Interview: Silent witness
Maggie Ross, the Anglican solitary, talks to Stephen Tomkins about the work of silence
Maggie Ross was five when she entered her first church, Washington Cathedral, and it had an impact on her that changed her life. As an adult, she explored the monastic life and eventually became a solitary, the first, apparently, to be publicly professed by any Church since the Reformation. Since then, she has spent 35 years exploring silence and contemplation.
One of the fruits of her solitude is Silence: A user’s guide (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2014) which explores how silence can transfigure the lives of those who embrace it, and of those around them, and how silence has been marginalised in Christian life. As gentle as her manner is in person, her criticism of the deficiency of contemporary Christianity is severe.
Reform met her in Oxford, where she lives “hiding in plain sight”. She writes under a pseudonym and has not allowed her photograph to be taken for decades.
You first went to church at the age of five, which suggests that you didn’t have a Christian upbringing.
I didn’t, no. My childhood was materially generous, but psychologically and spiritually not so much. My parents, like a lot of people who came out of the depression and the Jazz Age, were really two children looking to each other for comfort. So the comfort didn’t come a whole lot to the kids. I think they saw me as a threat.
I had already decided I wanted to be a religious when I went to Stanford University during Vatican II. Observers and periti [theologians] from the council were teaching religious studies, so it was theologically very broad. It was an exciting time – the flowering of the ecumenical movement which has sadly come to not much.
I joined an Anglican community in New York state, but after Vatican II it was clear the community was going to fall apart. I lived in New York [city] for nine years, studying psychoanalysis centring on the interior life. I worked in the publishing industry and sang professionally.
I decided New York was killing me and took up an invitation to run a vineyard in northern California. Ironically, up the hillside from the vineyard was a retreat centre called Bishop’s Ranch run by some Franciscans I had met in the community I went to. The guardian there said to me: “You’re a solitary. And we’re going to help you do it.”
How he knew that, I don’t know, because I had never spoken about it to anyone, but I had come to that conclusion. They saw me through three years of re-entry into religious life and in 1980 I was professed in the cathedral in New York.
I lived in wild places, including a tent on a mountainside and a cabin in Northern California. In 1984 I came to Oxford to do research and I’m still here.
How did you become aware that the contemplative life was for you?
When I had that experience when I was five – or rather that non-experience, because my self-consciousness was suspended – there were residual effects. I said to myself that whatever that was, I wanted to give my life to it. After that there was really no other option.
So far as we know, I was the first solitary to be publicly professed since the Reformation. It caused a great stink among the Anglican religious communities.
Because I was out of their control. I spent a good deal of time in my first years dealing with persecution and slander. Community is a beautiful way of life, but people get caught up in class and manners. Politics in a monastery can be consuming…
This is an extract from the June 2015 edition of Reform.