Image credit: Sophie Lévy Burton
I DIDN’T EXPECT her to be so funny. The image I’d formed of Sara Maitland – a pale solitary with intent eyes and wonderfully untamed hair – had somehow become coupled with distance and seriousness in my mind. Perhaps understandably so. She’s written books about virtue and women saints, the Stations of the Cross, the discipline of solitude, and a particularly impressive one about the experience of silence. I first heard it (ironically) read aloud in a monastic refectory. At the time I’d clocked the subtitle – ‘a journey in search of the pleasures and powers of silence’ – and recognised in Maitland a fellow pilgrim, one not averse to admitting that the ascetical can not only be a source of strength, but also a source of pleasure. Something to be relished, not merely undertaken.
Flamboyantly talented, Sara grew up in a large, energetic family in London, studied English at Oxford, spent 21 years as a vicar’s wife in London’s East End, had two marvellous children, and has worked in cinema with Stanley Kubrik. She has written novels, short story collections, and a great deal of non-fiction, including not only theology, but a biography of the cross-dressing Victorian music hall entertainer, Vesta Tilley. I am curious to know more about how such a free-spirited and independent woman as Maitland came not only to take on board institutional Christianity, but Rome (she converted in her 40s), and what nourishes her in her daily life these days as a wilderness-dwelling solitary.
There is a streak of danger in everything she does. I’d picked up on this fierce and vibrant undercurrent in her collection of short stories, Gossip From the Forest, where terror and darkness intertwine with the magical and the raw in an eclectic range of re-imagined fairy tales. Particularly horrifying was the brutal Far North (made into a film starring Sean Bean in 2007), based on an Inuit myth. Listening to Sara’s strong, forthright voice I realise that this edgy vitality has something to do with a capacity for bold, adventurous living, and for risk. That same trait manifests itself elsewhere as political outspokenness and courage (evident as early as 1975 in her A Map of the New Country: Women and Christianity) and her prescient, holy feminism long before it was fashionable in mainstream religious circles. In Maitland’s case, risk is only a short step away from faith, best understood, perhaps, as a leap in the dark.
SM: I came from a very large and noisy family where ideas and opinions were always discussed, and there was a lot of emotion and activity. We all talked at once and there was always room for disagreement. My parents enabled a kind of openness and robustness, so that when I converted to radical feminism at the age of 20, my father – who didn’t necessarily share my views – was perfectly happy, because he was glad to have an intelligent daughter. That kind of freedom was a given.
CC: Would you say that that atmosphere of acceptance, and the encouragement you were given to express yourself from a young age, enabled not only the development of your voice and creativity as a writer, but also the bolder steps you took later, steps around faith and solitude? Paradoxically, perhaps, even your ability to be alone?
SM: Yes, my family was, and still is, a source of tremendous strength. There is something freeing in unconditional acceptance.
Sara Maitland – Image credit: Sophie Lévy Burton
CC: It seems you have gone from being a very verbal, outwardly orientated person to being a very silent, contemplative one. How did that transition come about?
SM: It’s true I’ve moved from a noisy, word-filled kind of life to a very silent one, but I would never say that the life I now live is wordless. As a Christian, words in general are very important. It would be impossible to be wordless, but I certainly am silent.
CC: Was it an effortless transition or was it something really difficult?
SM: It was not effortless, because it takes a lot of effort in our society today to be silent. I would say that it happened gradually, but it was not painful.
CC: You moved to the countryside after 20 years of marriage. Did the landscape of rural Northamptonshire shape your spirituality in any way?
SM: My love of the countryside started earlier, in Scotland, where I spent a lot of time as a child. But the most proper ‘hermit landscape’ I’ve ever lived in was when I was in Weardale, right up at the top of the moor, in County Durham.
CC: I imagine where you live now is more akin to the desert.
SM: Where I live now is the opposite of the desert, in that it rains all the time! There’s something tough in living alone in the countryside, but I wouldn’t call it ascetical. There’s naturally some physical hardship, but I don’t believe in psychological asceticism. I don’t know of any hermit who gave up reading, for example, in the Christian tradition.
CC: Has being a solitary changed the way you read?
SM: That’s a very interesting question, and I’m not yet sure what the answer is. It’s complicated for two reasons. One is the actual physical difficulty of getting reading material. It’s not only not being able to get books delivered easily but there’s also that thing of not being able to wander into a bookshop and browse, and discover new things that way. One’s choice and scope of reading material is naturally more limited.
CC: Do you consider yourself to be living in the tradition of the desert fathers?
SM: Well, I don’t live according to a very strict regime – for example, I smoke and I eat meat, so Saint Anthony would probably not approve of my living style.
CC: Do you go along with the idea that self-denial is an aid to spiritual life?
SM: Well, I do go along with it, but I don’t do it. There’s no doubt that Anthony was an ascetic to an extent that was loony. He spent the first 20 years in complete isolation to the point that he got his food supplies by people chucking them over the wall. You wouldn’t get away with it if you wanted to live like that now.
CC: Are you living under any kind of Rule, and do you make promises of chastity or take Vows?
SM: I’ve decided not to take Vows to the Bishop. We talked about it, and I know many hermits do go down that route, but in the end it seemed unnecessary.
CC: Do you feel the solitude and silence are a help to creativity?
SM: I would never make a general statement about that, but I would say that they are a huge help to my personal creativity. For many women of my age, solitude is a real help to getting things done, simply because we have been so conditioned to spend our time being of service to others.
CC: What do you understand by the concept of the soul?
SM: It’s all those parts of us that we know exist, but that don’t fit neatly into a psychoanalytic scheme. It’s the parts that elude material or concrete definition.
CC: There’s a real sense of pilgrimage in your life, by which I mean a series of bold changes underpinned by a tremendous sense of quest. How did your transition into overt faith and/or religion happen?
SM: My future husband (who went on to become an Anglican priest) put me on the spot when he said: Come on, either you believe or you don’t! He presented it as something straightforward. I stopped for a moment and realised I didn’t need even to make a decision. It was completely obvious to me there was a God. It was as simple as that.
CC: I wonder how the patriarchal heritage of the Church sits with your liberal, searching spirit.
SM: Being in the Church is like having a very irritating grandmother. You may find her maddening at times, but she’s still your grandmother! That’s what relationships are like. Looking for something sanitised and ‘perfect’ is a great mistake. Real life is never like that.
CC: And yet, the Church is called to reform, and to develop and change effectively, in an ever-greater approximation of a ‘true response’.
SM: Like all of us, the Church as a body is in a state of pilgrimage.
CC: Looking at vocation, a call implies a caller, and that in turn implies a very personal relationship at the heart of it. Some have described their sense of being called as both personal and irresistible. Did you feel any of that pressure or tension?
SM: I felt clearly that there was a personal God behind it. But at the same time, I never felt it as something irresistible. There is always room for us to choose and find our way.
CC: Let’s talk about your other calling then, which, surely, must be to be a writer. You are not only a contemplative, but a tremendous storyteller. The writing that emerges from your silence is full of anecdote and human colour. It is also full of animals, both wild and tame. Is this something to do with your engagement with fairy tales?
Sara Maitland – Image credit: Sophie Lévy Burton
SM: Well, it’s very difficult to write a completely original story. All the good stories have already been written. They are there in myth, and in fairy tale. Many of these stories are very ancient, and we recognise them when we encounter them because of how they connect with our own experience. They are full of human patterns and archetypes.
CC: I suppose the stories that really worked, the perennial ones, sustained whole communities. The Passover story, the Eucharist. But going back to your path into a faith tradition, was it a simple assent to God, or was it denominationally specific? Might you, under other circumstances, have become a Quaker or a Russian Orthodox, for example?
SM: At the moment I realised I believed in God it felt like a simple and very intuitive embracing of theism, but looking back I realise that what I was doing was going back to my roots.
CC: So, beyond all the talk in your life, God and Christianity were just there, as part of your culture. Taking things further, did you ever consider the priesthood?
SM: No, I did not. One of the things with my 1975 book, A Map of the New Country: Women and Christianity, that has got me into a lot of trouble ever since, is that a lot of people thought it was very anti the priesthood. But that kind of argument is not what I am interested in. The book is about a communal journey into a new land.
CC: Today there is a huge appetite for books about the natural world. Do you feel your writing about deserts, wilderness, and forests is part of the ‘new nature writing’?
SM: Yes, I do feel some kinship with that movement.
CC: And yet what’s distinctive is that your nature writing is shot through with the supernatural. It’s also very wide-ranging and diverse. Aren’t the deserts of the biblical tradition and the forests of fairy tales worlds apart?
SM: Oh, forests and deserts are terribly alike. They have a number of things in common, They are both very weather-dependent, for a start. Deserts are slightly more reliable. The Sahara is not a normal desert. And the Sinai Desert has rock as well as sand. But for my own experience, I prefer the word wilderness. We’re talking big skies, and lots of wildlife. All sorts of vibrant plant and bird and animal life.
CC: That’s certainly something reflected in your short stories. I’ve noticed that your books, when they’re not pointing to silence and transcendence, are often full of wildness. There’s something elemental, even violent, and with startling animal presences in many of them. You seem to relish the rough with the smooth.
SM: Well, you get that in the Old Testament, don’t you? And, of course, in fairy stories.
CC: Yes, indeed. So you’re comfortable with the wild, and with the natural and the extreme, but you are not going out of your way to look for a specific kind of extreme ‘experience’. Is that right? You take things as they come.
SM: Well, it can’t fail to make you happy being out here, in all this beauty, during lockdown. I have oystercatchers within yards of my bedroom window. They are rather large birds with six-inch-long beaks. Then there are curlews that leave the coast in order to nest, and they make a most beautiful noise. And then there’s the constant background quality of the silence. And the clarity of the sky. Star-scapes. Lack of pollution. You can hear what the spirit is saying to you. You can hear everything much better.
CC: You talk about being drawn ‘joyfully into the void’ in your A Book of Silence. Considering the character of the landscape where you now live, as a hermit, I can see why void is a word you might use. It is so open, and the skies are so vast. But I wonder how these two relate, the void and the sense of presence?
SM: Well, of course there’s a sense of presence out here, helped by the sense of space. I like wide-open skies, and spaces, and being able to see far. I’m not the only person living a solitary life who needs a great amount of view. That yearning is well attested, not only by the early Christian hermits, and biblically, but ahistorically too. You see it happening everywhere, across time and across cultures.
CC: So, there’s something primal, perhaps, linked to the visual and spatial?
SM: Yes, it’s visual and spatial, that strong relationship with a view. It’s something I haven’t written about very much, but I’d like to write about more, the question of what landscapes go with what kind of inner journeys. There’s definitely a reflection of the one in the other. I spent 40 days in the Sinai Desert, because I felt it had the particular quality of whatever it is that I think I’m looking for. And it seems to come down to having big views, or being in landscape that is at least fairly ‘stripped down’. Here, for example, I can’t see anything except rough grass for miles out of the window.
CC: It’s powerful, isn’t it? One can find something like that in the Northumberland National Park. I wonder what it is about the absence of stuff – you know, one tree in a lonely landscape – that can activate something, trigger a sense of the numinous?
SM: I think responses can involve something as simple as personal preference. We all have different inner landscapes, differently formed psyches. I’d go so far as to say there isn’t such a thing as a ‘God landscape’. Some people will find it in the city, others by the sea, others in the desert.
CC: Places can be as important for us as the people who inspire or support us spiritually. But then again, a place that offers us the silence and space that we need isn’t an end in itself. Would you use the language of vocation here, or talk about going out into the wilderness to seek God?
SM: Yes, absolutely I would. However, vocation to a particular place or way of life is a complicated thing. Some people might be walking along the road and suddenly God smites them from a cloud, and they end up sitting on a pillar for the rest of their lives. But those people are a tiny minority of cases. In many ways it’s decided simply by ‘what works for you’. You might have to go and be in different landscapes first. I drove up a little single-track road that I didn’t even know was there, between two other larger ones, and found myself in a valley, and immediately I thought, this is it. I need to live here. It was completely intuitive.
CC: And involved some element of encounter?
SM: Yes. Solitude in a Christian context is never just a void. There’s the whole dimension of presence, and the fact that there’s an encounter that takes place when you open yourself. But, to ground it, this thing about having long views is remarkably important.
CC: A recognition that we are both body and soul, and that every specific encounter takes place through specific outward realities, as well as inward ones? There’s something like a sacramental in that, surely.
SM: I think that’s right. And it’s why I’ve always thought the anchorite tradition was so unfair on women. They were stuck in a little cell, often with no space and no view!
CC: You’ve said somewhere that you ‘incline to excess’. Did you go into the Scottish countryside looking for extremity? And, if so, did you find it?
SM: I certainly found what I needed, although extremity is not necessarily the word I would choose. But I am someone who tends to take things as far as I can …
CC: Do you consider yourself to be living a radical life?
SM: St Anthony of course would not have said so. What I’m doing is really very down to earth. But then again, do bear in mind that all those early hermits had food brought to them every day. They weren’t really living on air.
CC: There are aspects of your chosen life that must be harsh. Is there an inherent recklessness built into Christianity, do you think? A recklessness that might have been domesticated out of it in parts of the Church? I wonder whether, in going out there, you were trying to recapture something of the early edge and authenticity?
SM: That was not a conscious aim. I think there are very different ways of responding to God, and of embodying the Christian message. For some it might be getting married and having 14 children, and a dearly loved husband, and no silence whatsoever. There is no one ‘right way’ of doing it.
CC: But you are committed to the solitary life now?
SM: Absolutely, it is a way of life that I have embraced completely. But I should say that I’m not looking for a particular kind of ‘experience’. For me contemplation is more like a framework, and a discipline. It’s not an end in itself.
CC: What’s remarkable for a Christian hermit is that you don’t live anywhere near a church. Do you say the Divine Office, or have some other regular practice or structure?
SM: I do, and I don’t. I use it as a space, and of course it is there on the days when you really can’t do anything else. I use the modern Catholic breviary, but it’s always as a springboard never a straitjacket. I sometimes say all the offices, but sometimes I don’t need to say them all. Prayer can take you anywhere. You need to be open to the movement of the spirit, which, if it’s a real encounter, always brings deeper knowledge and freedom.
CC: Would you say there is a mysticism inherent in the solitude?
SM: I am very suspicious of the word ‘mysticism’, which has been so bandied about, and is so vaguely defined these days. It can be used to mean all sorts of different things. I prefer the word ‘contemplative’. Being contemplative means being open to truth.
OCTOBER 2022 Catherine Coldstream MONK
Catherine Coldstream is represented by Patrick Walsh at PEW Literary.
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