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?