experience at least one prolonged period of solitude in life. For in true solitude, as Wendell Berry so memorably observed, “one’s inner voices become audible [and] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives” — an intuitive understanding of what psychologists have since found: that “fertile solitude” is the basic unit of a full and contented life.
There have long been individuals who seek solitude in remote and silent places, and there are many lessons to be learned from them. The etymological history of the word “hermit” is itself telling: “Hermit” comes from an ancient Greek word, “eremos,” that means both a desolate and lonely place and a state of being alone.
Of course solitude has an extremely long history in all the major religions and the monotheistic traditions are full of such accounts. I always had a soft spot for Simeon the Elder who spent the best part of a lifetime self-isolating on top of a pillar in the desert outside Aleppo. In Shia Islam Hujjat Allah ibn al-Hasan al-Mahdi went missing for decades in what is known as the Minor Occultation, he returned for a short time but has been in Major Occultation for almost 1100 years now.
More well known would be the accounts of Moses climbing Mount Sinai to be alone , in fact in some way the Israelites were stuck in self-isolation for decades. Jesus would go into the desert to pray, Muhammad would receive Angelic revelations in a desert cave too. Siddhartha Gautama would achieve enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and in doing so become Buddha.
Even in the British Isles, some of the most beautiful and remote locations were once places where religious solitude was sought. Even Westminster Abbey is located where it is because at the time it was in a swampy and unpopulated area well to the west of the then City of London with all its people.
People such as Simeon the Elder and the relatively large numbers in Egypt who created isolated communities in the desert were partly doing so because it was in keeping with the popular Christian belief that suffering was necessary for salvation. Hermits who rejected the comforts of city and adopted the communal life were praised and admired because they were seen as models of holiness and, paradoxically, happiness.
The lives of hermits may seem distant from our busy contemporary lives. But the romantic appeal of an unencumbered and undistracted life has not disappeared as some of us are re-discovering these days whether religious or secular, both sharing a longing for quiet solitude and simplicity as things were in days gone by.
And if this none of this is for you then just remember the great Sir Isaac Newton started formalising his work on gravity while in self-isolation during the Great Plague of London in 1665.
I thought I’d end with this wonderful poem on being alone.
by May Sarton
Alone one is never lonely: the spirit
In a quiet garden, in a cool house, abiding single there;
The spirit adventures in sleep, the sweet thirst-slaking
When only the moon’s reflection touches the wild hair.
There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone:
It finds a lovely certainty in the evening and the morning.
It is only where two have come together bone against bone
That those alonenesses take place, when, without warning
The sky opens over their heads to an infinite hole in space;
It is only turning at night to a lover that one learns
He is set apart like a star forever and that sleeping face
(For whom the heart has cried, for whom the frail hand burns)
Is swung out in the night alone, so luminous and still,
The waking spirit attends, the loving spirit gazes
Without communion, without touch, and comes to know at last
Out of a silence only and never when the body blazes
That love is present, that always burns alone, however steadfast.