"Silence is the space in which God has been poured. Drink it."
I think I’m a hermit. Or a half-hermit. Or a hermit wanna-be. Which brings me to today’s question: Is there anything to be gained by spending time in long-term, intentional solitude? I’m interested in your stories. Here’s mine.
I remember three significant solitary retreats that took place over a period of five years in three different countries: Honduras, Argentina, and Bolivia.
In Honduras, I took the bus to Valle de Angeles, a small village known for its artisans. Dropped off at the town square, I walked for several kilometers on a dirt road to a cabin, my guitar case handle blistering my palm. For four days I stayed in a friend’s remote log cabin built from trees felled on the land site. I cooked on a Coleman stove, read by kerosene lamps, and tried to sleep in the loft where the bright eye of the moon turned my nights into restless tossing and turning. Strange, owl-like noises kept me awake. Were packs of wild dogs circling the cabin? I was a stranger in a strange land, face to face with my own fears, with no real locks on the doors. Before long, though, I threw away my watch and sat for long stretches of unmeasured time playing my guitar, writing, and observing ant colonies.
In Buenos Airesa few years later I holed up in a cold, damp hostel in the theater district. An ancient elevator with visibly fraying cables took me to the fourth floor. When the accordion doors opened, I peered down four stories through a three-inch crack and stepped onto the solid floor. My simple room held two pieces of furniture: a tiny bed with an obligatory bed stand. Wooden shutters opened to a factory courtyard, fog, and rain. With no desk to write upon, I spent ten days drinking strong, Argentinean coffee at cafes in that domed city whose cathedrals reminded me of Spain. A solitary traveler so many thousands of miles away from home; I fought that gremlin of loneliness that often accompanies those who visit strange cities. I walked wet cobblestone streets, made friends with the street peanut venders, and wanted to stay for a lifetime in that space where no one knew me, and no one had expectations of me. My time was my own, not parceled out in responsible portions.
Then: the Bolivian convent and Semana Santa, the Holy Week of Easter, when grief and huge decisions weighed upon me. Once again I found myself on a bus. It took me to the end of a dirt lane that led to a rural convent that housed kind sisters dressed in simple, gray habits. I chose to be silent, so they served me homemade soup without needless chatter or curious glances at the green-eyed gringa. I walked through the cloistered gardens bordered on all sides by an adobe wall with wrought iron Spanish gates made of intricate swirls, curves and leaves. Outside on deserted, dusty roads, I walked until my feet blistered. I discovered no lightning bolt answers to my questions, and no decisions were made. But, I found that I could carry on. I left feeling as though my soul had returned.
I don’t know why I’m such an advocate for solitude. My times in hermitage haven’t sent me booming life-changing answers. I haven’t been enlightened by an eternal Truth to bring down the mountain on stone tablets. What I do come away with after intentional time in solitude is a centering, a calming, an internal quietness. Minus the hubbub of daily life, hermitage gives me a chance to turn down my internal noise, quiet the monkey-mind, breathe deeply, and let my hair, so primly tied up in a bun, loose to the wind.