“Solitude is the luminous silent space of freedom, of self and nature, of inflection and creative power.” (299)
“In the silent hours near dawn when people wander through your thoughts, in the bright noise of almost-absorbing encounters when you suddenly glimpse, over a shoulder, a quiet place that wants you alone, a vision forms and draws you in: it is a vision of wholeness, of a life in which solitude and encounter, lived to their full intensity, find harmony and true balance.” (300)
- Philip Koch
Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter (1994)[i]
The Thirteen Days are past and I have passed beyond the fulcrum point of Winter’s Solstice. More and more as I live and dwell in the world, I find the December ‘Holidays’ less and less attractive as touchstones of a spiritual pathing of wholeness and self-transfiguration. The ‘Holidays’ have become, for me, a time of overwork and exhaustion. Those around me seem caught up in the rush to sell or consume, and there is little time left for peace and solitude; for the silence of a wintry night and the beauty of stars, snow, frost and mist. _I find myself getting run-down instead of rested up. _I want to repudiate the ‘Holidays’ as a season of unrelenting acquisition.
I began pathing my way to the Winter Solstice last month, as I usually do, by beginning to get out the seasonal music and decorations with which to ‘deck my living space.’ [Not as poetic as “Deck the Halls” but then, you don’t need grand halls in order to brighten up your place of dwelling.] As usual, I entered the Season formally at the Feast of Nicholas and the Elves (6 December) and then ‘observed’ each of the Thirteen Days (13 – 25 December) in succession, taking a few minutes each day to orient myself to their symbolism and motifs. I have lived with the Thirteen Dayes of Yule, now, for over thirty years, and they are fully integrated into my psyche.
A couple of times this month I have thought to go out and visit the Whittiers on Deer Hill; but I was often too exhausted for such imaginative excursions. At last, as I reached Solstice Night, I thought I had made as much of the Yule as I could, and wasn’t expecting any more. That night, however, during meditation – in which I was listening to Stile Antico’s new CD “Wondrous Mystery” and going deep and rising – I had the sudden inspiration to go out – in my mind’s landscapes – and visit a nemeton that has been presenting itself to me for a couple of years. It is called “The Crannog Oratory,” and as soon as I thought of it, I realized I was about to go ‘out on the witch,’ as I used to say, seeking solitude in an imagined faeryland!
It was on the verge of this imagined adventure that I realized just how much I had missed Silence & Solitude during the Yule. Not since before ‘Thanksgiving’ had I been centered deeply in Silence; nor had I savored a taste of sustained Solitude since the first days of December. In anticipation of the Feast of Nicholas and the Elves (6 December) I had listened to Anonymous 4’s CD “Legends of saint Nicholas” (1999) and fallen into a Deep Quiet that lasted most of an hour. After that, however, I do not think I found my way once into my Internal Nemeton; the Cave of the Heart_
Until Solstice Night!
We all need places we can ‘go’ where the hustle and bustle of the world around us is left at a distance and we can re-center ourselves in the best version of ourselves we can conjure; where we can be ourselves without the push and pull of the world’s demands. Of course, it is living in the world that makes or breaks us; it is in the flux & flow of what must be, what can be, and what cannot be avoided—that we forge ourselves. But there must be an ingot there to put into the forge, and over the course of our lives we strive to render it as ‘pure’ [for lack of a better word] as possible. Meditation and the various other spiritual practices that are common to our species help us to ‘hone’ that ‘ingot;’ – it being the ‘person’ we each are when we are most centered, healed and undistracted.
The place I was thinking of going last week, at dusk on 21 December, is an imagined nemeton that has come together for me since May of 2013. I first discovered it on an imagined ‘flight’ and then found my way back in meditations over the next few weeks. I came to calling it “The Crannog Oratory” almost as spontaneously as I had found it. I have returned to it periodically; often at times when I am most stressed or washed-out from living too much in the world—when I need a retreat into the Quiet of the Night in Solitude. It has evolved into a place that reflects all of my best aspirations and deepest interests, from science and mathematics to poetry, music and literature. It is a symbol of who I am; the person who walks out into the world each morning and returns each night.
I find the need for Solitude to be especially urgent during and after the December ‘Holidays,’ and last week – on Solstice Night – I had a refreshment that launched me into a deep pathing in which I am still engaged tonight. While the Thirteen Dayes of Yule are over, I am at last sojourning at the Place of Silence & Solitude. Silence is more than the absence of noise; and it is the very antipathy of the kind of disengagement that leads to boredom and ultimately depression. It is an engagement with the Earth & Cosmos that transcends the need for words and the banter that so often buffets us in our daily rounds. True Silence is akin to an internal ‘Stillness of the Soul;’ a calm of the psyche—in which we can listen to the ‘hum’ of what-is without distraction.
Solitude is similarly a state of being-in-becoming that is like a ‘place;’ we can ‘go to’ our ‘place’ of Solitude by turning inward and finding the Deep Center of our being. It is – in an old phrase that still has resonance for me – a way of being “alone with the Alone.” It is not loneliness, but a state of engagement with Earth & Cosmos while being solitary. You can be in Solitude in a crowded place, once you learn how to facilitate it; but the best way to discover Solitude is to find yourself alone in a state of uplift that is open to discovery_ and even adventure; where we can allow ourselves to be caught up in wonder and awe!
The best way I know of to learn and sojourn in Silence & Solitude is to create imagined places that inspire in us a sense of peace, rest, reinvigoration and restoration. While visiting such places in the world – groves, shrines, caves, chapels, etc. – is a good way to condition the body and the mind to the experience one wishes to nurture, these places are not always available, and so it is necessary to ‘construct’ them within our own Internal Worlds—using the imagination tempered with our own experiences to create ‘nemetons’ where we can resource, heal, reinvigorate and reconstruct ourselves.
The Crannog Oratory is all of those things for me. It is the latest in a long series of Internal Nemetons; the first of which I probably created in my mid-teens. Along the way, they have been imagined according to different religious and spiritual symbol systems; Wicchan, Christian, Literary, Monastic and Celtic—but they have all served the same basic functions: to inspire, to cull me back into peace and allow me to hone myself into the best version of myself that I could imagine being at each stage of my life’s journey. They ‘call’ to me, and I ‘go’ there when in need of restoration and reinvigoration.
When the Crannog Oratory first ‘called’ to me, I was led to a lakeshore where – shrouded in mist – I experienced the cry of a loon and saw deer wandering up and down the banks. At first, I didn’t even ‘see’ the Crannog[ii] or know that the small structure built upon it was an ‘Oratory;’[iii] i.e., in my own spiritual vocabulary at that point, a place of creativity and inspiration. On the next inspired journey, I was able to see the Crannog, and then, on a later journey, realized the name of the structure out on the wooden crannog at the edge of the imagined lake! Later yet, I was able to ‘walk’ out to the Oratory on the walkway connecting the Crannog to the shore. Eventually, I was able to enter to Oratory, where I had a series of imagined meditations on creativity, poetry, science and mathematics. I even once imagined myself studying Trigonometry while listening to the swashing of the water lapping at the pillions that support the Crannog! On another occasion, I was playing a lute and singing olden songs. I am always alone at the Crannog Oratory; it is a manifestation of the need for Silence & Solitude.
Eventually, as I pathed the Crannog Oratory over a number of occasions, a ‘journey’ unfolded by which I could go, find and visit it of my own volition. Here is how that journey always goes; for now, at least, it is always essentially the same in its broad outline:
I find myself standing at the edge of a Great Olde Forest; the wall of it stretching on for miles in either direction. Before me there is a Great Doorway; it has huge tree trunks as its doorposts and another one as its lintel. The whole doorway is carved with runes. I sense the Doorway is a Trailhead, and it is calling to me—so I mount my broom (lol)[iv] and ‘fly’ in through the Great Doorway.
I travel along the path, which twists and turns through the Great Forest, flying only a few feet above the ground, The Forest is Deep Green and ever-moist, and there are Great Trees marking ancient sources of Inspiration and Poetic Power along the way. I turn one way and then another, following the ley-line of the path below me, until I come to a Clearing!
I stop my flight at the edge of the Clearing and dismount my broom. [There my broom vanishes and I see it no more in this imaging.] The Clearing seems familiar. It is about two acres in size, and at the very center of it is a stone hut! I have seen this hut before; it is the Hermitage of Meath—my own Internal Nemeton from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s! I am being ‘invited’ to walk out into the Clearing; it is now always night time and the Moon rides the white clouds above the Forest and the Clearing, illuminating the tall grasses, the stone hut, and my own desire for Silence & Solitude.
After lingering near the edge of the Clearing for an indeterminate time, I stride out into the field and walk toward the Stone Hut. Reaching it, I see that it is in a state of disrepair; the artefact of the once inspiring nemeton being no longer a viable place of Silence and Solitude. I lay my hands on the stones. Then, after a few seconds, I enter the Hermitage of Meath_
Suddenly I am no longer in the Forest Clearing; nor am I in the Stone Hut. I am on the sandy shores of a lake. It is Night and though there is fog and mist, I can see – not too far from me – the outlines of the Nemeton I seek; the Crannog Oratory! It is ‘sitting’ on its pillions about two feet above the rustling water level, the top of the Oratory itself rising about ten feet above the crannog platform. The Oratory on the Crannog is centered on the platform about 20 feet out from the lakeshore. There is a wooden walkway leading out to the Oratory itself, which is a beehive shaped wooden structure with one door and three small windows; one facing up the lake and one facing down its length and one opening to a view across the lake. The doorway faces the shore.
A sense of awe and wonder come over me!
At this point any number of imaginative things can happen in my meditations. On one occasion, instead of finding myself on the lakeshore, I found myself – after having passed through the Hermitage of Meath – standing cruciform, shoulder-deep in the water up-lake from the Crannog Oratory! I stayed there, in meditation, for most of an hour, stilled and quieted, solaced in body and mind by the imagined setting and by being immersed in the cool lake water! On other occasions, as I’ve indicated, I have entered the oratory and imagined myself engaging in a number of inspiring activities, from mathematics to music making.
This is all a matter of self-directed imaging; it is the positive use of the imagination—a praxis in which I have been engaged for most of my life. There is nothing supernatural going on here; but there is a depth of psychological work happening – in me – as I engage in these extended meditation sessions. While often inspired to undertake the journey to the Oratory, and while conscious of my experiences, much happens that is spontaneous and unanticipated! I respond to my subconscious mind and intuitions in as positive a way as I can. I usually sojourn at the Oratory or somewhere near the Crannog for a time and then come out of meditation, refreshed and ready to get on with the day’s work and obligations, and sometimes more ready to face the world once again, seeking ways to heal it in any small way I can. This is the kind of imaginative work that takes discipline and practice, but such work has rewards—and I am experiencing some of them tonight, having written this blog.
This is now my Winter Nemeton; in which I will hopefully dwell until The Hinterlands (i.e., “Epiphany” 6 January) and possibly afterwards. As I finalized this blog and summarized for a friend what I had written, he asked me – laughing a bit at my boldness – why in the world I would tell people how to the find the way to my Crannog Oratory? “What if someone else finds it,” he then asked_ and laughed at the strangeness of his own question! I told him I doubted anyone else could actually find my Internal Nemeton; and we laughed together at the idea! But if you do, I will welcome you heartily at the Crannog Oratory, and we shall sing and dance and engage in ‘earthen prayer’ at the lakeside until the coming of the dawn!
[i] This is a wonderful old book, and well worth repeated readings. I know of almost no other book on solitude that has this depth of insight.
[ii] ‘Crannog’ is a term from the Celtic World. It refers to a structure – a house, fort or shrine – built out upon the water on a platform which sits on pillions above the water and is stationary.
[iii] Oratory literally means, “House of Prayer.” I understand prayer as ‘deep attention to the world’ and imagine this one as a place of creative aspiration, contemplation and spiritual awareness. It is not an ‘escape’ from the world, but rather a place of restoration and self-recreation wherein we pay deep attention to the world and its troubles from a distance that lends us perspective. From the vantage point of the Oratory, I hope to seek ways of changing what-is, where possible. for the better.
[iv] I had been watching the Harry Potter films all through December, and so was in that imaginative mode wherein a broom came quickly to mind as a mode of travel!