Tuesday, May 2, 2006

American Monasticism: Solitude of the Midnight Cowboy

For many years I have been a motorcycle enthusiast, and the moment I close my eyes I can recall the exhilaration of riding down the TransCanada Highway every night on my way home from work. Now, despite the fact that Vancouver is a rainy city, with 1200mm of rain annually, I rode my motorcycle every single day – rain, snow, or sleet – everywhere I went. In the process of becoming that familiar with riding, and that familiar with the elements, I also became that familiar with being alone.

I became familiar with the low frequency thrum of my stovepipe muffler as I ignored the needles of rain that forced me to shut my eyes into two slits.

I became familiar with the hiss of passing cars and the deadness that bald tires make when they hydroplane, and you pray to God that car doesn’t slide into you.

I became familiar with prayer, with motorcycle prayer, with the absolute isolation you can experience on top of a bike surrounded by other people who are simply trapped inside their 6 cylinder cages watching the world go by like more T.V.

You see, when you pray on a motorcycle there’s so much noise and commotion around you, you actually begin to tune it all out and are left with only 105db of yawning silence. You don’t really notice that silence until you try and speak, or – in my case – when you first try and pray. You don’t really understand that silence is the silence of something, that the things that make noise are now the things that are in silence. It’s at that moment that you realize two things: [1] you are utterly, utterly alone with no chance of human contact, and [2] in order to be heard, either by your own ears or your perception of God’s, you have to scream.

There’s something powerful, almost feral, about having to scream your prayers out to God in order to feel like they’re being heard.

Tony Jones, in his exploration of the spiritual practice of solitude, identifies the purpose of solitude as being the discovery of what we can “learn from ourselves when we turn off external stimuli that are so much a part of our world.”[1] For Richard Foster, the purpose of solitude was to cultivate “increased sensitivity and compassion for others”[2], a sentiment that Esther de Waal echoes eloquently when she notes the solitude helps her “stop thinking about the world and instead start feeling and seeing with some of the same immediacy.”[3] De Waal continues saying that “by entering the cell, the cave of the heart, we encounter God and we encounter our own selves”[4], which bears an eerie similarity to the experiences I used to have on the TransCanada.

It was on that motorcycle that I allowed myself to explore isolation with God. Where once hermits escaped into the desert, or men like John Chrysostome sought solitude away from the organized church within the cities, I found my solace at 100mph in the dark rain of Vancouver. It was there I truly began to understand the metaphors of the invisible yet material spirit, the ruach,[5] which whipped past my face with crystal alacrity and gave me the chill I know our ancestors must have encountered when they first began to explore a spirituality that was far more sensual than esoteric. It was that spirit, that breath that both hovered over the waters at creation and formed the first words and language.[6]

It was that same spirit that I was able to engage while riding my motorcycle.

And I was able to engage that spirit because I was free from distraction. I was free from the fragmentation of a consumer world where every clerk treats me like I’m the thing for sale. I am able to disengage the pieces of my life, engage the peace of God, and find “quiet” by yelling myself hoarse on my bike.

But I don’t want to romanticize only this experience; for, though I have had this same experience many times on a motorcycle, I have also experienced it rock climbing, or hiking and – ironically – have never experienced it during a 3 day retreat in isolation or a 5 day fast in the woods. It is the same kind of experience Christ sought in the Garden of Gethsemane[7] and the Psalmist coveted in times of despair,[8] it just looks a little different at present for me.

Thomas Merton said that a man “becomes a solitary at the moment when, no matter what may be his external surroundings, he is suddenly aware of his own inalienable solitude and sees that he will never be anything but solitary”[9], and in my experience I reference that moment back to my first screaming prayer, where I knew I was alone with God.

It was then that solitude was no longer a potentiality, but an actuality – a reality that awaits my stillness, for “as soon as [we] are truly alone [we] are alone with God.”[10] It is in that aloneness that we “encounter God and we encounter our own selves”[11], and that God renews us “in solitude and in prayer”[12] by the power of His Spirit.

Solitude, then, is not about seclusion as much as it is about attentiveness; and, though some may find attentiveness in the middle of nowhere, we are better served when we look inside ourselves and ask God to be present with us in our aloneness.

[1] Tony Jones, The Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004), 41.
[2] Ibid., 42
[3] Estheer de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer (New York, Image, 1997), 100.
[4] Ibid., 103
[5] lit. “spirit, wind”, “seat of the mind” Strong's Number: 07308, Cf. http://www.biblestudytools.net/Lexicons/Hebrew/heb.cgi?number=07308&version=kjv
[6] Cf. Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2005), 20-22.
[7] Cf. Matthew 26.36ff, NIV.
[8] Cf. Psalm 143:5-10 NIV.
[9] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999), 77.
[10] Ibid., 177
[11] Estheer de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer (New York, Image, 1997), 103.
[12] Paula Huston, The Holy Way (Chicago, Loyola, 2003), 13.

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