Ascetic solitude is difficult. You withdraw from the world to get a clearer glimpse of who you are, what you are doing and where life is taking you. The people who do this in a very committed way are the contemplatives. When you visit someone at home, the door into the house, the threshold, is rich with the textures of presence from all the welcomes and valedictions that occur on that threshold. When you visit a cloister or contemplative convent, there is no-one to meet you at the door. You go in, ring a bell and the person arrives behind the grille to meet you. These are the special houses which hold the survivors of solitude. They have exiled themselves from the outside worship of the earth to risk themselves in the interior space where the sense have nothing to celebrate.
Ascetic solitude involves silence. And silence is one of the great victims of modern culture. We live in an intense and visually aggressive age; everything is drawn outwards towards the sensation of the image. Because culture is becoming ever more homogenized and universalist, image has such power. With the continued netting of everything, chosen images can immediately attain universality. There is an incredibly subtle and powerfully calculating industry of modern dislocation, where that which is deep and lives in the silence within us is completely ignored. The surfaces of our minds continue to be seduced by the power of images. There is a sinister eviction taking place; people's lives are being dragged outwards all the time. The inner world of the soul is suffering a great eviction from the landlord forces of advertising and external social reality. This outer exile really impoverishes us. One of the reasons so many people are suffering from stress is not that they are doing stressful things but that they allow so little time for silence. A fruitful solitude without silence and space is inconceivable.
Silence is one of the major thresholds in the world. The spirituality of the Desert Fathers deeply influenced Celtic spirituality. For these ascetics silence was the teacher: 'A certain brother came to the Abbot Moses in Scete seeking a word from him. And the old man said to him: “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you all things.”' In the Celtic world there was always the recognition of the silent and the unknown as the closest companions of the human journey. Encounter and farewell which framed conversations were always blessings. Emer gives a lovely blessing to Cúchulainn in The Taín. She says, 'May your road be blessed,' literally, I drive around you in a chariot turning to the Right. This was the sun's direction and it attracted good fortune. Behind Celtic poetry and prayer, there is the sense that the words have emerged from a deep, reverential silence. This perspective of solitude and silence purified and intensified the encounter of two people in the anam-cara experience with powerful resonance.
Fundamentally, there is the great silence which meets language; all words come out of silence. Words which have a depth, resonance, healing and challenge are words that are loaded with ascetic silence. Language, which does not recognize its kinship with reality is banal, denotative and purely discursive. The language of poetry issues from and returns to silence. In modern culture, conversation is one of the casualties. Usually when you talk to people all you hear is surface narrative or the catalogue of therapy news. It is quite poignant to hear people describe themselves in therapy news. It is quite poignant to hear people decribe themselves in therms of the programme in which they are involved or the outer work which their role involves. Each person is the daily recipient of new thoughts and unexpected feelings. Yet, so often, in our social encounter and in the way we have grown used to describing ourselves, this finds no welcome or expression. This is disappointing in view of the fact that the deepest things that we have inherited have come down to us across the bridges of meaningful conversation. The Celtic tradition was primarily an oral tradition. The stories, poems and prayers lived for centuries in the memory and voice of the people. They were learned by heart. The companionship and presence of such a rich harvest of memory helped poeticize their perception and conversation. Without the presence of memory conversation becomes amnesic, repetitive and superficial. Perception is most powerful when it engages both memory and experience. This empowers conversation to become real exploration. Real conversation has an unpredictability, danger and resonance; it can take a turn anywhere and constantly borders on the unexpected and on the unknown. Real conversation is not a construct of the solitary ego; it creates community. So much of our modern talk is like a spider manically weaving a web of language outside of himself. Our parallel monologues with their staccato stutter only reinforce our isolation. There is so little patience for the silence from which words emerge or for the silence that is between words and withing them. When we forget or neglect this silence we empty our world of its secret and subtle presences. We can no longer converse with the dead or the absent.