Sara and I sat on the pebbles as Zoë, her dog, skittered ahead on her sharp claws. Like a spiritual goal, Zoë disappeared at intervals, where the beach dipped or a boulder proved too irresistible a surface not to pee on.
Sara had recently returned from a 40-day, silent retreat in the Sinai Desert.
‘I like desert silence better than any other sort,’ said Sara. ‘Because it is very, intensely silent.’
I had come to south-western Scotland to talk to Sara Maitland – writer, Catholic convert and recluse – about her decision, 24 years ago at the age of 47, to break with family and friends and commit to a life of silence and solitude.
Compared with the great highland wildernesses of Wester Ross or Sutherland, Sara’s neck of the woods, on the depopulated peat moors of northern Galloway, is something of a hideout in plain sight, close to the English border and overlooked by the hordes of tourists whistling past on the A74 to Glasgow.
From her isolated shepherd’s cottage high on the moor, we had driven down to the coast to visit Ninian’s Cave, reputedly the personal retreat of a fifth-century missionary whose church at Whithorn, five miles away, has a claim to being the birthplace of Scottish Christianity.
We were alone, save for Zoë. Just above the horizon, roughly where Ireland ought to be, the winter sun had diffused into a smear of blinding light, transmuting the stony beach into gold. We sat and listened to the waves bid the shoreline be quiet. From somewhere inland, a sandpiper’s cry registered less as sound than as part of the stillness.
What sort of person, I wondered, would find this degree of tranquillity wanting – to the extent of feeling a need to retreat to the Egyptian desert for 40 days?
Over the 18 months I spent researching my new book on spiritual and secular retreat, I talked to monks, hermits and recluses from suburban Manchester to San Francisco, the Aegean to the Arctic Circle.
If anything united them, it was this: a dissatisfaction with what we might ordinarily think of as isolation, a yearning to go deeper into the silence and solitude which, for Sara, cleared the way for a radical encounter with the Divine.
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