In Fr John Garvey’s regular column in the current Commonweal (alas, not online), the Orthodox priest writes that, after many years of busy parish ministry, he now has a good deal of time to read and write and be alone. Reflecting on his childhood in Springfield, Illinois and his love of one particular tree (like John Muir, he would climb it during storms, “getting as close to the top as I could, holding on when the tree began lashing back and forth”), Fr Garvey remembers grasping the mysteriousness of the tree – “Only God could really know the tree as it was; only God could know the final thatness of the tree.” His present solitude is, in a way, “a return for me to the day when I first saw the tree as full of mystery.” He concludes:
To a certain extent it is also a necessity, for at least some of our day, to spend time alone and in silence. A certain amount of silence and solitude is necessary for any appreciation of the sacred. There are times in life when this is nearly impossible … for example, when you are a young parent. My fear, though, is not that some people find this impossible; the problem is rather that most of us flee from it. I know that even when I am alone, I like music in the background, or the sound of the radio. I have to force myself to turn it off and simply sit down. But it is only when we go against the grain and force ouselves to do this that we begin to see the usual noise our minds make, that we begin to let that clatter settle down and to sense the real world around us. This is necessary for any serious prayer or meditation. Otherwise the words of prayer are not listened to in any depth, and the silence that is necessary as the place into which the words are spoken will not be real for us.
It is less and less possible to do this. No, it is almost always possible to do this, but we live in an age when the temptations not to experience solitude in any way are all around us. I often get up very early, and I am amazed when I look outside our apartment and see someone walking down the street at 5:30 in the morning will a cell phone to the side of his head, talking away. The sight of all those people chattering on cell phones all the time is the clearest recent sign of how terrified we are to be alone.
The problem is not only that it is good for us to live with a sense of mystery and the sacred, or that we are deprived of something good when we do not. The effects of this constant noise and distraction are deeper and even more ominous. It is not as if the sacred were a luxury we can turn to if we are so inclined, an optional good thing. Rather, a sense of the sacred is necessary if we are to become truly human, and we are twisted away from what we are meant to be when we ignore the sacred. Although too much emphasis can be put on felt experience, where prayer and the Christian life are concerned, we must have an experience of the sacred to really be able to believe in it, and it can’t be experienced without the kind of prayer that can be born only in silence.