The Man therefore Read it, and looking upon Evangelist very carefully; said, Whither must I fly? Then said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide Field, Do you see yonder Wicket-gate? [Mat. 7] The Man said, No. Then said the other, Do you see yonder shining light? [Psalm 119.105; 2 Pet. 1.19.] He said, I think I do. Then said Evangelist, Keep that light in your eye, and go up directly thereto, so shalt thou see the Gate; at which when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.
So I saw in my Dream that the Man began to run; Now he had not run far from his own door, but his Wife and Children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return: [Luke 14.26] but the Man put his fingers in his Ears, and ran on crying, Life, life, Eternal Life: so he looked not behind him [Gen. 19.17.], but fled towards the middle of the Plain.
(John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress)
…what about our solitude? Ours is never this absolute isolation of God, because we are not ‘truth’. But can we say that we find and know solitude to the extent that there is truth in us? This seems a strange thing to say. One thing loneliness does teach us, after all, is the falsity of imagining that we possess any wholeness in ourselves. Loneliness uncovers for us the tedium and the poverty of our own private worlds; it lays bare what has been called the ‘raw surface’ of our need for others and our need for communication. It seems to show us that loneliness is falsity and unreality, and that we can only find truth and integrity in relationship with others, in sharing and koinonia. I am not a whole person, and there is no such thing as a whole person, in the sense of a wholeness sufficient in and to itself. This, surely, is the main lesson we learn from the experience of loneliness – and this, indeed, is what I was going to talk about when I began thinking what to say in this address. And it is true, and it is important. It is just that, in looking at the solitude of Jesus in his death, I find it only a partial vision and a partial truth. The collapse of communication, the lack of words and visible, tangible contact with another person, the realising of misunderstanding, the discovery of incompatible aims – all these things are reminders that there are things in each of us that cannot be made public, even if we want to make them so, and struggle to let them speak. Complete openness with another, even the closest lover or friend, is a phantom, infinitely receding as our attempts at total honesty become more and more dramatic and desperate. We may believe we are speaking our truth, but we can never know, we can never measure our words except against other words. And we can never hear them with another person’s ears – hear the accent of falsity we can never discern for ourselves. We can never stand in front of the tapestry we are weaving and see its picture.
For most of our time, we belong to groups and societies and to individuals we love; and in all these contexts we use the common coinage of words and ideas, and accept the compromise and imprecision of human communication. Nor is this wrong; it is, indeed, utterly necessary to us, it is the way our identities act and are acted on and built up. But it is not everything, and if we think it is everything the results will be the grossest hollowness and unreality in our selfhood. And we are prevented, thank God, from thinking this because ofthese inescapable disturbances, the moments of isolation, the unbridgeable clefts in the social and relational worlds. In face of these, we cannot pretend. And this is why loneliness has to do with truth, why the impulse to seek truth drives some people into deserts and hermitages. Loneliness makes us confront the mysteriousness, the elusiveness of our own reality, makes us recognise that it is never exhausted in our relations and our words and our acts. The truth of our selves, the foundation of our selves, is something baffling, toughly resistant to all our efforts to bring it out into the open, into our sight or other people’s sight.
(Rowan Williams, “Being Alone” Open to Judgement)
How a man can be inspired to become a monk in this literal sense of the term-monachus- has been classically described from his own experience by one who was very far from being a monk in the Catholic and technical sense, the English Baptist John Bunyan, at the beginning of his Pilgrim’s Progress (1675), where Christian, in the status nascendi (condition of being born) as such, rises up to flee from the City of Destruction to Mount Zion. He sees himself in a dream as he leaves his house and starts to run. And his wife and children come crying after him to return. But he sticks his fingers in his ears and runs on with the cry: Life, life, everlasting life, not looking behind him, but taking a straight course across the plain. And is it not exactly the same-at a more exalted level-in the life of Bunyan’s older contemporary, Blaise Pascal? This then, or some similar way, is how we shall have to picture the apparently quite unfounded radical unrest and consequent attitude of hundreds and thousands who at that decisive point towards the end of the 3rd century fled into the Egyptian desert and became anchorites (those who withdrew, or drew back). This, or some similar way, is how it went with many others. The question that we have to put to this mode of conduct is the obvious one that one does not have to be a Christian to be sated with the world and man, to wish to have done with the turmoil of earth, to hurry away as fast as one’s feet can carry one. And to become and be a Christian one does not need to be up and off into the desert. A flight from the world is not in any sense identical with the flight to God. And one thing is sure-that even in his hut or cave the hermit will never be free from the most dangerous representative of the world, i.e., himself. Nor can this flight claim to be an imitation of God. For neither in Himself (as the Triune) nor outwards (as the Creator and Sustainer of the distinct being man and his cosmos) is God isolated or alone.
(Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.2.12-13)