Interview: By faith, alone
Terry Waite, author and former hostage negotiator, talks to Stephen Tomkins
Terry Waite is in the paradoxical position of having become a very public figure through one of the most private experiences imaginable. As the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Envoy in the 1980s, Mr Waite successfully negotiated the release of numerous hostages in Iran, Libya and Lebanon. On 20 January 1987, he was taken hostage himself in Beirut and was held for 1,763 days. Four out his five years in captivity were spent in solitary confinement.
Since his release in 1991, Mr Waite has written and lectured on his experience of confinement and on the spirituality of solitude and silence. His most recent book, Solitude, was published by SPCK in 2017, as a companion volume to Out of the Silence: Memories, poems, reflections published the previous year. He has founded charities for international development and for the support of hostage families. He talked to Reform from the top of a hill in Cornwall, where he had gone in search of phone signal.
I’ve heard you say that you considered entering the monastic life when you were young.
I did. I wanted to use my life in what I thought might be a creative way, and that is one way of doing so. But it wasn’t for me. I’ve also been pressed on many an occasion to go for ordination, and looking back I’m awfully glad that I didn’t, although it would have offered securities that were not open to someone like myself. It’s a question of trying to discern your own vocation.
You see, I’m intrigued that someone who has been through such an ordeal of involuntary solitude, should these days talk so warmly about enjoyment of voluntary solitude as you do in your books. Have you always had that leaning? Or do you think it’s been fostered by your experience of captivity?
I think there’s always been an element of it in me. I don’t think by any means that I am a total solitary, someone who wants to go off and live in the desert and never see another living soul. I just find that within one’s total make up there is space for solitude.
It was often said to me when I was younger: ‘You should get away and take some quiet away from the business of life.’ When I took that advice and went away, I found I couldn’t enjoy it. A thousand thoughts were buzzing through my head. In later life, I learned that if you are really going to enjoy solitude and get the maximum from it, you have to go through the discipline of learning how to experience it, how to get into it. It doesn’t necessarily come quickly or easily. But it is an important part of life, because it forces you to face yourself as you are, the positives and negatives of one’s character.
Your book, Solitude, is a kind of travel book, and you meet people in some very remote locations. But it also includes some less obvious exemplars of solitude – spies, an old man in central Chicago. What made you choose the people you visited?
I wanted to include a wide selection of people who experience different forms of solitude. The book ranges from people who have chosen to live in the most remote regions in the middle of Australia, to those who have it forced upon them by circumstances, such as Svetlana Stalin, who had a form of solitude forced on her not through any fault of her own, but because of the actions of her father.
And there are people who’ve chosen an unusual form of solitude, such as George Blake the double agent. He had to keep a certain part of his life totally apart from anyone close to him. His wife, when he was eventually apprehended, hadn’t the faintest idea of his double dealing. I wrote a poem about that in my book Out of the Silence, which started: ‘I knew you but I never knew you.’…
This is an extract from an article that was published in the July/August 2018 edition of Reform