In a Hiber-nation

On 25th March 2020, the New Zealand government declared a State of Emergency. The nation moved to Alert Level 4 and went into lockdown for at least four weeks.

As I write, individuals are required by the government to self-isolate within their “bubbles”, to protect themselves and others from the Covid-19 pandemic.[1] This is a situation entirely without precedent in New Zealand in regard to restrictions on freedom of movement, in the hopes to “flatten the curve” and potentially save thousands of lives.[2] New Zealanders have largely responded to the restrictions positively, even though we are regarded by some as being a nation of people with “an independent streak.”[3] We are currently keeping a two-metre distance from each other while out walking with children, or dogs; keeping our social distance while queuing outside supermarkets, dairies, and chemists. Apart from forays out for essential services and fresh air, we as a nation are bunkering down, staying within our bubbles; a nation on home detention.

I am aware that some people find lockdown torturous. Some in their bubble are suffering with intense fears of being alone.[4] For others, particularly though but not exclusively women, there is a risk that life in their bubbles can become more dangerous if confined with a partner who is angry or abusive.[5] For others, the lockdown has been a time of going inward; being an introvert, slipping off the bonds of some social obligations, and just being. I’ve heard the word “bliss” being used; of not only loving lockdown but “adoring” it. I heard a friend say that, minus the virus, they would want a month of self-isolation every year, as a time to retreat.

Bliss. Torture.

Home detention. Retreat.

This sums up the polar opposites of response to our self-isolation within our bubbles. As a counsellor, I feel like challenging the term “self-isolation,” when used to describe our living spaces. It sounds like I am in isolation from myself. I also find the word “exile” accentuating of distance and separation. I have been employing words like “hibernation” and “retreat.” In this writing, I will explore these metaphors to see what they might offer us.

Hibernation is a state of being dormant or sleeping through winter months. It also means “an extended period of remaining inactive or indoors.”[6] When related to computers, hibernation means that its operating system closes down the computer remains switched on. Using both these metaphors, hibernation is a time of going inward, closing down some elements of life (inaction), waiting, and resting.

Having spent a number of years living in the northern hemisphere, I relate to the notion of hibernation. I relate to the distinct seasons of some parts of Europe, where each turn of season is telegraphed through the arrival of particular birds, flowers, and buds, as well as different kinds of clouds. In mid-winter, the cold drives people inside; to light up their houses and drink warm wine; to put extra blankets on the bed and eat comforting puddings with custard. There is a kind of dormancy; of cocooning, waiting, building up reserves. Moving back to the upper North Island of New Zealand after living in England for a number of years, I missed the depth of winter, and the sense of being able to retreat: to spend time indoors, to think and be quiet; and all without feeling cut off from community and the social world.

As well as a season of hibernation, a second way of viewing lockdown is as a potential for some kind of retreat. I am aware that when talking about self-isolation as a “retreat” that elements of privilege appear. The home environment of parents with young children or solo parents with young children without practical familial support creates a situation that is extremely demanding, stressful and unrelenting. I want to acknowledge this. I also want to recognise those many New Zealanders who are living alone or living in a bubble with one or two other adults, for whom self-isolation does provide an opportunity for retreat from some social obligations and space to be alone.

To focus on the notion of retreat, during the height of his ministry, Jesus retreated from the crowds. As Luke 5:16 says: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (NIV). After ministering to the people, Jesus withdrew from others, praying in the wilderness (Mark 1:35), and on a mountain (Luke 6:12). Crump argues that in Luke’s Gospel text, the author particularly emphasizes the deliberate intent of Jesus in withdrawing, in retreating in order to pray; not to avoid the crowds, but to seek the Father.[7] Crump also argues that through Jesus’ deliberate retreat into the wilderness/lonely place, he was then able to return with enhanced energy and power to continue his ministry. In the next verse (Luke 5:17) we read that crowds had come “from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick” (NIV). In this way, Jesus “retreats not only for his own sake, but for the sake of his ministry to others.”[8]

Many Christians have sought to imitate Christ in his times/seasons of retreat from others, in order to know the Father. For example, within the Roman Catholic tradition, Carmelite nuns seek to imitate Christ in turning aside to pray and be alone with God. While all religious orders focus on prayer, for Carmelites prayer alone is their spiritual “work.” Their solitude facilitates a prayer that may “make one free for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”[9] It is prayer as “a response to God’s desire to be the dynamic energy of human existence.”[10] As well as maintaining practices of solitude, Carmelites also live in a community. Thus, their work focuses on an issue at “the very heart of human existence… the challenge to be a person and at the same time to be in relationship with others.”[11]

In New Zealand, it can be difficult to draw away from the entanglements of relationships, responsibilities, and ministries in order to have pockets of solitude. Sometimes people choose to go on three-day silent or semi-silent retreats, hoping to reconnect with themselves, nature, and God. Retreats can contain three movements: a disconnecting from the necessary responsibilities of adult life, a being in solitude or semi-solitude, and then reconnecting with usual life again. In The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life, Huston outlines a sequence of contemplative practices which can be enacted in everyday life.[12] She names these movements as withdrawing and taking stock, cleansing and finding strength, discovering a new community, facing the demons, and returning to the world.[13]

Going on a retreat and withdrawing can facilitate a reconnecting with oneself, and with one’s personal history. This can be a challenge as one’s own story and recent/past experiences can become more real, more prominent away from the noise of distractions. Anxiety can appear, as can anger, or grieving, which can be discussed with a spiritual director while one is on retreat. Retreats can also be a time of connecting again with nature; seeing more clearly the trees, clouds, and changes of seasons. And of course, retreats can allow greater time to be open to the nudging of the Holy Spirit. In this way, “solitude is reflective of intentionality and intentionality is another name for desire. And desire creates the sensitivity to notice God’s presence in the world and in our lives.” [14]

In his classic work, Celebration of Discipline, Foster advocates for a movement to a lonely place in order to know God more deeply.[15] Foster highlights the value of solitude as a way “to engage with God’s presence, whether we take a silent walk in the early morning, ride the bus to work, wash dishes while the kids nap, or even take a nap ourselves.”[16] Yet, while outer solitude helps foster inner stillness, it does not in itself create it. Catholic Abbot Jamison writes about the task of “building silence” into your life, and how exterior silence can help to “let inner silence grow.” [17]

During a lockdown, one might be able to build some spaces of outer silence which may create some inner stillness. This building of outer/inner stillness might involve switching off social media for a while. It might be praying, journaling, creating art or craft, and reading. Retreat might involve being in nature in one’s garden, or walking and observing everything around you. This is not an exile or isolation from self, but another kind of connectedness. Walking near my home in West Auckland, I recently noticed in particular, the recent move towards autumn, the trees turning from green to orange and red. With the air so clear, I could see across the valley to Glen Eden and beyond. Such external solitude helps me connect with the journey I am on with God that both includes and surpasses this moment in time. I am reminded again of how solitude can produce another kind of listening.

In my work as a counsellor, I seek to offer an attunement to a person’s story and experience. This action of listening and then responding has the potential to create therapeutic personal change. In person-centred therapy, this change comes about in part through a counsellor’s empathic listening—not only to a person’s stories but to their emotions.[18] As the counsellor listens to the person’s story within the person’s own frame, the person may know a greater congruence (openness, transparency, genuineness) with themselves.[19] A person can gain a greater awareness of who they wish to be and how they want to live.[20] In narrative therapy, a therapist can work in at least two further ways. They can listen for the social ideas which are shaping a person’s story and in which they might be adversely positioned.[21] A narrative therapist can also “double-listen,” both to the problem-saturated story the person feels caught in, and for the glimpses of alternative stories—the ways in which the person can navigate or resist the problem and finds ways to live beyond it.[22] Therapy is a thus process of attunement to the other. It is a “choreography of co-action” between therapist and client, which may lead to personal and familial transformation.[23] The intensity of this choreographing can be tiring at times for the counsellor, and the content of trauma stories, impactful.

Solitude for counsellors or pastoral ministers can provide a time to recharge. Yet more pointedly, solitude can invite a shift of listening: away from the other, and toward myself, and to God. As Foster says: “Though silence sometimes involves the absence of speech, it always involves the act of listening.”[24] In this way, counsellors and pastoral ministers, who offer themselves to live for a time in the orbit of another’s planet, are able to come home to their own Earth; to know and learn again their own life stories, and to gain a sense of the trajectory ahead. This shift—to have times of listening to oneself and God as well as others—is crucial, I suggest, in the sustaining oneself in ministry. While, as Foster argues, such a creation of silence may bear fruit in “increased sensitivity and compassion for others,”[25] the greater aim is to minister to oneself.

While the lockdown might create spaces to disconnect and retreat from some elements of intense social connection, a challenge ahead is how to recreate pockets of solitude beyond lockdown. I offer some questions to consider in gauging the balance of the social and quiet.

Reflective questions

  • Weighing up your life as it was before lockdown, are the scales weighed more towards the social/community activities or towards solitude/privacy?
  • To what extent does this feel in balance to you?
  • If you would like to balance the scales marginally and have more pockets of solitude in your life, how could you achieve this, while being respectful of others?
  • When during your week could you find a pocket of silence and protect it?
  • What might this solitude look like? (e.g. walking, riding, drawing, and journaling).
  • What might some effects be for yourself could these pockets of solitude be protected when the full busyness of life resumes?

It may be that in the space of lockdown, truths about our way of living in the sway of busyness has become clear. Yet maintaining pockets of solitude can sometimes require constant effort and can feel like trying to hold back the tide. This is, I suggest, part of the human struggle: to continue to navigate the complex, intertwined pulls towards others, oneself and God. In this sense, “At the very heart of human existence is the challenge to be a person and at the same time to be in relationship with others. That is the paradox of solitude and community.”[26] Lockdown has given some people a taste of retreat, of a quietening into stillness, a sense of being able to breathe. The challenge, beyond lockdown, is to be able to dig wells within one’s life to create pools of silence, spaces in which to wait for God.

Sarah Penwarden is co-editor of Stimulus. She teaches in the Bachelor of Counselling degree programme at Laidlaw College. She also works part-time in private practice as a counsellor and clinical supervisor. She attends a local Anglican church in West Auckland, where she is a deacon. She enjoys the quiet leafy spaces of Titirangi.”


[2] Anna Fitfield, “New Zealand Isn’t Just Flattening the Curve. It’s Squashing It.”

[3] Eleanor Ainge Roy and Ben Doherty, “Have Australia and New Zealand stopped Covid-19 in its Tracks?” “Despite their reputation for having an independent streak and a benign disdain for authority, New Zealanders have been overwhelmingly compliant with the restrictive measures, with a total of 367 breaches recorded by police.”

[4] Theodore Caputi, “Lonely in Lockdown?”

[5] Elisha Foon., “Covid-19 Domestic Violence Concerns Prompt Lockdown Plea.”

[6] Hibernation.

[7] David Crump, Jesus the Intercessor: Prayer and Christology in Luke-Acts (Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1992), 142.

[8] Crump, The Intercessor, 144.

[9] Keith Egan, “The Solitude of Carmelite Prayer,” in Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century, ed. Keith Egan (New York: Paulist Press, 2003), 41.

[10] Egan, “The Solitude,”11.

[11] Egan, “The Solitude,” 39.

[12] Paula Huston, The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2003).

[13] Huston, The Holy Way, viii.

[14] Tom Schwanda, "To Gaze on the Beauty of the Lord": Evangelical Resistance and Retrieval of Contemplation.” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 7 (2014):83.

[15] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989).

[16] Renovaré, “The Six Streams: A Balanced Vision.”

[17] Christopher Jamison, Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006): 46, 36.

[18] Janet Tolan, Skills in Person-Centred Counselling and Psychotherapy (London: Sage, 2003).

[19] Dave Mearns & Brian Thorne, Person-Centered Counselling in Action (London: Sage, 2007).

[20] Mearns and Thorne, Person-Centered Counselling.

[21] Michael White, “Addressing Personal Failure,” The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work 3 (2002): 33-76.

[22] Jim Hibel & Marcela Polanco, “Tuning the Ear: Listening in Narrative Therapy,” Journal of Systemic Therapies 29 (2010), 51-66. Also see Michael White, “Narrative Practice and Community Assignments.” The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work 2(2003):17-56.

[23] Ken Gergen, Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009):137.

[24] Foster, Celebration, 98.

[25] Foster, Celebration, 108.

[26] Egan,“The Solitude,”39.