April 24th, 2007


The song we sang in every silence

I am an Episcopalian lay woman, in my mid-fifties, from the New York City area. I am exploring whether or not I might have a late calling to a professed life of solitude and silence as a religious hermit, possibly in the context of a contemplative religious order.

This stage of my spiritual journey is at once exciting and daunting. This journal is my record of it. I am doing this partly to help sort out my own thoughts and impressions. I am sharing it for the benefit of friends who are curious about what is happening with me.

There are many, many questions to answer, and many, many micro-steps to take along this path, which branches out in many directions. During a process of discernment, I will explore various religious communities to see whether I am called to be part of them, and if so, in what way; as well as exploring solitary vows. If I find an option that feels right, and want to make a commitment, there is a process of three to six years of testing one's vocation before making a life vow.

In more interior terms, it is a process of surrendering, finding the courage to be totally open to the Holy One, and to oneself.

I begin by copying a few journal entries I have written in the past few months that reveal a bit about my spirituality, and may show how I was drawn into this path. You can progress through the whole story, in order, by clicking "Next Entry" at the top of each page.

Welcome to my journey. I would be grateful for your participation and comments.

I love you, gentlest of Ways
who ripened us as we wrestled with you.

You, the great homesickness we could never shake off,
you, the forest that always surrounded us,

you, the song we sang in every silence,
you, the dark net threading through us,

on the day you made us you created yourself,
and we grew sturdy in your sunlight...

Let your hand rest on the rim of Heaven now
And mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.

--Rainer Marie Rilke: The Book of Hours

The backstory

"When did this idea occur to you?" asked one of my friends. "It was that movie, wasn't it?"

Actually, I have been conscious of it for nine years. And it's probably been going on for most of my life.

If you are reading this, you probably know me; but just in case, I will give you the condensed version as it relates to this journey.

I do not remember a time when spirituality was not important to me, when I did not pray. I am a cradle Episcopalian, and a musician. When I was a child, my family were not devoted churchgoers, but when we did attend, it had an impact on me. When I was thirteen, my interest deepened. Socially I was drawn into youth group activities at a friend’s church, then back to my own. On my sixteenth birthday, I had a sudden and dramatic moment of clarity, and from that time on, devoted my life to God.

For 36 years, my ministry was as a lay professional in the Episcopal Church. In 1983 I earned a masters degree in sacred music, and served various parishes for 36 years, primarily as a musician, along with various other jobs in the God business.

Nearly ten years ago now, in April 1998, I experienced a devastating event in my life. To allow myself time to heal, I declared myself “closed for repairs” for about four months. I called a halt to my social life, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, had only minimal contact with my parish church. Although many people would seek out the support of a community in such a time—and my parish was particularly good for that—I felt a rather strong need for separation and solitude that I could not explain. During that time, I allowed myself to do what felt helpful for me, and not to do what didn't feel helpful for me.

In this process, I began to notice that this time I spent alone in silence was balm for my injured soul. Once I gave myself permission not to be out in the world, seeking to do things, but simply to be, in quiet solitude, resting in the presence of the Holy One, the effect was dramatic. Spiritually, emotionally, mentally, in every way, I blossomed. My spiritual director compared me to an amaryllis that needs to be buried in the dark for a time if it is ever to flower.

Equipped with this new knowledge about myself, I slowly began to make changes in my life, allowing myself more time for solitude and prayer. I began to explore contemplative spirituality, and developed a spiritual practice that included centering prayer and lectio divina. I participated in an extension program at the Shalem Institute in Bethesda, MD with the late Gerald May. I found a spiritual director who was wise and caring and well experienced in this area. I read piles of books on contemplative spirituality, and wrote profusely, keeping a journal and corresponding with my spiritual director. I discovered John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, the Cloud of Unknowing, Thomas Merton, and other contemplative masters. And as I had done frequently as a teenager, I went on a number of silent retreats at monasteries. The more I moved in this direction, the better it felt.

In going back through my journals, I find an entry from several years ago in which I mused that I might have been an anchoress in another life. Even though I'd had that thought, when people would ask me, "have you thought about becoming a nun?" my answer was no. I enjoyed my stays at monasteries, but I knew several nuns, and did not think myself much like them. When I considered the vows of the orders with which I was familiar, it just didn't feel right for me. There was too much togetherness and not enough solitude. And there were still things in the world that called to me: friendships; singing; work.

A few years ago, those worldly ties gradually began to unravel. In 2001, shortly before 9/11, my mother passed away. I have no remaining close family ties; a sister who I haven't seen since 2001. In 2003, my dearest friend moved 1,000 miles away. I suddenly found myself very much alone in my life. Then, demands of my day job prevented me from continuing my work as a church musician, and that career gradually wound down. By June 2006, the work I considered my primary life's vocation was finished. Having cherished my role in the church for so many years, I was suddenly, acutely aware of being alone and apart.

I spent several months treading water. At age 52, alone, no longer a church musician, having lost my identity, I needed to figure out who I would be now, and what would become of me.

By the dawn of 2007, without paying much heed, I was idly looking at websites of religious orders and thinking about them. A few captured my attention, like the choral music-based Community of Jesus on Cape Cod. Even though I was attracted by some aspects of a monastic life, it still didn't seem like a good fit. I was becoming more conscious of my need for a life of prayer based on solitude and silence. But most monastic communities, in this day and age, have become something different. The original monks, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, were called to the silence and solitude of the desert. But over time, monastic life became much more focused on community, and on service to the poor. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those values. But I knew I was not called to live in close-knit community, nor was I called to charitable work such as teaching, nursing, hospitality or social service. I wanted desert spirituality: to be alone with the Alone, to seek union with God in silence. This didn’t seem to be possible in a modern-day monastic setting in the Episcopal Church.

During Holy Week 2007, I read a book and saw a movie that influenced me deeply. The book was An Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Klein Maguire, the story of five young men who joined the Carthusian order, a contemplative order of hermits, in the early 1960s. The movie was Into Great Silence, a luminous portrait of life in the Grand Chartreuse, the 1,000-year-old Carthusian monastery high in the French Alps. Here I saw monks whose lives were completely devoted to silence and solitude. I was mesmerized. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’d had absolutely no idea that such communities existed. I felt as though God had shown me their lives and had said to me: this is what you are looking for.

As I am neither Roman Catholic nor male, I cannot become a Carthusian monk. So I am presented with this challenge: Is the Holy One calling this 52 year old Episcopalian lay woman to become a contemplative religious hermit? And if so, how can I do that?

And so we arrive at this journal, as I attempt to discern the answers to those questions, and many, many others.

Next: A Solitary? What?


eremite: a hermit or recluse under a religious vow.
antonym: cenobite. synonym: anchorite
adjective: eremitic: characterized by ascetic solitude
from Late Latin eremita, from Greek eremites, "living in the desert," from eremia, "desert," from eremos, "lonely, solitary, desolate."

anchorite: a person who has withdrawn to a solitary place for a life of religious seclusion; hermit.
from M.L. anchorita, from Gk. anakhoretes, lit. "one who has retired," agent noun from anakhorein "to retreat," from ana- "back" + khorein "withdraw, give place," from khoros "place, space."

ascetic: a person who dedicates his or her life to a pursuit of contemplative ideals and leads a life of austere simplicity and self-discipline, especially for spiritual improvement.
from Gk. asketes "monk, hermit," from askein "to exercise, train"

cenobite: member of a religious order living in community
antonym: eremite
adjective: cenobitic
from Church L. coenobium "a convent," from Gk. koinobion "life in community, monastery," from koinos "common" + bios "life"