Friday, August 11, 2006

The Hermit of Manana Island

"Ray Phillips was born in 1892, attended the University of Maine, fought in World War I, held down a job in New York City in the bustling 1920s, and then, seemingly on a whim, happily decided to leave it all behind for a life of solitude on the tiny, isolated island of Manana, Maine. He spent the rest of his life there, with a herd of sheep and a gander, and a small wooden rowboat, in a shack made out of materials that washed up onto the shore."

- taken from

Yesterday, my wife and I hiked the sun-washed coastal trails and soft sun-dappled pine woods of Monhegan Island, and from time to time, across the tiny harbor, we could see the pool of rock and grassy fields that Ray called home for some 40 years: Manana Island.

Monhegan Island (population 65 year-round) has its comforts and plenty of tourism; every other home there seems to have a gallery or studio attached to it. But it is a rustic, out-of-the-way place. Year round life there is not easy, for all the romance of the place. Angry storms pound its rocky shores, and the winter can howl like a ravenous wolf. It's a 10 mile trek over sea swells and salty air to the mainland. But imagine living as Ray Phillips lived. Imagine life unplugged; no television, no cell phone, no e-mail, no radio waves or microwaves...

Just.... waves.

Over 40 years of the sound of the surf, the cry of the gulls, and the click-clak of crabs on polished stones.

Thoreau said "It is life nearest the bone where it is sweetest." But how many of us are willing to dig that deeply? To strip away the superfluities of our 21st century lives and be barren? Live empty? I think it's all about trust. Do we believe God will fill us? Is the Infinite Truth of who we are and who God is enough to satisfy our aching hearts? Or will we give in and grasp for the finite things that always leave us hungry?

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said it's only when we are empty that God can fill us. But I have so much stuff inside! The clutter of comforts, the baggage of fear and worry. I'm learning that the letting go is mostly of a spiritual nature; leaving the material things behind is only a help and a beginning to the deeper purification of the heart.

So the question is "Can I live slowly? Can I let go of non-essentials as a way of preparing my heart for Life's Deepest Mystery, for the indwelling of the One?" For God does not desire to leave us barren, or empty. No man is meant to be just an island, sun-bleached and solitary, looking out on the beauty of creation. We're meant to become the very house of the Creator! The solitude we taste in our lives is meant to point us to the ultimate union we are called to. A communion of saints, circled 'round the Heart of God.

So we should seek solitude from time to time, and not fear it. We should carve out a quiet space in every day where we "do" nothing. Maybe then we'll discover something, or better still, that Someone, who is Everything our hearts are pining for.


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