I spent a little time with Karen Solie at Coffee Matters on the corner of Military Road and Ordinance Street in St. John’s. As poets go, she has an unusual power to re-invent herself. The night before, she and the also-splendid Patrick Warner had given a reading at the Ship Pub. Among her new works was a fascinating poem about St. Anthony — not the finder of lost keys, but the earlier one, who headed off to the desert in Egypt. His example of fervour saw such places over-run with solitaries — a mystic behind every dune.
I remember reading Thomas Merton on these desert fathers — a little book called Wisdom of the Desert based on an ancient collection of texts called the Verba Seniorum — full of humane tales about how to make the mad act of going to the desert into a sane one. Of course, there were a good many of those desert fathers who stayed crazy, including a fellow who stuck his fingers into a candle repeatedly through a long night of sexual urges: somehow he ignited a spiritual fire in his hands.
Karen is thinking a lot about these long-ago people, as Heaney did in his Station Island. They were all over Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa. There was a contingent who lived in caves in Ireland and Scotland. They were laying a huge bet on the possibility of a fulfilling life of contemplation. Nowadays no one wants to run such a high table. I certainly don’t.
Every now and again, some modern person seems to make a go of the hermit’s life. The sharp-tongued art historian Sister Wendy Beckett decided to vanish, though the cameras seek her out still. Merton himself was a most sociable hermit — ask Joan Baez.
At 55, I have come to think a lot about separateness and privacy. I live in an apartment in the middle of Toronto — I can’t think of a desert to go to. Twice married, I have a history of shipwrecks. Most days I attend mid-day Mass at the Newman Centre. My prayer is generally a wordless condition of adoration. Often I imagine the host in my hands as an offering. There is no effort to these things — they seek me out far more than I seek them. At most, I consent to my small piece of the desert.