Far from The Madding Crowd
"But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God..." —Psalm 73:16,17
Some years ago my son Brian and I agreed to haul some equipment into an isolated Idaho backcountry ranch for a friend. There are no roads into the area, at least none that my truck could negotiate, so the ranch manager, a young man named Ralph, met us at road's end with a wagon hitched to a brace of mules.
On the way into the ranch, Ralph and I started chatting and I learned that he lived on the property year-around and rarely ventured outside. "What do you do in the winter," I asked, knowing that winters in the high country were long and bitter. I also knew the ranch had no electricity, radio or telephone service other than a satellite radio. I wondered what Ralph did when the snow piled up to his cabin's eves.
“Don’t you get lonely,” I asked. “Nope,” he replied. "How do you endure the isolation?” I asked. "Actually," he drawled. "I find it right peaceable."
Solitude is not loneliness. Loneliness is the result of inadequate intimacy and meaningful activity. John Milton, I think it was, pointed out that loneliness is the first thing God saw that wasn't good.
Solitude is something else. It is a matter of finding a quiet place far from the crowd. Sometimes our hard-pressed souls long for isolation more than anything else. There's “too much noise in the air, too many sounds, too loud, too near.” Our ears ache; our bodies tense. Where can we find the solitude that our hearts crave?
Somewhere I came across this odd little haiku:
I wish that
I could enter in
And close the door
Of my small house
To dwell alone
As little shellfish do.
But how can I "dwell alone" in my crowded, buzzing, noisy, busy world. "Not here. There is not enough silence" (Eliot).
I came across a story the other day that gave me an idea: I have a namesake, David 1 of Scotland, who’s mostly unknown to us these days. In his day he was one of the most powerful and influential kings of his age, though he was better known for his godliness and wisdom. His gentle rule "softened the barbarity of the nation." (If you know anything about Scottish Highlanders that's saying a lot!) One of his courtiers wrote, "I confess that I found in the king a monk, in the court a cloister."
I like that idea: a monk and his cloister. Caught up in the dangerous conditions of his time and harried on every side by violent warlords, David’s mindset was that of a contemplative monk. The contentious court was his cloister: Even in that dangerous environment he could withdraw for moments of contemplation and prayer from which he emerged to bring peace to his nation.
We can do that. In the midst of our pressure-filled, dense–packed days we can withdraw into our hearts for a moment or two to reflect upon God's loving kindness and mercy. We can stay in that quiet place until the noise around us fades away and a sense of God’s presence envelops us. We will find in that quiet God-filled place the peace that the world has taken away. Our hearts will be quieted and stilled.
Then we can bring that peace with us into the world.
Thou mak'st a secret chamber, holy-dim,
Where thou wilt come to help my deepest prayer.
MacDonald, George. “A Diary of an Old Soul