Loomis Todd wrote,
I must tell you about the character of Amherst. It is a lady whom all the people call the Myth. She is a sister of Mr. Dickinson, [and] seems to be the climax of all the family oddity. She has not been outside of her house in fifteen years, except once to see a new church, when she crept out at night, [and] viewed it by moonlight. No one who calls upon her mother [and] sister ever sees her, but she allows little children once in a great while, [and] one at a time, to come in, when she gives them cake or candy, or some nicety, for she is very fond of little ones. But more often she lets down the sweetmeat by a string, out of a window, to them. She dresses wholly in white, [and] her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful. She writes finely, but no one ever sees her. (qtd. in Wetzsteon xv)Other sources collaborate and expand upon Loomis Todd’s observations.
It’s true that Emily tended to receive her guests in the dark and often required her conversation partners to stand around corners, behind closed doors, or in another room.
It’s true that she made an odd habit of presenting visitors with a treat or flowers while shyly stating, “This is my introduction.”
It’s true. She was a recluse, of this there is no doubt, yet while she withdrew from so much and so many for so long, in the quiet of her bedroom she wrote poetry that would one day explode across the cultural landscape and live forever.
Scholars continue to debate why Emily Dickinson withdrew for public. Was she ill? Jilted? Oppressed?
While I don’t think that the quest to understand why she lived like she did is entirely fruitless, I don’t think it’s too interesting of a topic either.
Specifically, I think there’s a powerful (and probably sexist) temptation to treat her solitude as a weakness, as a problem to be solved. There’s a temptation to act as through she became a great poet and profound thinker in spite of her seclusion.
However, I’m far more interested in understanding how solitude allowed her to cultivate the habits of mind and spirit that refined her talent and gave shape to her prodigious thinking.
Far from being victimized by the challenges of her life (whatever those challenges were), it seems to me that Emily Dickinson faced them with a remarkable strength forged in the fertile ground of her solitude.
Emily described her solitude’s richness, appropriately enough, in a poem.
Alone, I cannot be—Emily Dickinson was stronger and wiser and a greater truth-teller because of her solitude.
For Hosts—do visit me—
Who baffle Key—
They have no Robes, nor Names—
No Almanacs—nor Climes—
But general Homes
Their Coming, may be known
By Couriers within—
Their going—is not—
For they've never gone—
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to people of faith. After all, the Bible reveals solitude to be a verdant space for profound matters of the spirit.
As the revered spiritual director Dallas Willard noted, solitude is “the creation of an open, empty space in our lives by purposefully abstaining from the interaction with other human beings, so that, freed from competing loyalties, we can be found by God.”
In solitude, Moses received his commission as a leader and the revelation of God’s Law.
In solitude, Hannah laid her grief before the Lord.
In solitude, David prayed and raged and praised God.
Even Jesus sought out solitude—a place where he could pray, listen, and be.
God forged the ministry of John the Baptist in solitude, too.
Given the impression that John makes in the Gospels, it’s not a long stretch of the imagination to envision a letter written by an ancient traveler after an encounter with this legendary man.
I must tell you about the character of the Judean wilderness. It’s a man all the people call the Baptizer. He wears camel’s hair clothes and eats locusts and wild honey. He talks a lot about God, but when the preachers and teachers came down from Jerusalem to see him, he called them snakes and said that they were the ones who really needed to get right with God. He preaches like a wild man, but he still draws a crowd.John was definitely eccentric, of this this is no doubt, but we revere him and his unique ministry, nevertheless, because he pointed to the Humble and Holy One of God who was coming into the own.
Matthew tells us,
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”And people came to John, and lives were changed through him, and, when the time was right, he baptized Jesus on the margins in the Jordan River.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” he said.
The high and mighty must be humbled.
The meek and lowly must be lifted up.
The crooked must be changed as we “make his paths straight.”
It’s no accident that John preached a message like this and engaged in a ministry like this from “the wilderness,” because the wilderness, like Emily Dickinson’s room, was a place of solitude in which revelations were tested, refined, confirmed, and delivered.
Solitude allowed John to cultivate the habits of mind and spirit that shaped his unique mission.
Emily Dickinson and John the Baptist—The Myth and the Baptizer—we don’t normally pair these two with each other, but their stories dramatically demonstrate the same spiritual truth.
Our souls crave solitude for, in the words of the Psalms, we are made to be still and know that God is God.
But satisfying this craving is one of the spiritual pilgrim’s greatest challenges, especially at this time of year.
Or maybe the truth about us is that we struggle to be still and practice solitude during the holiday season because we’re really not so good at it the rest of the year either.
Emily’s insights help us chart a better course.
There is a solitude of spaceEncouraged by the Myth and the Baptizer, we glimpse how fulfilling and fruitful solitude can be and receive an invitation to take up this sacred calling—to do the holy work of drawing near to the One who is Emmanuel, “God with us.”
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself—
Be still and know that God is God.
Go into your solitude, say the sages and saints, and God will meet you there.
Thanks be to God. Amen.