As a seventh grader at St. Catherine School in New Haven, Ky., during the 1960s, Fenton Johnson was proud of a poster he made for class depicting what he described as the “three church-designated callings”: religious life, marriage and being single. At 12 years of age, Johnson recognized that the Catechism of the Catholic Church taught, in his words, “that being single was a legitimate vocation.” Yet when a priest visited his classroom and asked each student about the paths they hoped to choose for their lives, every other student answered that they wanted to marry or become a priest or nun. Only Mr. Johnson felt he had been called to the single life.
Today Fenton Johnson is a professor and author, but he continues to think deeply about what that calling means. “Popular culture,” Mr. Johnson writes in his new book At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life, “tells us that, even in our postmodern age,” the single life is for partying and then a “way-station until marriage, or between marriages, or a dumping-ground designation for those who are unable to attract a mate.” He writes that this view is pernicious and akin to the way our culture often describes celibacy: “[N]ot in terms of what it is, but of what it is not—not sex, not fun, not hip, not done.”
Mr. Johnson laments that our language itself is unable to encapsulate the experience of solitary life, having “few words to describe and express solitude, restraint, obliquity.” He wonders what it might mean for our culture, and the Catholic faith that permeated his childhood, if the solitary vocation was more broadly lauded as a meaningful path—a way to live, create and believe?
Yet a life of solitude does not mean Mr. Johnson is alone on this path. Although he no longer identifies as Catholic, he continues to draw inspiration from the church’s long history of finding the sacredness in this way of life. For many writers and artists, drawing on this tradition has proved fruitful, even as their individual experiences of faith and their lifestyles vary widely. For some, solitude means being physically away from other people—a life of literal distance. Others manage to live in solitude in bustling cities, where they work and interact as part of communities but cherish their solitude at home. Each of them lives alone for differing reasons, but each benefits from the contemplation and creativity afforded by solitude—and seeks to protect that element of their lives. Their stories suggest that the ancient contemplative tradition of solitude has relevance to our chaotic present. A life alone is not a life of absence; for those who embrace solitude, living alone offers a sense of clarity, purpose and transcendence.
A Monastic Sense
In a letter in 1964, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that besides his identity as a writer drawn to solitude, the “rest is confusion and uncertainty.” A member of the Abbey of Gethsemani, he considered himself as living in solitude secundum quid—“in some way.” He described his solitary existence as “the only thing that helps me to keep sane,” and he was “grateful for this gift from God, with all the paradoxes that it entails and its peculiar interior difficulties, as well as its hidden and dry joys.”
Solitude was a central element of Merton’s worldview and faith, most fully expressed in his essay “Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude.” He invokes the solitary, creative lives of those “most remote from cloistered life,” like Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, but his true focus is on the spiritual elements of solitude. “The true solitary,” he writes, “is not one who simply withdraws from society,” but one who is able to “transcend it.” The solitary life is not cruel and cold and distant from others; instead, the person choosing this life “is deeply united to them—all the more deeply because he is no longer entranced by marginal concerns.” In senses both metaphorical and physical, the solitary life is lived in communion with others.
Merton often comes to mind when we discuss the contemporary monastic tradition, but he is especially relevant in relation to Mr. Johnson’s work. Monks from Merton’s own Abbey of Gethsemani were among his “first role models.” After all, the monks “regularly found their way over the hills to my parents’ house, always arriving just before supper,” he said.
In senses both metaphorical and physical, the solitary life is lived in communion with others.
“I am grateful for a lifetime to the Roman church,” Mr. Johnson explains in his book, “because it instilled in me a sense of mystery and of manners.” He rightly associates the phrase “mystery and manners” with the fiction writer Flannery O’Connor, who also considered herself a sort of solitary, and who adapted the phrase from yet another one: Henry James.
Mr. Johnson’s work has a strong Catholic sensibility built in; and in a similar way, a monastic sense is endemic to his identity. “Monastic practice remains one of the precious traditions of the church, and growing up with it as an ordinary feature of my childhood was an incomparable privilege,” he told me by email. “I was raised in the presence of people who conceived an ideal and were trying to live it out. That some failed is to be expected. But they gave me to understand that one might have a dream of a community, a sisterhood and brotherhood, and imagine one’s life as a discipline in search of beauty.”
Because he grew up with monks around, he “came to know them not as elevated icons but as human beings, ordinary people—and so they were another means to my perception that the sacred dwells not in puffy golden clouds amid harp-playing angels but in the ordinary, here and now.” Such a vision “has become central to my work and my life: the sacred becomes flesh, the abstract ideal becomes the word in print. The kingdom of heaven is quite literally at hand.” Mr. Johnson offers a lyric paean to the solitary life—one grounded in a Catholic, incarnational sense. Perhaps we do not need a new language for solitude. The church, in its own imperfect way, has already given us one.
Solitude and Spiritual Discipline
“The most challenging aspect of my life of solitude is to not become distracted by the sights or sounds inside or outside my own head,” Brother Rex Anthony Norris, S.S.F., told me by email. He clarified: “I do not mean ignoring the sights and sounds of my neighbor’s sufferings. Every disciple of Jesus is called to love and serve the Lord by loving and serving one’s neighbor.” Rather, the challenge “is to not get distracted by something other than my relationship with God.”
Brother Rex has been living an eremitic life as a Franciscan hermit in the Diocese of Portland, Me., for nearly 20 years. A former Air Force firefighter who was raised Protestant, Brother Rex became a Catholic in 2000, shortly after turning 40, and took his simple vows the next year. He took his final vows in 2007 and lives the life of a hermit at the Little Portion Hermitage.
My own conception of the eremitic life comes from the Desert Fathers, whose existence brought a visceral element to isolation
My own conception of the eremitic life comes from the Desert Fathers, whose existence brought a visceral element to isolation. Brother Rex explained that his challenges, while perhaps more prosaic, are real; and he channels the words of Blaise Pascal, “All of my problems stem from my inability to sit quietly in my room alone.” I asked if those challenges are part of the process, or perhaps even the point, of such an eremitic existence. “The challenge of not becoming distracted by ‘the world, the flesh and the devil,’ to use an old phrase, is part of the process, yes. But it is not the point of eremitic life. The point of the eremitic life as I see it is the same as any other Christian vocation. Namely, union with God.”
Brother Rex sees that union occurring through his “primary vocation…[which] as a contemplative man, is prayer.” I am intrigued by Brother Rex’s swift movement from conversion to contemplation. In other interviews, he has spoken of a “longing” throughout his Protestant life for a deeper relationship with God. His introduction to Catholicism was through the lens of religious life; a conversation with his Methodist minister about this desire for a fuller sense of his faith led Brother Rex to contact various Catholic religious orders, since their lives seemed structured to achieve this.
I asked Brother Rex if he sees any connections between his conversion and the eremitic life. “In a sense, yes,” he says—and his explanation is rather revealing about his understanding of the solitary vocation. Brother Rex says he gave up a secular career in order to “say ‘yes’ to God’s call to journey into the silence of solitude in a hermitage. Yet a person gains far more from saying yes to whatever God is asking of him or her than the person leaves behind.” In the same way, by becoming a Catholic, Brother Rex says he and others “say ‘no’ to much that is very good, even holy in the non-Catholic tradition they are called to leave.”
This reminds me of the inevitable duality that Mr. Johnson sees when we talk about the solitary life, or even the celibate life. “Counter to the avalanche of messages from popular culture, I practice celibacy not as negation,” he writes in his book, “but as a joyous turning inward.” Celibacy, for Mr. Johnson, “can be a powerful incarnation of solitude. Actively inhabited celibacy represents a decision to commit oneself for whatever length of time to a discipline—to forge one delight...for a different, longer-term undertaking, the deepening of the self.” His words channel the salvific sense of the solitary life as experienced by those who live it.
"I practice celibacy not as negation,” he writes in his book, “but as a joyous turning inward.”
Not all Catholics who value solitude live as hermits, of course, but Brother Rex’s life is instructive. He typically wakes around 4 a.m., and prays morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. before attending Mass at 7 a.m. Then comes breakfast, lectio divina and offering spiritual direction to others. Prayer at noon is followed by lunch, which is followed by responding to email, which often includes prayer requests. At 5 p.m., he prays evening prayer, eats dinner and then prays again before going to bed around 8 p.m.
He says his daily schedule is a form of spiritual discipline; an “essential discipline,” because “without it, following the whims of my own ego, I could never hope to be present if/when the Lord should choose to make His Presence known to me.” Brother Rex says that he subscribes to Thomas Merton’s philosophy that the vocation of the hermit is to become ordinary. Curiously enough, Brother Rex has become both ordinary and extraordinary. He lives a pared down, but not simple life. His solitude has enabled him to focus on the spiritual essentials, but has also meant he receives and offers up prayer requests from around the world—a virtual communion of sorts.
The Deep Dive
“Although distance teaching has taken over my life,” the poet and novelist Donna Masini told me by email, “something odd is also happening.” It is March 24. Pandemic-induced social distancing is in full swing. New York City is ground zero, with Covid-19 cases surging to new highs each day. Ms. Masini, a professor of English at Hunter College, has shifted her classes to remote learning. Surprisingly, she has found herself more connected than ever. Ms. Masini says friends are calling on the phone more, as might be expected, “but now it seems anyone can just FaceTime or Skype on demand. It’s like somebody ringing your doorbell and walking in unannounced!” “In a way,” she says, “I am less alone than ever. But now, at the same time, I am always alone.”
Ms. Masini separated from her husband in 1994 and has been living alone ever since. “Though I’d moved out of my parents’ house at 20,” she says, “I lived in an apartment with my best friend until I moved in with my ex-husband. I loved living with him—but also loved that he kept his apartment a few blocks away as an office. It gave me time alone, not just to write, but to be. To exist unobserved.” She published her first book of poems the year they separated; several more collections of poems and a few novels have followed.
She still lives in the studio apartment that she moved into shortly after they separated, imagining that they might live there together one day if they reconciled. Her solitary life began as something temporary, but became part of her identity. “Even if I were to ‘move in’ with someone (or even marry!) I cannot imagine not having this apartment and living alone most of the week,” she says.
Her solitary life began as something temporary, but became part of her identity.
For Ms. Masini, living alone is connected to creating alone. “I need to be alone to work. I used to always write in cafes years ago when I started writing poems. It made me feel safer to write with silverware clinking and glasses banging and low murmuring.” But now in order for the “deep dive” to happen, that almost monastic entry into the true interiority that leads to writing, she needs to feel alone—temporally and spatially. That has become more difficult since the pandemic began: “To get to a really interior place, I need to feel safe. I think that’s why, even being alone in this social distancing time, I cannot go there.”
Ms. Masini’s work is suffused with Catholic culture and iconography, so I asked Masini if she felt her Catholic upbringing affected her approach to being alone. At first, she says it might be “more a class thing. Being Italian (and Catholic), until I was 9 I shared a bedroom with my three siblings in an apartment in Brooklyn.” The oldest child, her time alone decreased with each new sibling. She jokes: “Though given that my mother was all but laminated onto me, you could say that I was never alone.”
But then, she told me, she thinks of Matthew 6:6, as rendered in the King James version of the Bible, which orders “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet.” She describes the enjoyment she found during her days in Catholic school in being asked “to put our heads on our desk and ‘meditate.’ The idea of an all-seeing, all-knowing God—omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent—kind of meant you were never unobserved.”
These connections have been with her as a writer for years. Her “early love” of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., sent her, as a sophomore in high school, to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, which she says she “would often try to practice for my writing over the years.” She appreciated how the exercises were intended to be undertaken while on retreat, and was particularly drawn to “The Great Silence”: “the hour in which you spoke to no one.” Ms. Masini’s most recent book of poems, the elegiac 4:30 Movie, captures the monastic-like experience of weekday afternoons at the cinema. Our silent communion in the dark, and then how afterward “we walk out of ourselves, blinking into the light,/ pulling our sweaters tighter, unprotected, regressed from our/ time// in the dark, the crowd snaking through the lobby, eager to/ enter what we have left.” Eager, perhaps, to be alone together.
Finding the Sacred in the Ordinary
“Like getting married or professing a vocation to religion,” Mr. Johnson writes, “living alone results from complicated, interlocking factors and decisions, made or avoided.” His one-time partner, whom he describes as “the great love of my life,” died of AIDS in 1990. In At the Center of All Beauty, he describes how “I expected I would meet someone else and form another relationship, whether short-lived or lifelong,” but the years passed without that happening. He valued his solitude and realized that “the thing about living alone is that—exactly like living as a couple—after a long time it becomes either a habit or a practice. A habit is a way of living that you follow because it’s what you did yesterday and the day before and the day before that. A practice is a way of living that you create and renew every day.”
In his essay “Catholic in the South: Confessions of a Convert’s Son,” Mr. Johnson concludes, “In thinking of the [Roman Catholic] Church, in thinking of the South, I have come to understand that this is what they share: an uncompromising demand that they be accepted on their own terms. It is because they demand our love so wholly and unconditionally that we find them so hard to leave behind, that they draw us back in spite of ourselves. In this age of relativism, few places can, few people do.”
“To ignore or abandon” those “formative, deeply imprinted emotional and spiritual landscapes,” Mr. Johnson says, “is to risk ending up soulless.”
Catholicism does not have an exclusive hold on the concept of the life of solitude, but the church has a history of imbuing it with the sacred. As Mr. Johnson notes in his book, the Catholic Church, “arguably the largest and most enduring of human institutions,” an institution “that professes its dedication to the family...most often chooses solitaries to canonize as saints.”
Catholicism does not have an exclusive hold on the concept of the life of solitude, but the church has a history of imbuing it with the sacred.
A willingness to recognize the holiness of the ordinary, then, might be the highest ideal of the solitary life. Yet this does not mean a life that is mundane or isolated. “Instead of comfort and distraction,” Mr. Johnson writes in his book, “I use solitude as the seeker uses a fast—to hone and sharpen, to engage the self and in doing so to break through the illusion of aloneness and emerge with my compassion and engagement with the world deepened and enriched. Through solitude, in contradiction to every message from our security-obsessed, wall-building society, I seek to open my heart.”
Mr. Johnson ends his book with a concept that makes the solitary vocation not just an acceptable option, but a necessary one: “I imagine and propose solitaries as models for the choice of reverence over irony.” I asked him what he meant by those terms. “Irony presumes a separation from the world—I have to set myself apart from something in order to critique or satirize it,” he says, while “reverence assumes organic, integrated participation—it assumes, in fact, incarnation, the presence of the sacred in the ordinary, no separation between you and me and the apple.”
Ms. Masini, Brother Rex and Mr. Johnson live distinct forms of solitude, but their lives share certain traits. All of them create: through words, prayerful devotion or both. Each has taken a winding route toward their solitary life. Each is in communion with the larger society and the world in meaningful ways. And they all find some important element of their solitude to be inherently Catholic.
“From early on,” Mr. Johnson says, “I understood every aspect of the world as a manifestation of the sacred. Catholicism gave me the principle of incarnation and the ritual to give it voice. My studies in Buddhism enabled me to incorporate the idea as a practice, an aspect of my daily life.” He shared his daily practice with me:
I rise early, feed (and talk to) the wild birds, light a candle at my altar to the ancestors, sit in mediation, walk, eat breakfast and write. With luck I remember to blow out the candle. In the evenings I reach out to other people, to friends and to strangers; I collect leftover bread from a local bakery and deliver it to a food pantry. On Saturdays I sit with the Buddhists; on Sundays I attend Episcopal services. Rendered so succinctly, it sounds like a pretty good life.
Indeed, it does.