This piece concludes Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer’s explorations of the monastic traditions. Her first piece, “Reading the Great Spiritual Writers of the Past,” appeared in January 2019’s issue, and her second, “Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience: Re-learning How to Give,” appeared in February 2019.
No matter what the conditions of our life, all of us feel lonely. There are moments in most days where we feel an abyss open between us and the person sitting across the table. Be it a stranger, parent, spouse, friend, child, or colleague, something happens and we cannot reach each other anymore. Being lonely is not cured by marriage, by friendships, or by meaningful work; it is not cured by riches or poverty. We all find ourselves, in the silence of these moments very, very alone.
This lonely silence can make us afraid. And so, we look to fill our lives with things, screens, activities, ideas, and people. This can sometimes make it worse because, when we do attempt again to speak our truth, when we are intimate with another person, we find we cannot communicate. Our minds are scattered or frantic, everything comes out all wrong, and the rifts get bigger. We can be stifled by the distractions we created to cover our fear.
Sometimes we try other ways to cure our discomfort with loneliness. We hold on too tightly to those we love, fusing our self to another, frantically over communicating or manipulating people to stay close to make us feel better about ourselves. But it doesn’t work. As much as community is important, as much as the gift of intimacy comes into our life, we cannot depend on these to take away loneliness. It is part of what it is to be human.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury said in A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections:
Loneliness makes us confront the mysteriousness, the elusiveness of our own reality, makes us recognize that it is never exhausted in our relations and our words and our acts. The truth of our selves, the foundation of our selves, is something baffling, toughly resistant to all our efforts to bring it out into the open or other people’s sight.
Loneliness points to the mystery of our personhood and the truth of our self, which is inimitable. If each one of us is created as distinctive and particular, then our differences make for alone-ness. This is the truth of self, given by God to each one of us; it is our life which is, as St. Paul said, “hidden with Christ in God.” It’s the hiddenness that makes us feel alone when we try to communicate it. Our truth is always slightly beyond our reach. But, in the silence of the alone, when we are prone to be afraid and frantic, we are extremely close to the truth of who we are in God.
We all run from our alone-ness, and thus we all run from our lives. The only one in all of history who did not succumb to the temptations to run from his alone-ness is Jesus Christ. He did not attempt to evade it, but rather went into the Garden of Gethsemane alone to pray. He went into Pilate’s court in a silence without self-defence. And he confronted Pilate’s question – “what is truth?” – with his own death, the death of the Son of God in love. Jesus Christ, the God Man, knew who he was and what the truth was, and he knew that he was incomprehensible, incommunicable to fallen humanity. Thus, he took the hard truth of our loneliness to the cross and filled the space of our isolation with love and the abysses of our ultimate inability to understand one another with the fullness of his presence.
Now in the depths of our loneliness we can meet God. Jesus Christ allowed himself to be misunderstood and mistreated – he became the one most alone and forsaken – because he was communicating the truth of God, which is love. This love, which went to death and is risen from the dead, has made a place, a home, for humanity where we are most alone, a home where we can be safe. This home has the shape of a cross, and thus it remains filled with pain. But, because it is a true place of love, it is a place of life.
In these last few articles, I have been pointing to ways in which ancient spiritual writers and the monastic tradition of the Church can serve as a resource for us as we seek to live faithfully in this world. To teach us the hardest work of faith, staying in the loneliness of our hiddenness, we must turn to one of the most severe disciplines in the tradition of the Church for help: the medieval anchorite. When a person became an anchorite, a funeral service was held for her, and she entered into a tomb-like space attached to a church, which was called the Anchorhold, to live alone confined. The room had three windows: one that opened onto the church sanctuary, one that opened onto the road, and a third that opened onto a room where an assistant resided. There was no door in the Anchorhold. The anchorite withdrew from the world in order to lose her life to find it, and to be with God alone. Few of us can imagine choosing this life, but the witness of the anchorite is that an enclosed place, though it feels like a tomb, can be a place of abundant life.
Anchorites in their alone-ness became a focal point, a centre for their community. They were honoured and beloved. People came to their window off the street to ask questions about their own lives, to ask for prayer or wisdom. The Anchorhold represented for the people a place of hope and rebirth. In facing the truth of their alone-ness and the truth of God’s present love the anchorite became a pillar from whom truth, wisdom, and love could flourish for a community.
Julian of Norwich was an anchorite, and, in her small cell, she wrote The Revelations of Divine Love, the first book in England to be authored by a woman. This text speaks to the depths of God’s love in words that have challenged, comforted, and strengthened the communion of saints for 645 years.
She spent her life looking at Jesus Christ on the cross, and what she discovered was this:
He wants us to have true knowledge that he himself is being and he wants our understanding to be founded in this knowledge with all our might and all our purpose and all our intuition; and upon this foundation he wants us to take our place and make our home.
This anchorite reminds us that in our most lonely places we have a home; only there can we learn and become the person we are uniquely called to be. Few of us are called to the life of an anchorite, but all of us are called to face the silence of our alone-ness in order that we might find our truth hidden in God in Christ.
Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer is a counsellor and writer currently learning from the medieval theologian and mystic, Julian of Norwich. She is part of St. Margaret’s Anglican where she served for a long time as a pastor. To learn more about her work visit the Anchorhold.