Living Alone

Chapter 3

The Secret Place

The title of this chapter is taken from the words Jesus used in teaching his disciples about prayer: "When you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is there in the secret place; and your Father who sees what is secret will reward you" (Matt. 6.6). Like so much of Jesus' teaching, this has both a direct application, in which the words mean exactly what they say, and a deeper, more profound significance in which a more universal truth is enunciated. Both the direct and the deeper meanings are, of course, true in their own context and the one is not to be exalted above the other. Both have to be observed if prayer is to be valid. The room to which we have to retire before we can commune with God is, on the deeper level of under - standing, our true self or soul. Until we can claim entry into the depth of our being we will never be at home in ourselves. And until we are at home in ourselves, we will never be able to receive God, who knocks at the door and waits to be invited in (Rev. 3.20), and our fellow creatures. The end of the experience of aloneness is to gain a knowledge of the depth of our being, so that we can at last be at home in whatever situation we find ourselves. This is the recognition of the deep centre within where we can know peace in the face of the destructive fury of the outer world. It is only from the centre of being that we can rise above life's loneliness, which, as I have already pointed out, can be with us in the company of other people no less than when we are alone.

The discovery of the "secret place of the Most High", which is primarily in the depths of one's own being, comes quite often during a moment of utmost dereliction. It can also come at the peak of an aesthetic experience when one is enraptured by great art or during the most intimate relationship with someone whom one loves very dearly. It is the Holy Spirit, the one who leads us into all truth, that shows us the way to the spirit within us, and as Jesus taught Nicodemus, he blows where he wills like the wind; one can hear its sound, but one does not know where it comes from or where it is going (John 3.8). But when the Spirit of God reveals the inner centre at a moment of dereliction, the discovery is much more likely to be long-lasting than when it comes with a peak experience. The reason for this is that a peak experience, by its very nature, can only be evanescent inasmuch as the person soon comes down to earth after its glory. On the other hand, when God reveals the inner centre during a period of suffering, that experience will remain constantly in one's memory as one returns once more to the vale of darkness. One will remember that there is an inner sanctuary of peace and radiance to which one can return, and eventually one will take positive action to claim that sanctuary as one's own at all times. This is where the disciplines of the inner life play their part. When once the inadequacy of outer paths of diversion has been finally grasped, the person on his own will start to explore the inner way to self-sufficiency. The only self-sufficiency that has a lasting reality is the communication with that power of God within the person: "Christ in you, the hope of a glory to come" (Col. 1.27). Some translate this sentence "Christ among you" instead of "Christ in you", and this too is appropriate to our context, for when the inner Christ is known, he is encountered also in the community and in every face around us.

The initial encounter with the depth of one's being is, of course, a gift of grace from God. It cannot be grasped acquisitively from below. We are "surprised by joy", as C. S. Lewis points out, when we are least concerned with ourselves and our ego-centred consciousness has been allowed to rest. This is why peak experiences occur when one has been lifted out of the narrow confines of personal striving by an encounter of high aesthetic quality or an intense relationship with someone deeply loved. The more one strives, the further the ideal recedes, since the ego is seeking to possess that which belongs to God alone. This was, in essence, the nature of the primal sin of man, told mythologically in Genesis 3, and to this day it is repeated by practitioners of the occult who strive for paranormal powers while remaining ego-centred in their attitude towards the creation and to God.

What steps then can we take to enter the inner sanctuary? We cannot force our way into it, for if we try to do so, the door is fastened and our entrance barred. We shall then either flounder about miserably in the depths or else be led sedulously into a false place whose edifice is composed of beguiling psychic images that may seduce the very elect into believing they have arrived at the centre where God is known. We move towards the centre of our being, paradoxically enough, by focusing our attention on the matters of immediate concern. We have to cultivate an awareness of the present place and time and be able to thank God (or providence, if we have no belief in the Deity) for the many blessings that are about us. De Caussade, in his spiritual classic L'Abandon a la Providence Divine ("Self Abandonment to the Divine Providence"), speaks of the sacrament of the present moment. If only we could give ourselves wholeheartedly to this very moment, we would see it, not in terms of a passing impulse of time, but as it really is, a mirror of eternity. Eternity, unlike perpetuity, is not an immeasurably long period of time, but rather the ultimate reality of God "who was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end". When we know eternity we know the real meaning and span of life, and we are made alive so that we can partake of the divine nature which is our birthright as well as our heritage. This knowledge comes to us as we give of ourselves freely to the present moment. It means that our mind must be focused on the eternal now, looking back neither to the past that cannot be altered, nor peering anxiously into the future whose vicissitudes can neither be predicted nor controlled. This does not imply an improvident way of life; it means living in the full intensity of the present, using all the gifts with which we have been endowed, and bestowing them without reserve on the world around us now. It means living so perfectly in the moment that we and the moment share a common identity, so that we and the world are one.

Jesus taught: "You cannot serve God and Money. Therefore I bid you put away anxious thoughts about food and drink to keep you alive, and clothes to cover your body. Surely life is more than food, the body more than clothes." He reminds us that the birds of the air do not accumulate food, and yet God feeds them. Anxiety cannot add a foot to the height of a human being. The flowers of the field are more beautifully arrayed in God's magnificence than human dignity at its most splendid. God knows our need for food and clothing, but the secret of abundant living is to set our mind on God's kingdom and his justice before everything else, and the rest will come to us as well. Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for it will look after itself. Each day has troubles enough of its own (Matt. 6.24-34). He reminds us also, in this context, that the body's lamp is the eye; if the eyes are sound, the whole body will be filled with light (verse 22).

To the crass and the worldly-wide these admonitions of Jesus seem impractical and remote. Much spiritual teaching has a similarly irritating effect on those who are weighed down with all the ills of this world - the crushing poverty of so many people and the terrible injustices that reduce whole populations to impotence. How can we reconcile this teaching about the sanctity of the present moment with the horror of the world and the need for material endeavour and planning? The answer lies in Jesus's own statement that the material blessings come to those who set their minds primarily on God. If one is fixed with one-pointed attention on the moment in hand, one's work will be so perfect that the requirements for life - food, clothing and much else besides - will be met. God works best through the alert, sensitive person at the height of his own powers. Thus it is that sound, singly focused eyes fill the body with light. By contrast, the wandering eye sees, in effect, nothing, since the person does not register the impressions that are conveyed to him by the restless, roving eye.

Jesus' teaching is neither visionary nor impractical. It is truly incarnational, revealing God's presence in the world. If only we ourselves could act as we were meant to, giving our whole attention to the work in hand, we would soon come to see how we were being sustained by a power far greater than that of the human mind. This is the power of the Holy Spirit; which perfects nature by grace, so that the image of God in which man was originally created is now restored undistorted and entire. At once the natural realm is raised to the dimension of the supernatural; alternatively nature at last attains its true stature. It mirrors the power and love of God in the created world.

All this is at the heart of the inner sanctuary of the soul, the secret place wherein we enjoy wordless communion with God. When we are fully engaged in the work of the present moment, the deeper consciousness enters unobtrusively into the secret place of the Most High, and at last peace has come to the whole personality. Stillness has come to us at the vortex of ceaseless activity, rest at the heart of agitation. This is, as I have already pointed out, a gift of God that cannot be appropriated by an act of will. But the will plays its part in the transaction by giving the whole person to God, "as a living sacrifice", to do as he would have done. Thus we understand in a new light the famous words: "Whoever cares for his own life is lost; but if a man will let himself be lost for my sake and for the Gospel, that man is safe" (Mark 8.35). The practice of the presence of God, to quote the title of Brother Lawrence's famous little book, is the heart of the spiritual life, and it is the only effective way by which a person who is obliged to live alone can emerge from the life-destroying images projected by the unquiet mind and enter a constructive calmness from which a new life can spring forth. This is the end of the experience of living alone: a new person has to emerge from the elements of the one whose old life was self-centred and vain. The old way spells doom; the new brings promise of a changed awareness of reality that is the harbinger of a completely alive person.

The place of psychotherapy can be seen in this context. While the mind is seriously unquiet because of the subterranean clamour of unresolved conflicts, the will cannot dedicate itself to the present moment. Its attention is at the mercy of every subversive complex in the unconscious, and as such it is rendered impotent. In this situation psychotherapeutic help may be necessary to unravel the emotional tangle that dominates the conscious life of the person. When this has, at least to some extent, been achieved, the Spirit of God can work unimpeded in that person, and at last the will is free to obey God, in whose service alone there is perfect freedom. But most people who are obliged to spend a length of time living alone do not need specialized psychotherapeutic help. The intelligence and courage can be harnessed to the Holy Spirit, who leads us all progressively into the full truth, sufficient at least for us to bear at the present moment. Life itself is the best analyst of the psyche, provided the person is psychologically strong enough to bear the revelations that the Spirit of God showers upon the conscious mind. Certainly there is no means more radical and complete of cleansing the person of all repressed illusions than a period of silence alone. A retreat performs this inner catharsis in pleasant surroundings and for a limited period of time; living alone has the same effect but much more starkly and radically. However, the end-result of living alone is not only self-sufficiency but also a growing ability to help other people in various kinds of difficulties. Once one has entered the secret place of one's own being, one soon learns that it is shared in common with all people. Inasmuch as God himself is known there, it is a "place" of shared experience for all people. As St Paul reminds us, we are all members one of another. The experience of this common membership is in the secret place within. When I am at home here, I am always at home to all conditions of men, for I have penetrated beneath the selfishness of my ego to the depths of the soul. This is a gift beyond price of living alone and undergoing great inner privations. When I am nothing, I am in the company of the one who is always nothing for our sake, Jesus Christ crucified on the cross of human deceit and treachery. And then follows the resurrection of the full person into the light of God.

When all this theory is put into practice by the person who is obliged to live alone, it leads to a complete reappraisal of his attitude to his situation. Instead of trying desperately to escape into conviviality or outside activities, he learns to withdraw with determination and decisiveness ever more fully into himself and his limited environment. There should be no feeling of regret, let alone shame, in this attitude. One begins to see that one is fashioning a completely new type of existence for oneself in which one is master of the situation. It may be argued that this way of private life is easier for the person who is financially independent and whose surroundings are pleasant. But even if one is poor, one can still live decently in a small room if one loves that room. Some of the happiest people it has been my privilege to know have been elderly women who have been obliged to live alone in very confined quarters. Yet their home has been a place of delight to enter because it was always full of love and warmth. This love shows itself in the attention the person pays to the details of cleanliness and decoration and in the innocent beauty that emanates from the simplest arrangement of objects in the humble abode. It is worth remembering that even the richest person can sleep on only one bed at a time! Some of the most miserable, frustrated people I have known have lacked for nothing that money can buy, and yet they and their families have been continually at loggerheads, and their wealthy homes have been places of unhappiness and discord. It is a mistake to believe that living alone is necessarily less fulfilling than being at the centre of a large family, or that being confined to a single bed-sitter is inevitably soul-destroying. While it would be foolish to deny the benefit of space in allowing one to live more comfortably in a difficult situation, it is even more important to cultivate the inner space that leaves one free no matter where one finds oneself.

When one is young one may be fortunate enough to own a large house for oneself and one's family; when one is old even a small flat becomes something of a burden, and when one is preparing for the great adventure of dying, a single room with its bed seems a vast domain. And yet the dying person, if he has lived a constructive, self-giving life, knows a freedom that is hidden from his well-wishers and mourners. Freedom is a quality of mind that shows itself in one's attitude to life and possessions. It is reflected especially in one's home, even if this is a single room. Such a room becomes a sanctuary not only for the person who lives in it but also for the many people who visit it. And this is the end of living alone: to live in the deepest relationship with all kinds and classes of people drawn together by the bonds of love and mutual regard and not by superficial social usage. In one's depths one begins to see this gradual unfolding of the life ahead; it cannot be accelerated by an act of will, for it blossoms as slowly and beautifully as a bud, destined to open into a warm, glorious flower.

The way to the secret place which is our eternal home is by giving ourselves to the moment in hand and thanking God for that moment. It means an acknowledgement of all we have and are at that moment, which is the ever-present moment, is acknowledgement is not simply a mental registering of a act, it is also a conscious sinking of oneself into the joy of the present experience. To be joyful that one is alive, that one has so many gifts of grace that are usually taken for granted - such as one's state of health, one's mental stability, one's inner integrity, that one has a means of support and that there are a few people who really do care about one - is the beginning of constructive living. Even if some of the causes for rejoicing that I have enumerated are lacking, there are surely others at least that are present. To be grateful for small mercies is the beginning of wisdom, for it reminds us of the providence of God.

As one relaxes in the gifts that surround one, so one's attention moves from fantasies and regrets to the ever-present moment. One starts to enjoy everything around one and then to enjoy one's own being. It is a sad reflection on the state of inner health of most of us that when we speak about enjoying ourselves, we automatically think of leaving our present situation and indulging in some form of diversion or entertainment. While there is nothing wrong in this - and indeed diversions and holidays are essential for the mental as well as the physical well-being of all of us - it is sad that we can so seldom find enjoyment in our own company. To have continually to seek enjoyment outside the periphery of our own being is a frank admission of our own inner bankruptcy. How much more satisfying it is to exult in one's body and soul, seeing in it something unique and unutterably wonderful, a cause for rejoicing to God the Creator! We remember the delighted cries of the Psalmist who writes: "When I look up at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars set in their place by thee, what is man that thou shouldst remember him? Yet thou hast made him little less than a god, crowning him with honour and glory" (Ps. 8.3-5), and again; "Thou it was who didst fashion my inward parts; thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb. I will praise thee, for thou dost fill me with awe; wonderful thou art, and wonderful thy works. Thou knowest me through and through: my body is no mystery to thee, how I was secretly kneaded into shape and patterned in the depths of the earth" (Ps.139.13 -15).

To enjoy oneself ought to mean enjoying being oneself, a unique creation of God unlike any other person, and yet finding one's true identity as part of the body of mankind. But until one can articulate one's uniqueness alone and exult in it, one will never be able to contribute that unique spark to the world around one, and one will never be able to rejoice in the unique contribution that other people make to the whole. One can begin to appreciate and love other people - all people, not only those whom one believes are one's friends - only when one is so centred in oneself that one can flow out to them in joyful recognition as fellow seekers on the path of life. Then one ceases to judge them according to their age and sex, their cultural background and racial origin, their professional status and intellectual capacity, and instead accepts them joyfully for what they are in themselves. This, I am sure, is the way Jesus formed an instantaneous link with all those around him, though, of course, not everyone responded equally joyfully to his welcoming attitude. Those who were full of their own importance felt threatened by his open acceptance; those who were burdened with sin could, on the other hand, immediately feel lightened of that burden by contact with him. For he, though without sin, had such an intense sensitivity to all people, that he could identify himself with their sin and pain also.

As one gives of oneself to the present moment, so one suddenly becomes aware of a load being lifted from one. A lightness enters one so that the past fears, regrets and anxieties seem to fall away. "Come to me, all whose work is hard, whose load is heavy; and I will give you relief" (Matt. 11.28), is the way this opening of the self to the Christ within reveals itself. When one knows this experience one has truly entered into the secret place of the Most High. At last one can rest fully in the eternal present and not need to look ahead for pleasure to come in order to assuage boredom and discontent. This state, let it be understood, is neither one of complacency or of somnolence such as one might know after a heavy afternoon meal. One is fully awake, more emphatically oneself than ever before, and fully alert to the claims of the moment. But being centred in oneself, one can flow out from one's depths and be of assistance to anyone in trouble. One can respond as a fully live person to the calls of those in pain, being able first of all to listen, and then to take the appropriate action. One cannot listen until one is at home in the secret place, since it is only there that one is immutably fixed in will and attention. When one is centred one can compose oneself to listen to music and enjoy it, to read and gain the utmost pleasure from what one imbibes. For now listening, reading and performing are no longer actions undertaken to escape from boredom and to evade loneliness. They are a direct communion between oneself and the mind of the person who created the music or wrote the book. This person is not only the human mediator but also the Holy Spirit who is the ultimate creative source of all that is good and noble.

It is important to distinguish between using literature and art as a means of escaping from an encounter with the true self, and of discovering from them the way to the creative spark that comes from God. In the first usage one is separate from what one reads or hears, and is in fact continually aware of one's own isolation even when the word or form is at its most beguiling. In the second encounter one is enabled to transcend the awareness of one's own unhappiness and enter a quite different realm of bliss, in the light of which one's previous discontent pales into insignificance. As I have stressed before, this bliss comes from God and cannot be demanded or fabricated. But the one who gives of himself wholeheartedly to the work will lose himself in it, only to find his true being at the same time.

The end of living in the centre of one's being is that everything around one is brought into that centre also. And as it comes into the secret place within, so it is changed. It ceases to be an object or a sensation apart from oneself, but instead is transfigured into an aspect of divine reality deeply set in the soul. One ceases simply to listen to music or to read the written word. Instead the music and the word become a part of one's life, indeed of one's very being. When this experience is known and understood, the life alone ceases to be depressing and meaningless; it takes on a joy and meaning that transcend the limitations of time and space and bring one in contact with all life.

Chapter 4