What is it we aspire to?
Now I’ve reached a certain age, I make a point of glancing at obituaries. It’s fascinating to see what rich and fulfilling lives so many people have lived. One recently caught my attention because it was highly unusual - that of Sister Mary Joseph, known until 1989 as Ann Russell Miller. Once a wealthy Californian socialite associating with the rich and famous, after the death of her husband, on her 61st birthday she threw an enormous party in San Francisco. The next day she flew to Chicago to join the Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel where she remained for the next thirty years.
To enter the Carmelite Order and live a cloistered life of contemplation is no light undertaking. Ann Russell Miller knew however that she wanted to devote her remaining years to her spiritual life and her soul. She had reached a point, I imagine, where the discipline of being a Carmelite nun and the commitment to living her life in silence and solitude were more important to her than worldly interests.
Wisdom and serenity are what most of us aspire to as we grow older, though I doubt many of us would go to such extreme lengths to find it. Throughout history there are examples of those who have sought peace and tranquility far removed from the distractions of the world. So the Desert Fathers went out into the wilderness, the ancient rishis of India retired to the forests, and the Irish monks set out to sea in their curraghs. Hermits and mystics have always known how important silence and solitude are. So too have writers, composers, artists and philosophers. There are also those who have thrived in the enforced solitude of captivity or imprisonment.
The need to be alone and silent exists in us all, from childhood right through to ageing and facing death. Yes, we also crave companionship and stimulation, but too much distraction and activity leaves us feeling off-centre and unbalanced, causing harmful anxiety and stress in our over-busy lives. Silence and solitude are not luxuries, but essential requisites to becoming mature human beings.
Many of us find that being in nature, whether it’s walking in the countryside or a city park, or working in our gardens, helps restore our sense of balance. In being outside in nature our nervous system is calmed at a cellular level and we’re affected beneficially on an emotional, mental and soul level. During the Pandemic many have found being out in nature to be healing and the anxieties and stresses that we have all experienced to a greater or lesser degree have evaporated - even if only for a while.
So much of the first two-thirds of our life is about wanting a measure of control. We crave security and comfort and think that having control of our lives will give us that. We try hard to have everything under control, the reality is we cannot control life. Nothing is permanent, things change, the unexpected happens, and there are no guarantees of anything.
Ultimately life is about endeavouring to live wisely and well, about cultivating love, kindness and compassion. We don’t have to retreat to a monastery or escape to some far-flung place to find meaning and peace in our daily lives. Instead, one way we can move in the right direction is through taking time each day to practise paying attention and living in the present moment. Mindfulness and meditation are marvellous tools for helping us in this process. In the space between each breath we find the peace we long for, a presence which is also communion, where we experience the unity of all things and a sense of homecoming.
‘Living life to the full comes when the ultimate concerns have been faced: death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. How we face or avoid those concerns has profound effects on the ways in which we experience intimacy and solitude, closeness and freedom, awareness of self and others.’
This quote and others on the subject of silence and solitude appear in my book, A Fabulous Gift, available to order from www.eileencampbellbooks.com