Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/01/2011

On being alone—a fact of consciousness

At the risk of–of what risk, I’m not sure–I write about two experiences that haunt me—because I have no ability to sort out what happened or what (if anything) the experiences mean. This began as one of those private writings begins without audience in mind. Now I have an audience. In purely rhetorical terms—the rhetorical triangle of writer, reader, and text—I don’t know what that means.

In 1989 I was curious about my recurring sense that I belonged in a monastery—since my first monastic retreat in 1970. The quaintness, the quiet, the loneliness while in community, and the constant recitation and singing of forms of liturgy that, even then—as is almost absolute now—I knew I did not “believe” in any traditional sense moved me (and still can move me) to the core of my self.

On St. Steven’s Day 1992 I went off to an Episcopal monastery on the Hudson River in New York and stayed until after the Feast of the Epiphany, for a vocational retreat. The brothers decided I was not monk material. They were wrong. Not for any “spiritual” reason, but because I would have liked the last twenty years to contemplate. I’d have had a much easier time of it had I not had to live in this world. Not a valid reason to be a monk, you say? How do you know?

Seen in this way, the solitary life becomes not a special calling of a few rare souls, but the vocation of all who seek to “make something” of their lives. Nor is it simply an individual, personal project. Set within a communal context, it can be understood as contributing to a larger cultural project of reimagining our deepest values and commitments (1).

I was sitting on a stone bench in the back yard of the monastery, and someone showed up. I felt like Rosencrantz (in He and Guildenstern Are Dead), “You march in here without so much as a by your leave and expect me to take in every lunatic you try to pass off. . .” Suddenly it was midnight in the Garden of Gethsemane, and this guy was beside me praying. Believe me, it was no joke. Jesus was there. Well, this man—this very real human being—was there letting me know he was Jesus. If Jesus was going to show up in West Park, New York, he could have had the decency to look like a Sallman portait. But he was an ordinary guy. He wanted to make sure I knew he was real, and then he vanished.

I didn’t tell anyone for a long time (certainly not the Brothers because I didn’t want them to think I was a religious nut or something).  I don’t think it was Jesus at all. I’m not sure it was a hallucination, but I may be wrong. I was in a place of heightened religious fervor (not the monks—me). So who knows. I’ve never had another visitation like it. Whatever it was, it was a discrete experience for me.  After a year or two I told my shrink. He was not concerned. He was a Jungian, and wanted me to go to Jerusalem and see the Wailing Wall because he thought I needed to see the place where all of that religious stuff started.

I’m not certain why I need to write about that today. Or why it seems related to the next experience. Seventeen years later I was lying on my bed at Millwood Hospital (“Center for Mental Health and Chemical Dependency Care”) in Arlington, Texas. I was there because I wanted to kill myself, for good reason. My partner had died, I’d had to move—everything (it seemed to me) in my life was either a mess or simply falling apart. Especially me. But the depression wasn’t the “result” of all of those things. It was coming completely from inside.

You can cry, but not alone in your room

You can cry, but not alone in your room

I was crying (sobbing without any attempt to control it) and someone showed up. It wasn’t Jesus, thank goodness, but one of the staff who told me it was OK to cry, but not alone in my room. So I trundled off behind him and went and sat in the “common” room for a long time and cried, and everyone else cleared out. Even the crazies.

Jung became convinced that the unconscious was the bridge to the mystical, soul-full, dimension of the human personality. Important as it had been to discover and explore the unconscious in the interests of the mentally ill, Jung now recognized the contents of the unconscious as hosting life or death for the soul’s journey to wholeness (2).

I came across these articles I’ve quoted looking for stuff on “solitude.” I live alone. I don’t have a lover. I didn’t watch the Oscars because I find that sort of thing tedious beyond words. I go to the opera and a play now and then (I hate to go to movies by myself). For some time I felt sorry for myself, but that’s changing. I think it’s just fine to be alone.

Jung wrote: “You’re quite right: the main interest of my work is not concerned with the treatment of neurosis, but rather with the approach to the numinous”. . . Jung had a lifelong preoccupation with the mysterious nature of God and experienced divine demands placed upon him since his youth (3).

What on earth am I doing? If I wanted to be a monk but didn’t believe what they believed (and believe even less now) why am I quoting stuff about Jung’s preoccupation with the mysterious nature of God? There’s something about being alone—not lonely, but alone—without running to the monastery to meet Jesus or hiding in a hospital for mental health care—that can (I think I’m experiencing it more and more) clear the head. It’s liberating. I’m beginning to feel liberated.

For days I’ve railed on about the imprecise (manipulative?) constant use of the word “spiritual.” I’d rather use Jung’s word— Rudolf Otto’s word—“numinous.” I think Otto meant a sense of “transcendence.” Not belief, not religion, not spirituality. Nothing that needs to be searched for. No monastery, no mental hospital. Simply what is. I wonder if one doesn’t come to the numinous by ignoring it. Perhaps it’s part of simply discovering our true identity.

The new Gethsemane?

The new Gethsemane?

Our humanity. . . does not derive from a confident sense that the things that are ours belong to us. . .  Property, status, function, the whole train of social and moral relations. . . between none of these things and ourselves can there be the kind of happy fit that defines a human identity. To be deprived, therefore, of the assurance that there is such a fit is. . .a given fact of consciousness (4).

Sorry to be corny/ostentatious/idiotic/confused, but I’m rather enjoying a growing sense that there’s very little with which I have “the kind of happy fit” with which I define my identity. No one needs me to write about all this. It’s not a secret. I’m just going on record to say I may be beginning to understand. That may change next week, but it’s true today.
(1) Burton-Christie, Douglas. “The Work of Loneliness: Solitude, Emptiness, and Compassion.” Anglican Theological Review 88.1 (2006): 25-45.
(2) Clendenen, Avis. “Hildegard, Jung, and the Dark Side of God.” Magistra 16.2 (2010): 26-76.
(3) Clendenen, ibid.
(4) Bromwich, David. “Alienation and Belonging to Humanity.” Social Research 58.1 (Spring 1991).


  1. […] have written before about my experience of making a vocational retreat in 1992 at the Monastery of the Holy Cross, an Episcopal monastery in West Park, New York, directly […]



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