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Solitude and loneliness: the difference

Posted by Simon Parke, 30 March 2020, 8.50am

I wrote this piece in 2011; different times indeed. But I sense it remains topical.

Lets’s see…

LADY GAGA dug deep into the basket of self-revelation recently. Speaking to Star TV, she spoke of a secret marriage. And I was not best pleased.

It is heightened awareness, I suppose. Now that I have just completed a book called ‘Solitude - recovering the power of alone’ I see the word everywhere. “I am an artist,” said the pop phenomenon. “We wallow in loneliness and solitude our whole lives. . . Yes, I’m lonely. But I’m married to my loneliness.”

After reading that, how do you feel about it? Perhaps you are nodding your head; but I am shaking mine in frustration. Millions hang on her every word, but her words perpetuate a falsehood. Solitude is nothing like loneliness.

“Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone,” writes Paul Tillich. “It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.”

It is important that we keep them separate, otherwise all hell will break loose; and often does.

Loneliness is a negative state, marked by a sense of isolation. When a person is lonely, he or she feels that something is missing. It is not just about being physically alone; it is possible to be with people and still feel lonely — perhaps the most bitter form of loneliness.

There is nothing redemptive about this experience. It feels like a punishment; it is perceived as a state of deficiency, provoking discontent and a sense of estrangement from the world.

Solitude is different.

Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely; of being happily alone. It is a positive and constructive state of engagement with, and through, oneself; and with God and the world around us. Solitude is something desirable, something to be sought; a state of being alone in the good com­pany of your self.

We must take responsibility for our loneliness. It is not something others do to us, but something we do to ourselves; and it is a call to consider how we relate to the world. We remember the wise words of Rumi: “Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

The world is full of people who seek out other people they do not like, just to stay active and feel involved. There is no finer recipe for loneliness.

Others stuff the spaces in their lives with mental noise from the radio, mobile, or internet; they leave no room for any­thing self-sustaining to grow inside them. Is it any wonder that they find their own company so hard to en­dure?

They are lonely. They need some noise.

Lady Gaga was mistaken. Loneli­ness and solitude are different lands, but their borders touch. We walk from one to the other when we cease using others…

... and start allowing our selves.

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No Man is an Island

Posted by Simon Parke, 27 March 2020, 8.34am

Strangely, perhaps as we self-isolate, we begin to remember that we are one.

Some distant memory re-awakened, we may hear John Donne’s famous poem afresh.

No Man is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself
every man is a piece of the continent
a part of the main
if a clod be washed away by the sea
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were
as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were
any man’s death diminishes me
because I am involved in mankind
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls
it tolls for thee

John Donne 17th century

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A meditation for anxious times

Posted by Simon Parke, 26 March 2020, 5.54am

These are dismantling times when anxiety runs free and in terror, we have a thousand demands.

But sometimes we do body and spirit a favour by easing back from our demands and become inside ourselves a pair of scales, evenly-weighted and resting.

Can you imagine that…scales resting?

So still yourself for a moment, breathe deeply…and go there.

You are a pair of evenly-weighted scales. Picture it.

You’re not pushing down on either side with your preferences, instead, pure balance…how strange, how free.

No preferences.

And here, for a moment, is beautiful indifference.

Indifference is not the same as uncaring: it’s simply non-attachment to outcomes.

So here you are, a pair of scales, evenly-weighted, resting in the chaos of anxious demand…open towards your unfolding future.

A miracle.

In a state of such openness and sensitivity, even a speck of dust placed on one side or the other will cause a tilting.

Can you allow yourself to be present in this way?

For a moment, body and spirit breathe freedom.

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Julian - and heroic self-isolation

Posted by Simon Parke, 23 March 2020, 3.47pm

It is strange how contemporary the past can suddenly feel.

I recently wrote a novel about a woman who self-isolated…for forty years. She could scarcely have been less contemporary to this social media-connected age. Who in their right mind self-isolates?

And yet now her story is going viral…so to speak. Who’d have thought it?

So yes, I’m often now asked about Julian of Norwich and the book about her life, ‘The Secret Testament of Julian’.

It is, of course, fiction; making the most of the gaps history provides. But it is securely rooted in the difficult times in which she lived - 14th century England; and in the person and the words of Julian herself.

She did leave a lot of clues about herself in her remarkable writings.

But rather than me talk about it, which I don’t do very well, let me hand over to the latest reviewer on Amazon, who writes much better than me.

What did they find? Here goes:

‘This is the most unusual, extraordinary – and rather moving – book I have ever read. Having struggled in the past with the writing of Julian herself, I was afraid I was possibly going to find this a difficult read, and even perhaps somewhat pious.

How wrong I was!

To quote Beatrix (Beaty) as she was christened: ‘The devil laughs when a woman writes, it is well known!’

Coping with great good humour and courage, Julian is born into a world of misogyny, disease and abuse. The plague is decimating the population, and is described by the grasping church as ‘God’s will, and his anger’.

She loses the two beings closest to her to it.

After surviving a deadly illness herself, during which she had visions of a loving and merciful God, she chooses to become an anchoress – walled into a tiny cell for 40 years, dependent on the goodwill of others to provide for her needs.

The aptly named Mr Strokelady casts a fearful shadow over her life. When he arrives at her cell window, now the town’s mayor, a shiver ran down my spine: he held the power of life and death over Julian and others, as well as being personally vile.

For a woman to write at all in the 14th century was forbidden. For anyone to be discovered writing in English, and not the obligatory Latin of the church, was punishable by death.

Characters that particularly stick in my mind: Sara, her faithful friend and ‘maid’, Mr Curtgate, the ill-fated vicar and Margery Kempe: disturbed or inspired?

The Secret testament of Julian’ strongly reminds me of the play by William Nicholson about C.S. Lewis: ‘Shadowlands’. That, too, packs a powerful punch, and both books frequently had me in tears, dealing as they do with love and death, grief, illness and loss. Here are life-changing thoughts on the nature of suffering.

Both books are also suffused with humour and courage.

Preparing for a difficult encounter at her cell window, Julian picks up a hazelnut that has fallen, and marvels at it: ‘like all of us: made, loved and kept’.

‘All things shall be well, and all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’’

‘The Secret Testament of Julian’ is available on all the usual online platforms; or it could be ordered from your local independent bookseller. If you’d like to order from the wonderful Sarum College bookshop, here’s the link:


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My Coronavirus survival kit

Posted by Simon Parke, 23 March 2020, 9.43am

I write about living these times.

We are all experiencing crisis in different ways. Last week, I watched my livelihood, patiently built, disappear in three days. You will have your own story and it may be much worse.

So I write this morning not to try and make sense of it, or to announce that it will pass - though it will.

Rather, I write presently, to help myself live the life before me. And the life before me, as I look around and listen, is uncertainty, sadness and terror.

So here are some of the things that feel helpful for me; but don’t worry if they are not helpful for you. Simply pass them by.

1) Slow mind.

This is a time for slow mind, seeking less stimulation, not more. Fast minds are anxious, slow minds are calm. We do not need to see the news more than once a day; like much of social media, it makes us anxious without reward. And Whatsapp groups set up to support us can do the exact opposite, as people share their fears, judgements and negative tales. What is gained? Negativity, whether through the news or social media, weakens us, unpicking the threads of our spirit. Slow mind sits above deep breathing and is not anxious. The anxiety monkey has no scaffolding to swing on. But you may need to relinquish some distracting habits to get there, and you could start now. Take some deep breaths… count them, perhaps ten? And return there when possible in the day. A few deep breaths takes us into our body and slows the anxious and catastrophising mind.

2) Behold rather than judge.

If we listen to the news, we will all be judging others right now - ‘the latest selfish idiot’ and all that.  Social media creaks with ‘shaming’ stories:  ‘I cannot believe they did that!’ It’s a sign of our difficult times. Fear and jeopardy bring out the judgement in us; we reach for the moral high ground to make ourselves feel better. But we don’t have to live there; we don’t have to make judgements our home. So note when the critic arises inside you… and then let the judgement go. It really isn’t your friend. The moral high ground is a wasteland place to live; it makes us stupid, makes liars of us and takes us away from our truest selves.

3) Parent yourself

These are dismantling times, throwing up fears inside us we never knew were there. And all the while, we may be putting on a brave face for others, pretending everything’s all right. So you will need to parent yourself and your feelings with kindness and without judgement. No thought or feeling is stupid or a crime; rather, each one needs to be heard and held without judgement. And so the question ‘How am I feeling?’ is allowed. It doesn’t matter if there is someone worse off than you; that really isn’t the point. If you can’t look after yourself, you won’t be fit to look after anyone else. So we will need to self-parent. And yes, in the end, I am not my thoughts and I am not my feelings…but the healthy among us listen as they pass through – and sometimes they pass through noisily, overturning the furniture.
And that’s OK.
(Rumi’s poem The Guest House is very good here. You’ll find it online.)

4) This is not about me.

It is about me, obviously: as I write, my livelihood has disappeared, I am denied things I want and love. But it is not only about me, others are living it too; and sometimes in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, much more challenging than mine. Perhaps I can light a candle every day for everyone, for we are in this together. Or replenish my local foodbank, which is struggling. As we physically distance ourselves, I’ve found more people saying ‘hello’ as they pass. Separation can bring us together. Have we perhaps remembered, in John Donne’s words, that
‘No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.’

5) Stay close to fresh air and growth.

Whatever lockdown ultimately means, open windows whenever possible, get out in the air when possible, look on things that grow – whether in pots, by the road, in the garden. Stay close to nature’s resilient energy. It’s good to be part of another story and there’s another story going on at the moment. If you are lucky enough to have a garden, wonderful; but you don’t need one. I lived in London for thirty years and knew every plant that grew through every crack in the wall. I loved their many-coloured stories of resilience and beauty.

6) Exercise.

Tap into your own body energy as well as nature’s. Skip in the front room; walk; run; press-ups, sit-ups: stretch, yoga… whatever you do, whatever is allowed. Do what’s possible for you…but do it, for the good of your heart and the good of your soul. When you are in your body, you leave behind the mad catastrophising in your head. Gymnastic champion Max Whitlock is making the best of a bad job, using his sofa at home as a pummel horse. It isn’t for everyone perhaps; and not something I’m doing myself.(!) But do get into your body…you’re not anxious there.

7) Gratitude

Don’t give up on gratitude – gratitude for things that are good, beautiful, timely, tasty, kind, wonderful, healing or funny. Gratitude brings us into the present where all is well. Our monkey-mind can take us all over the place; and most of the places make us anxious or depressed. But gratitude returns us to the present, the only place that truly exists. It re-sets us, in a way; gives us a clean slate from which to live. Perhaps this is why Meister Eckhart, a writer in the 14th century, said that ‘Thank you’ is the only prayer necessary.

8) Respond rather than react.

All sorts of stuff is being thrown at us these days. Negative stories, traumatic stories invade our space, pushing at the panic in us. But you don’t have to react. We don’t live best from panic. So why not pause before speaking, judging and doing. Reach down for the light and the hope inside you; and speak, live and act from there. You don’t need to have an opinion; you don’t have to react automatically. If there’s no hope and no light in you to find, sit quietly until it arrives…or go for a walk. You may find the answer in the sky; or in the dandelion. But look always to respond rather than react.You will make the world a kinder place.

9) Look for new possibilities

Many of our plans are in tatters – weddings, holidays, building work, operations, house move etc. It’s terrible…the shock is considerable. Yet life goes on, somehow. So we make a virtue of necessity and seek new possibilities in our situation. Perhaps we can do things we’re not normally able to do; feel our way into new shapes of being and activity. Some one said to me last week, ‘I’ve always wanted more time with my family - though perhaps I didn’t imagine it quite like this! But after my initial terror, I think I’m actually beginning to enjoy it.’ Is there anything possible for you now, which wasn’t possible before? Any step to be taken in these new circumstances which will serve you well, long after this is all over?

P.S. Board games can be good for family morale but for the sake of relationships, avoid ‘Monopoly’ – it will never end well. Unlike these difficult times…


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Hopeful imagination - a virus spirituality

Posted by Simon Parke, 16 March 2020, 11.40am

In 587 BC, the Babylonians assaulted Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.

For the Israelites, it was the end of the known world. All that they knew was made as nothing; their props and their symbols, which held it all together, gone.

The Temple was burned, the holy city destroyed, the Davidic dynasty terminated and the leading citizens deported. Public life in Judah came to an end.

It was amid this national trauma that poets like Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel wrote, holding in their words the disturbing sense of loss.

But to their exhausted despairing people - who saw nothing new, who hoped for nothing new and could speak of nothing new – they spoke of something new.

And maybe the hinge for this door of possibility is in Isaiah 43. 18: ‘Do not remember former things; behold, I am doing a new thing.’

To the endlessly negative and disturbed narratives around them, they bring, (in his lovely book of the same name) what Walter Brueggeman calls ‘hopeful imagination’.

It seems a good call for any in leadership positions today.

The world has known many 587’s since the Babylonian assault; and we are living through one now as the coronavirus rips through the texture of our world, destroying the fabric of our personal and communal lives.

It is, for now, the end of the known world; and it has happened savagely quickly, with indecent haste.

We are unsure what will be recovered; and, if it is, when it will be so. Experts guide; but the bigger truth is that no one knows anything… and the uncertainty takes its toll.

Times like this find us out.

For any with survival fears – financial or physical – loud alarm bells will be ringing within.

For those with a disposition towards it, the anxiety loop will be working overtime.

For those who ride it, the wheels are coming off the wagon of control, which is deeply disturbing. 

For those seeking a parent; for those struggling with a sense of abandonment, huge rage might be dumped on perceived leaders who are failing us.

I recognise the particular fears in me and the particular panic they generate; this helps me to parent myself, which we will all need to do in these times; for anyone in a position of leadership will be feeling extreme turbulence.

You are a lightning rod for a swirling and potent mixture of reaction around you; and when this echoes your own disturbance, you will be particularly vulnerable.

So we need to be careful of ourselves, mindful, as the waves of terror wash over us and around us – and people clean the shelves of toilet paper and soap in entitled panic.

We will be mindful because there are other narratives.

One of these narratives is the present, where daffodil and hyacinth still appear by the side of the road – daffodils that have survived Ciara, Denis and Jorge; and where human kindness, laughter and solidarity break out endlessly.

There is a present.

Another narrative is that there is a future; there is a new thing…though much letting go on the way, much relinquishment of things clung to. It is a struggle to relinquish; but we relinquish to receive.

In days such as these, another 587, spirituality is anything which keeps you close to these narratives of hope; anything which keeps you close to the fire.

Here, in the negative flood, beneath the cloud of unknowing –

is the island of hopeful imagination.

Breathe deep…and camp there when possible.

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And so to rest

Posted by Simon Parke, 25 February 2020, 4.23pm

i’m taking a blogging rest for lent

sometimes there’s just nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to achieve

sometimes there’s no one to please, no standard to meet, no future to make

there’s only rest and rest’s mercy

delight in aimlessness and meandering above things done

more joy in silence than in praise

if something’s worth doing, it’s worth not doing

i hope you and your one precious life find rest along your busy way

rest the mind and find the heart

it might make all the difference

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Jean Vanier, a fall from grace

Posted by Simon Parke, 24 February 2020, 6.23pm

Vanier was a giant of a man, physically and spiritually; or at least he appeared to be. Perhaps you have read his books, and know the L’Arche story.

He was a man who spoke eloquently about human dignity, especially the dignity of the disabled. Where others saw troublesome people with no place in the world, he saw wonder and beauty…and did something about it.

He was an inspiring figure, the winner of many awards – and, he was a fraud.

Over the weekend, L’Arche announced credible allegations that Vanier sexually abused at least six adult women between 1970 and 2005. (None of them, L’Arche insists, were disabled.)

The leaders of L’Arche International, admitted in a letter to their members:

“For many of us, Jean was one of the people we loved and respected the most. Jean inspired and comforted many people around the world … and we are aware that this information will cause many of us, both inside and outside L’Arche, deep confusion and pain. While the considerable good he did throughout his life is not in question, we will nevertheless have to mourn a certain image we may have had of Jean and of the origins of L’Arche.”

As with all these stories, there may be worse to come.After all, his mentor was the sexual predator Father Thomas Phillippe – crucial in his spiritual formation and never disowned by Vanier.

‘Unfortunately,’ says Michael Cook, editor of Mercatornet newsletter, which I use in this piece, ‘this man was, to be blunt, a sexual monster masquerading as saint. “When one arrives at perfect love, everything is lawful, for there is no more sin,” he would tell his victims.

Some women complained about him in the early 1950s, around the time that Vanier was exploring his vocation.

Remarkably, (excuse my surprise) the Vatican reacted swiftly. The priest was tried within the Church and forbidden to carry out any public or private ministry: no celebration of the sacraments, no spiritual direction, and no preaching.

Vanier was fully informed about the Vatican’s decision - but ignored it. Notwithstanding strict instructions, Father Philippe kept up a clandestine correspondence with Vanier. In one letter cited by the investigators he even instructed him on how to groom a particular woman. The report concludes:

‘Because Jean Vanier did not denounce the theories and practices of Father Thomas Philippe of which Jean Vanier was personally aware as early as the 1950s, it was possible, for Father Thomas Philippe to continue his sexual abuse of women in L’Arche and it allowed Father Thomas Philippe to expand his spiritual influence on founders and members of other communities.’

Not only did he abuse women; but by his silence Vanier enabled others’ abuse as well. So what Vanier did for the disabled was brilliant; and the way he treated women was appalling.

Many who trusted Jean Vanier will now be confused – cynical, even. ‘Who or what is there to believe in now?’

I celebrate the fact that the women have been able to speak of it at last, for they are the most important people in this story. They no longer have to bow to the mistaken public image of their abuser; but can name this abuse of power for what it was – self-gratification at the expense of others.

It is the beginning of freedom.

And the rest of us? Amid the rubble of a reputation now in ruins, we will pick our way carefully. This being human is a cracked and speckled business; we know that better than anyone.

And goodness itself is not in ruins – just a reputation.

Pulling back from the particular to the general, I’m for honouring those we meet; but not trusting them. The psychological fractures are just too deep. 

Trust is an unfair burden to lay on anyone; particularly those with power, which very few can handle.

In the end, this is not a ‘sex’ story – but a ‘power’ story. So keep your eyes open, your heart free from adulation – and remember the victims.

They are the ones who matter here; and they will help us back to goodness.


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Happy endings?

Posted by Simon Parke, 24 February 2020, 9.13am

Do happy endings exist?

There was once a young woman called Jeanette. She was taking her driving test, after failing the first time. When she passed the test, her friends and family were delighted.

‘Great news about you passing your driving test!’ they declared.

‘Could be good news, could be bad news,’ she replied, refusing to predict, staying in the present.

A few months later, while driving her new car, Jeanette had an accident and hurt her shoulder quite badly. She could barely walk and her friends and family were horrified.

‘Terrible news about the accident and shoulder injury,’ they declared.

‘Could be bad news, could be good news,’ replied Jeanette, refusing to predict, staying in the present.

On the path of recovery, Jeanette’s physiotherapist was called John. They got on very well and later that year got engaged. Jeanette’s family and friends were absolutely delighted for her.

‘Wonderful news about you getting engaged, Jeanette!’ they declared.

‘Could be good news, could be bad news,’ she replied, refusing to predict, staying in the present.

In the coming months, Jeanette discovered that two of John’s family were very hostile towards her, which made life difficult. When her friends and family heard about this, they were absolutely furious.

‘Terrible news about John’s awful family!’ they declared.

‘Could be bad news, could be good news,’ replied Jeanette, refusing to predict, staying in the present.

I could go on but maybe that’s enough; but was that a happy ending?

People do insist on elation or despair; but maybe neither is true; for happy endings are more truthfully called ‘uncertain beginnings’.

A happy ending is never an end - and always a beginning. It is to start again after what has been, life after struggle, peace after pain.

But it’s a fragile birth with uncertainty ahead.

We put down the child’s story book with the words ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’

But beyond Disney, no one lives happily ever after; issues arise, things crumble, life is difficult, good news, bad news…‘the sorryness under the grandest, and the grandeur under the sorriest of things’, as Thomas Hardy put it.

So no happy ever after….but grandeur as we inhabit this adventure, for our brief lease of time; and each day touch the flame within, starting again, always starting again -

...this is my happy ending.

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On crime fiction and saviours

Posted by Simon Parke, 18 February 2020, 5.35am

Crime fiction…it inhabits the darkness.

It starts with fracture, ‘the zero hour’, as Agatha Christie called it; the chase, the fear, the scream, the killing and the cover-up.

And then into the darkness comes the detective - trying to make sense of things; trying to bring order to a disordered world.

There’s something redemptive here, something about a saviour. We enter the darkness with them – but only because we believe we’ll be led back to the light.

This is why murder mystery, in all its awfulness, is somehow reassuring. We know, in the end, our saviour will take us home.

And as we enter the dislocation, our choice of detective says a lot about us; and all sorts are available.

What do you look for in your saviour? You might like Jonathan Creek and find Vera really irritating – or vice versa.

Does your saviour need to be a chain-smoking ex-alcoholic, with a disastrous relationship history and an awkward teenage daughter, who has just got back in touch?

Or do you like Miss Marple or Columbo - who come with no baggage at all?

Does the emotionally-repressed Foyle do it for you?

Perhaps you like the irascible and moody Inspector Morse – or perhaps you just wish he’d get his shit in order and stop taking it out on everyone else.

What do you look for in your saviour? And what sort of mood do you want, what sort of darkness?

Raymond Chandler once said that American writers of hard-boiled detective stories like himself had taken murder out of ‘the vicar’s rose garden’ and dropped it in the alley.

His tough, hard-edged crime fiction was a clear departure from the more refined, genteel detective stories of British writers such as Agatha Christie, in which there were a lot of vicars; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with his violin-playing Sherlock Holmes.

Hercule Poirot, Christie’s fastidious armchair super-sleuth, can find the solution to any mystery with his ingenious faculties of deduction, his ‘little grey cells’.

After he solves the case, some upper-class fellow says:

‘Thank God for Poirot - and I don’t often say that about the French!’
‘I’m Belgian’
‘Well, wherever, Poirot - jolly grateful and all that! Sherry, anyone?’

Philip Marlowe, however, Chandler’s detective –  his world was different; a different sort of darkness. Los Angeles in those days was still something of a frontier town - rough, corrupt, and teeming with immigrants in search of the American Dream.

The universe of pulp fiction had no country houses and no butlers but was ‘a shadow realm of crime and dislocation, in which benighted individuals do battle with implacable threats and temptations.’

This is the world in which Philip Marlowe functions in The Big Sleep.

But while the environment is dislocated, Marlowe is not. He is an honourable man and keeps his moral footing in this world, because he is a man of conviction, of principle, who can withstand and overcome the forces of social disruption and personal greed.

With crime fiction, we choose both the colour of the dark and the nature of our saviour.

(My Abbot Peter murder mystery series is my own attempt at this wonderful genre.)


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