The Ache of Solitude

Holy the groanings

By Matt Steel
23 Dec 2016
6 min read

Collage by Matt Steel
Original art from
Wellcome Library, London

“It ever was, and is, and shall be,
ever-living Fire, in measures being kindled
and in measures going out.”
– Heraclitus

All my life I’ve been an outsider. I’ve never quite fit in the places I’ve found myself. A bramble in the wheel, a scratch on the record, an alien squinting at an indecipherable script, a square punk in a round world: I peer in from a slight but sharp remove.

My family gathered this year for Thanksgiving and dispersed more widely than ever, each of us returning to some kind of separation. I watched my wife and children drive away, already anticipating Christmas and the end of our time apart. I watched my parents dwindle in the rearview mirror. I turned to face southward, freshly alone.

If home is the seat of heart and heart is part of soul, then our uprootings are also parts of our identities, becoming engrafted over time.

The Welsh word taithchwant (TĪTH-khoo-ahnt) means, roughly, an overpowering spiritual wanderlust or desire for self-imposed exile. Hiraeth (here-ĪTH, rolled “r”) is the counterbalancing feeling, an ache for home that is stronger than homesickness. Though home is familiar and the road strange, are not the basic longings beneath both one and the same? It seems the homeward and the wayward hold this question in common: where do I belong?

Like all matter, we are made mostly of negative space. Absences, losses, sunderings. We barely exist. As with the body, so with the soul. We are that which we are not. We are what we have lost.

My head says I am at home on this earth, even if home is a scattered collection of people, memories, and places spread by taut skeins across miles and years. My gut says I am homeless under heaven, and my God the angularity of it, the ache of it is at times too much to bear. There is a separation from Deity here that I know everyone experiences, but something tells me it is unnatural. This is not how we were meant to be.

All my life I’ve craved solitude. I am most alive in that great swaddling society of silence. I am from the heights and hollows and my feet ever aim for them. I am for desolate corners, for the gaps as Annie Dillard calls them. Go up into the gaps, Elijah, go up. The gaps are those places where spirit and wind keen in harmony. They hunt the hunter; Narnia comes when you need it, not when you expect it. In wild and lonely spaces what I call myself regards my soul, and in time that self disappears in unfathomable depths of Spirit.

Thomas Merton says the poet enters into himself in order to write, and the contemplative enters into God in order to be created. Verily, Verily. In silence, on Narnian days, in God clean words gush from my core and spill over my tongue as sweet bitterness, as wine, as communion I’ve devoured coming back to God as breath, as praise I cannot fully utter. The words are sparked from my flinty spirit, but I am struck by a greater Spirit. They are foreign and thoroughly known. I am a mere vessel and I melt into God as words arise and take form. I am the threshing floor and the beaten wheat. I am an instrument played. I resonate. Like the Ents of Middle Earth I boom, hoom, and hom with the granite-splitting voice of Another; I crack wide open; a wind rushes through the gap; I glimpse the burnished heel of God and walk out of the woods with tongues of fire licking my skull and white coals smoking in my hands.

Here I am most in tune with God, and most in pain. Though I crave solitude I carry within me a wound of loneliness, and oh my God all my life it abides. I feel it most keenly in solitude, and it’s as if blood and wine swirl together so that life and death sing and groan undifferentiated in the deepest part of me that is not even me.

What is home? It is in the wind. It is many places and no place at all.

Why, my soul, are you downcast?

All my life friendship has come hard for me. Do I unconsciously hold people at arm’s length? Do I wear a sign saying “approach at your own risk?” Do I make my life lonelier than necessary? At any rate I find a friend, we walk side by side for a time on the heights and through the hollows; I begin to plumb his soul and then one of us leaves, carried off by season or call. We are united in parting. Does he feel some version of the same pain?

I try to mingle in society but it quickly becomes too much and I must retreat, at times while my body is still among others. I become a dun husk; the lights are low and no one is home. My otherness is strongest in those moments, and I wonder if I will ever belong.

What am I to do? How do I hold this contradiction of loneliness and communion? Will I ever reach home? Without this pain how on earth could I create? Who will save me from this body of death?

Like Thoreau considering his own flesh in the mountains of Maine, I wonder at the titan that possesses me. This body will certainly die, but it is resilient and, as I read and as I believe, it will live again. The soul and body of man were made for unity. To divorce them by death is a deviation from the original pattern; and so we return to dust for a time, though the part that remains can no longer be called human, is no longer a self when laid to rest. But after days or aeons have passed, in the fullness of time these bodies will rise again. Picture the dust of your scattered self caught up on the day of reckoning – caught up in a whirlwind, bones cohering, condensing, polishing, strengthening from within; sinews and tendons wrapping round and stretching, organs plumping and pumping again; new skin spreading and glistening, brain furrowing, synapses firing, hair curling and stood on end, light rekindled behind greening irises – will you know me then? Will you know yourself? What trillions will cower or cavort around us?

And where am I right now, in this so-called mortal life? On returning to solitude at sea or in the woods, I marvel at these thundering powers. I am here in the surging ocean, braced and embraced in the thick of it! What untold grains of sand! What booming waves! What chorus of limbs lifted in praise! What auroral light! What glimpse of heaven! Contact! – indeed, Henry. But whence this thrill coursing from rock through fingertips to ribcage? What essence have I touched? Do I dare call myself lonely with such kinship as this? Who ignites this wild joy, rising like sap when I sink into nature? O! Let me never be tamed!

Love the creation, revel in it, protect it with your very life – but know it is the chalice, not the wine. Fear the titan and fear the ghost. Fear the Breath inspiriting your clay.

Holy the evanescent. Holy the writhing flora, holy the roaring fauna, holy this whirling, heaving terra firma. Holy the Word. Holy the groanings too deep for words.

Hallelujah. Hoom, hom.

Though I am an outsider gnawed by homelust and wanderlust, and though I weep over my mounting losses, I join this sorrow to yours and that of the whole world. I offer it up to Christ, our man of sorrows, Who was and is and is to come.

“May you end it bruised and purple,
Know that peace is the shape of a circle.”
– Sam Beam

A day of justice and grace will dawn and partings will cease. All will be home. All will be made well.

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