Alone with ourselves

Lent 1 – 2015

Mark 1:9-14

Marian Free

In the name of God who loves us as we are and invites us to do the same. Amen.

During a recent visit to Hobart we visited both Port Arthur and the Female Factory[1]. The latter was particularly shocking. At both prisons there was provision for solitary confinement. An Englishman John Howard promoted the idea as a more effective means of reform than prison. His belief was, that in isolation from others a convicted person would be forced to reflect on and repent of their crimes. His idea was first put into practice in the United States, then England and from there to Van Dieman’s Land. Prisoners would be locked in a cell for twenty-three hours of every day and allowed one hour only to exercise and even then they wore masks to prevent them from communicating with each other. The walls of the cells were thick to ensure that the convicts couldn’t hear each other. To maintain an atmosphere of silence, the guards wore slippers and “spoke” to each other through sign language. Even during the compulsory Chapel Service the prisoners wore masks and were separated from each other in separate stalls.

The cells were so small that the hammocks on which the men slept had to be rolled up during the day. They had a small table and a chair so that they could work and a bucket for personal needs. In the United States both the Chaplains and Doctors noticed that an abnormally high number of prisoners developed what today we would call “mental illness” and advocated that the practice be abandoned. In Van Dieman’s Land, the Comptroller of Convicts, John Hampton, supported by the Commandant at Port Arthur was a fervent supporter of the system.

A particularly abhorrent part of the practice of solitary confinement was that known as the ‘the dumb cell’ or punishment cell. This cell lay behind four thick doors and was completely light and sound proof. (It is possible to go inside a cell today and if you draw the door to, there is absolutely no light. The cell was so small that anyone taller than myself (5’3”) would have found it impossible to lie down, let alone move around.) The practice was abandoned when Port Arthur closed, but it is still used today both as a form of punishment and as a means of torture.

It is difficult for us to imagine just how demoralising and isolating such a situation can be. Being alone without any distraction allows self-doubt to surface and depression to follow. In the 1800’s a Danish prisoner who experienced solitary confinement wrote: “one was ‘instantly overpowered’ by a ‘depressing’ and ‘poignant solitude’ that went against the natural desire of ‘both men of nature and men of culture’ for a social life. A perpetual emptiness grinds away and throws the prisoner into a condition which borders on insanity’.[2]

This is depressing stuff, but it illustrates the disorienting affect of silence and isolation. A person is left with only their own resources to keep them from madness. Every fear, every anxiety is given an opportunity to come to the surface and there are no distractions. Such an extreme form of isolation, isolation imposed, rather than chosen is beyond cruelty.

Isolation and silence that is freely chosen is quite different, though the lack of distraction and conversation has a similar effect – albeit to a much lesser extent. Our work, our families and our social life all have the benefit of taking our minds off our troubles, of giving our lives meaning and helping us to identify our place in the world. In the midst of everyday life we can see where we “fit”. We are able to balance our troubles and problems against the good things in life and recognise that so many others are much worse off than ourselves. Without these identifies, we are like a boat that has come lose from its moorings, we are cast adrift, with nothing to hold on to. We are forced to depend on our own resources, or to place our trust firmly in God.

For many in religious orders, isolation and silence are a lifestyle choice. Away from the world practitioners are able to come to a fuller understanding of themselves – their resources and their strengths, their poverty of spirit and their weaknesses. Unfettered by the concerns of everyday life, they are able to make themselves totally available to God. On a much smaller scale, a Religious Retreat (especially if it is silent) provides a similar sort of experience. The Retreatant comes to a deeper awareness of their true nature and a deeper relationship with God.

We are told that after Jesus’ baptism the Spirit “drove him into the wilderness” where for forty days he was alone with himself and with God. Whatever sense of mission Jesus had before this time, it seems that it was crystallised at his baptism. Spirit-driven or not, it would not be surprising that Jesus needed some time out to think, to consider whether he was really up to the task – after all, for all that he was divine he was also fully human. Could the human side of him really be placed at the service of the divine? Could his divinity really be expressed, without his being tempted to compete with God? The time in the wilderness would have shown him what he was really made of. The isolation and the loneliness would have forced him to totally rely on God. It seems that whatever happened in the wilderness, Jesus returned to the world with a clear sense of purpose and a willingness to accept whatever it was that God had in store for him.

During Lent we are invited, in some small way, to share Jesus’ wilderness experience. By “giving up” something for Lent we are given an opportunity to see what we are made of and by allowing God to fill the space that we have created. Compared to forty days alone in the wilderness, or a lifetime of silence in a religious order, forty days of going without in the comfort of our own home, in the company of family and friends is nothing at all.

Lent is a gift, not a chore, an opportunity not an imposition. May your Lenten observance be a fruitful time of self-examination and spiritual growth.

[1] Female prison

[2], More recent descriptions of the experience of solitary confinement can be found in the book Evil Cradling that describes the experience of Brian Keenan who was taken hostage in Lebanon in the 1980’s and the diary of Mohamedou Ould Slahi who has been incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay even though several years ago he was found to be innocent.


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