Sal­va­tion in soli­tude and sim­plic­ity

Weekend Post (South Africa) - - Opinion - PETER WOODS

In to­day’s world, lone­li­ness seems to have reached epi­demic pro­por­tions. Count­less stud­ies have high­lighted the se­ri­ous and neg­a­tive im­pact that lone­li­ness has on our health, our sense of well-be­ing, and our abil­ity to thrive in an in­creas­ingly chaotic world.

Most re­cently, the ur­gency of the prob­lem led the UK to ap­point a minister for lone­li­ness. Christ­mas is a par­tic­u­larly lonely time for the el­derly.

But lone­li­ness (feel­ing alone) and soli­tude (be­ing alone) are not the same thing. And lessons can be learnt from those who have found soli­tude es­sen­tial for in­spi­ra­tion.

Soli­tude – be­ing alone – has long been praised as a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for cre­ativ­ity. Au­thor Vir­ginia Woolf, in her book A Room of One's Own, re­flected on the writer’s need for soli­tude. So did many po­ets.

In their writ­ings, May Sar­ton (“alone one is never lonely”) and Wil­liam Wordsworth (“the bliss of soli­tude”) both praised soli­tude. Poet Mar­i­anne Moore has even ar­gued that "the cure for lone­li­ness is soli­tude”.

The his­tory of re­li­gious hermits shows that there have long been in­di­vid­u­als who seek soli­tude in re­mote and silent places, and there are lessons to be learnt from them.

“Her­mit” comes from an an­cient Greek word, “er­e­mos”, mean­ing both a des­o­late and lonely place and a state of be­ing alone.

Hermits ex­ist in many of the world's ma­jor re­li­gious tra­di­tions: They are in­di­vid­u­als who choose tem­po­rary or per­ma­nent soli­tude in re­mote and iso­lated lo­ca­tions, such as moun­tains, caves and deserts. These lo­ca­tions are fre­quently de­picted as sites for rev­e­la­tion and trans­for­ma­tion.

The emer­gence of hermits in early Chris­tian­ity is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing as the im­age of the desert wilder­ness is very much part of the Judeo-Chris­tian story.

In the fourth cen­tury, how­ever, a monas­tic move­ment emerged in Egypt, as some Chris­tians be­gan to with­draw per­ma­nently into “the desert”. The harsh­ness of a dry and bar­ren land­scape suited Chris­tians ea­ger to pur­sue an ascetic life and es­cape the crime and vi­o­lence of a crum­bling Ro­man Em­pire.

A com­mon theme in sto­ries about these desert hermits is their de­sire to leave the dis­trac­tions of ur­ban life and live a pre­car­i­ous ex­is­tence in iso­la­tion.

The most fa­mous Chris­tian her­mit was Antony, who one day heard a pas­sage from the Gospel of Matthew in his church: “If you want to be per­fect, go, sell all your pos­ses­sions and give to the poor, and come fol­low me, and you will have trea­sure in heaven.” (Matthew 19:21)

Antony lit­er­ally sold his prop­erty and departed for the desert. This with­drawal into wilder­ness be­came an ex­am­ple for later Chris­tians ea­ger to pur­sue soli­tude and con­tem­pla­tion.

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. Hermits in the 21st cen­tury come from all walks of life, re­li­gious and sec­u­lar, but share with those from the past a long­ing for quiet soli­tude and sim­plic­ity.

Could the wis­dom of artists, po­ets, and re­li­gious hermits of­fer com­fort in a time of lone­li­ness to­day?

● Peter Woods is a pas­toral coun­sel­lor.

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