Silence and Solitude (August 22, 2013)

[Part 12 of 14.   Solovki 2013]

I’m thinking a lot about silence and solitude

Standing on a large rock outcropping on the shore of the island away from the center of town, there is no sign of humanity anywhere.  And even more marvelously, no sound of humans or other animals.   Just the soothing melodies of the strong wind rushing past my ear and the sound of the water on the rocks.

The silence was an intense reminder of just how noisy our lives have become.  If you are anything like me, you don’t even notice the noise any more until it is gone.

And the silence is lovely and refreshing.

Earlier that morning outside the bed and breakfast, I met a woman from the Netherlands.   She was travelling with a group of Orthodox pilgrims from that country who had come to see some of the amazing and majestic monasteries in the Russian north.   She wasn’t Orthodox by birth, but married into the faith.

She had lost her daughter earlier that year.   The daughter suffered from epilepsy and, alone when an episode struck at night, suffocated.   And as she sat smoking a small cigar, she hoped the trip to Solovki, with its long spiritual tradition and powers, would bring some clarity and relief from the pain.

Did I mind travelling alone (which I was at that stage of the trip), she asked me.   She was a little worried, I think, about my fate all alone in the Russian north.  No, I said, I didn’t mind.  It gives me time to think.

Taking a deep drag on the cigar, she stared off ahead:  she couldn’t do it alone, she was sure.

Standing in the silence of the wind, I was struck with how hard it is these days to find places truly to be alone.   The spaces imprinted with human footprints and human voices and human machines grow ever larger, and the non-human spaces on the planet grow smaller.

And I thought of Savvatii and German, who so many hundreds of years ago had attempted to become closer to God by escaping humanity and paddling and walking as far from human settlements as they could.   For them, distance, sea, and nature was a buffer to protect them from the temptations and sins of the human world, and more easily live in a godly way.  Isolated in the trees, and surrounded by the seas, they could calm their souls and fulfill their spirits.

Of course, their hopes were foiled.   Other humans followed them to emulate their godliness.  And the aspirations of Savvatii and German (and others after them) for isolation and separation from humanity were buried in the arrival of other humans.

Solitude and silence in nature.   Did Savvatii and German have a lesson for us today?