Contemplating solitude

Had I joined a contemplative monastic order, the experience of solitude would be a one-size-fits-all proposition. For example, all the Carthusian fathers keep the same schedule and observe the same amount of time alone in the same context.

There is no such uniformity among Solitaries. Every Solitary writes his or her own Rule of Life, and the degree of solitude varies widely according to the situation of each individual. Solitaries are self-supporting, and most must therefore compromise the ideals of solitude and silence. Some Solitaries must work in the world at a 9-to-5 job, and are only able to observe "enclosure" evenings and weekends. Others must regularly leave their hermitage for other reasons. Some live with families and have no real enclosure at all.

Two days a week, I have little or no experience of physical solitude, as I must commute into New York City for work. I have also resumed regular attendance at my parish church on Sundays; it also is in New York City, so that amounts to another day of commuting.

I spend the vast majority of the rest of my time at home alone.

But there are still things that come up, and I am trying to find the right balance in coping with them. Errands are one. Although I can accomplish many errands online (such as ordering groceries for delivery) there are still errands that require me to leave the house. I think the best way to deal with these is to do as much as I can to minimize them, and when they are unavoidable, to try to maintain an inner sense of solitude and silence while doing what I need to do as expeditiously as possible.

I have, as yet, not given up singing in the Princeton Singers, although I probably should, even though it's only one evening a week. I just love it so much, and the prospect of not being a musician is rather grim.

Social contact is a little trickier. This weekend is a good example. I agreed to two meetings with friends, one to run an errand together and one for dinner. Tonight I am having dinner with friends. This kind of thing does not happen often, but even though such contacts are infrequent, suddenly I am sensitive about it, for the sake of appearances. Many Solitaries never socialize at all. I personally don't feel that these meetings have intruded on my vowed solitude. However I notice that other people are surprised that as a Solitary I agree to any social engagements.

I am wondering whether I need to rethink my willingness to have social contacts. Maybe I should be listening to the reactions of those around me.
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I agreed to be interviewed for an article about the Solitary life that is due to appear in New York Magazine in the next week or two.

Mine is supposed to be a "hidden" vocation, and this feels anything but hidden.

The reporter who wrote the piece is a friend, and I trust him, and I can't imagine there will be anything embarrassing in it, but I am feeling very self-conscious about it nonetheless.
  • Current Mood
    nervous nervous

Relaxing into solitude

I had reason to glance at an entry here from eight months ago, in which I confessed to resentment about being left alone on my birthday by my friends.

By way of contrast, recently I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years at home alone; and it felt perfectly fine. I received no Christmas gifts either, and that felt fine too.

Somehow, something interior shifted between May and November. I think that's a good thing.

Where I am now

For new readers, here is a quick summary of where I am right now. (If you want some backstory, feel free to go back to previous entries and find out what transpired up to this point.)

If there were Episcopalian Carthusians, I would get rid of all my possessions and simply show up on their doorstep tomorrow. I would happily enter the monastery forever, never to leave, and abandon myself to the life of a monastic hermit. But after exploring the available religious communities for women in the Episcopal Church, I found that there are very few options for someone seeking a contemplative, eremitic life, as opposed to one devoted to community living and charitable service. In fact, there were only three tiny contemplative orders. Upon review, I felt that none of them are right for me.

Therefore I decided to move forward as a Solitary. I will continue to live alone in my current apartment, and convert my life into an eremitic one, insofar as possible, by the grace of God. For the most part, I am already living the life.

I discovered that my own diocese, the Episcopal Diocese of New York, created a program for the Solitary vocation. The process requires an application, written statement, letters of recommendation, several interviews, medical and psychiatric evaluations, and a background check. The program calls for annual vows for a period of five years, before making a Life Profession. The program seemed promising at first, but turned out not to be a good fit for me, so I elected not to move forward with that option.

Becoming a Solitary involves a radical re-ordering of my present life. There is much to do on a practical level:

  1. Convert my schedule to liberate enough time for daily office, lectio, centering prayer (done!)
    1. Try to work from home instead of commuting 20 hours a week (done!)
    2. Craft an appropriate rule of life and horarium (done!)

  2. Convert my apartment into a hermitage
    1. Get rid of unnecessary possessions (pretty much everything) (working on it)
    2. Arrange the space to support prayer and study as primary activity (working on it)

  3. Seek formation
    1. Further study in contemplative spirituality
    2. Find a mentor who is a hermit for guidance on solitary life (working on it)
    3. Nurture relationship with spiritual director & wise friends (working on it)

  4. Find a support system of confreres for encouragement and counsel
    1. Internet connections (working on it)
    2. Associations of solitaries (working on it)

Even these initial steps clearly constitute a multi-year project.

As I take each step, I'll have a question in the back of my mind. Is this step irreversible? If I'm wrong and I need to go back, will I be able to? Should I keep the option open? Is it wise to have an exit strategy, or is it faithless? To what extent should I abandon myself to this process, never to return?

There is a lot I can do, however, before I reach a point of no return. So I begin.

Here is a journal entry reflecting on my life as a Solitary as of July, 2009.

updated January 1, 2011
ubi caritas

The Solitary Witness

The application asks: Describe what you believe the Solitary witness is… what it involves, and how you believe it differs from other lay vocations.

The Solitary Witness

In 21st century America, the spiritual lives of most Christians take place in the context of gathered community, and are filled with the bustle of sound and activity. We are encouraged to talk to God, talk to each other, make a joyful noise, join up, be together, engage in activities, accomplish things. For most, togetherness and activity are the essence of Christian life; silence is merely the absence of sound, solitude is a problem to be solved, and stillness is a void to be filled.

But some few people seem to be called by God to another experience. For them, the noisy activity of community life, while valued, may be distracting. In silence, they listen rather than speaking. In solitude, they give their entire attention to God. In stillness, they are content to rest in the awareness of the presence of Love.

The Bible gives us glimpses of this ancient, alternative calling; even Jesus sought God in solitude. Following his example, in the 3rd century, Anthony went into the desert, and Christian monasticism was born. In medieval times hermits were respected and sought for spiritual counsel. Although over the centuries modern monasticism has become less eremitic and more focused on community and charitable service, some few are still called to an eremitic life. Some still live enclosed in monastic communities; some live independently in private houses or even city apartments. Because of the quiet and solitary nature of their spiritual lives, few know about them.

The vocation of the Solitary is, in many ways, a hidden vocation. It is a call to withdraw from the world, to live on the margins, within the apophatic and unknowable, forsaking the comforts of social lives and accomplishments. Apart from prayer, the Solitary vocation contemplates no visible ministry, no work, no productivity, no service to the Church. The Solitary is a failure by the world’s standards, cast upon divine mercy, empty, waiting, thirsty for God’s grace.

Most people find their greatest fulfillment in relationships with lovers, family and friends, who are (usually) a source of joy. For solitaries, that same joy is found in relationship with the Holy One, and in devoting one’s life completely to continually deepening that relationship. Our aim is to discover the perfection of Divine Love, removing all barriers to intimacy with God.

Becoming a Solitary means restructuring one’s life and priorities. Most people seek relationships with loved ones, or personal achievement, and structure their lives to provide what is needed to sustain those priorities. By contrast, Solitaries structure their lives to sustain their relationship with the Holy One, above every other interest. Given this re-prioritization, one’s life takes on a different shape. The Solitary withdraws from the world’s values to immerse herself totally in God.

The praxis of the Solitary, which nurtures and nourishes this relationship, is a diet of prayer and contemplation, supplemented by reading and study, and tempered with work. For me, the vocation to be a Solitary is a particular focus of contemplative spirituality, a love-driven way of knowing God that is centered in constant awareness of the Divine presence. In the silence of contemplative prayer I focus my mind and heart totally on God, not to ask for anything, not to say anything to God, but to open my heart to listen and simply rest in God’s presence. I seek to quiet all distractions, the better to be open to God’s voice. The highest experience is simply to be aware of God’s presence and delight in it. There is no agenda other than: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

An essential part of the Solitary vocation is to pray for the Church and the world. In union with God’s desire, I see others through God’s loving gaze and face, with him, toward our suffering world in love and compassion.

God calls some people to activity, service, intellect and study. But the Holy One calls the contemplative Solitary to seek the Divine in an interior landscape, in a cloud of unknowing, in love and by faith. I do not necessarily know how or even whether God will use this vocation to the benefit of the Church, nor do I feel a need to know. Others seem to benefit from reading my journal reflections, though that is not why I write them. I am confident that God has some reason for calling me to this vocation, and will reveal it in his own time.

Rule of Life, draft #1

Below is my first pass at a Rule of Life.

In case you have never seen one, a Rule of Life is a set of guiding principles by which religious vow to live. Monastic orders all have them, and Solitaries generally compose their own. They often follow the format below. In my case it at least had to include the three traditional vows (poverty, chastity and obedience) plus a description of my praxis. Some Rules are quite extensive and specific, resembling a corporate charter with extensive provisions for daily schedules, advisory boards, etc. At the other extreme, I've seen one that was a single sentence.

For mine, I felt it was better to articulate the guiding essence of what I'm doing, and that specifics would be too limiting in this context. So this one is fairly brief, as Rules go. Here goes.


+In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.

By the grace of God, I offer my life as a Solitary of God, to live in union with God, surrendering myself to be totally immersed in the mystery and love of God.


My vocation is to seek the perfection of Divine Love, devoting my life to continually deepening my relationship with God, in a covenant of love, through prayer in silence and solitude.


By these vows, I seek to be free from hindrances and remove all barriers to perfect intimacy with God, seeking God before all else, and only him.

  • Poverty. Recognizing my spiritual poverty, I cast myself upon divine mercy, empty, waiting, thirsty for God’s grace.
  • Chastity. I vow fidelity to God and to this Rule, to love God with an undivided heart.
  • Obedience. I vow to empty myself of any ambition of my own, surrendering totally to God’s grace, listening attentively at all times to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
  • Silence. I vow to entrust myself to a “living and vigilant silence,” to listen and wait upon the voice of the Holy One.
  • Solitude. I vow to seek God in solitude, trusting that all I need comes from God alone.


I will live out these vows through a practice of prayer, contemplation, reading, study and work, including:

  • Regular participation in the Sacraments of the Church.
  • Daily recitation of the Daily Office according to the Book of Common Prayer.
  • Daily practice of contemplative prayer and Lectio Divina.
  • Ongoing reading and study in contemplative spirituality.
  • Ongoing spiritual direction.
  • Regular journaling and writing spiritual reflections.
  • Honoring God’s presence and love in my relationships with others.
  • Maintaining a residence as a place of enclosure, and limiting interaction with other people to those that are necessary for sustaining a healthy, balanced life and this vocation.
  • Simple living and responsible stewardship, owning only what is necessary for a healthy, balanced life and sustaining this vocation, in harmony with this Rule.
  • Seeking physical, emotional and spiritual balance, treating myself with respect and compassion.


I got on a writing binge tonight, and managed to complete practically all of the written statement--seven pages single spaced. I even finally completed a first draft of a Rule of Life... having finally articulated concrete thoughts about the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. I think I'm going to let it sit a day or so, though, before I post it here.

St. Romuald's Brief Rule

While working on the mega-application for the Diocese, I've been perusing various Rules of Life for solitaries and hermits. I was moved by this one, written by St. Romuald (d. 1027), the founder of the Camaldolese order.

St. Romuald's Brief Rule for Camaldolese Monks

Sit in your cell as in paradise.
Put the whole world behind you and forget it.
Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish.
The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it.
If you have just come to the monastery,
and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want,
take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart
and to understand them with your mind.
And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up;
hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.
Realize above all that you are in God's presence,
and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor.
Empty yourself completely and sit waiting,
content with the grace of God,
like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing
but what his mother brings him.
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The gauntlet

I received the letter from the Diocese of New York, outlining the steps I must take to be considered as an aspirant for the vocation of a Solitary.

Their newly expanded requirements are extensive, including a written statement (which I can see is going to be quite long), recommendations, evaluations, interviews, medical and psychiatric checks, and a background check. Wow.

Of some concern is a requirement that I be "debt-free." Who, in this day and age, is debt-free? Of course I am not debt-free, I own a modest condo and have a mortgage. What's this about? If I were joining a monastic community I could see it; but since, as a Solitary, I'm responsible for my own upkeep, why should the Diocese care if I am debt-free?

The written statement is to include...

a) a description of what you believe the Solitary witness is... what it involves... and how you believe it differs from other lay vocations,
b) how you learned of this baptismal witness and how long you have considered applying for it (i.e. why this ministry? why now?),
c) a review of your life, your spiritual journey, your ministry now & a copy of your Rule of Life,
d) a review of your life in community, and
e) a description of your work and income, with a signed statement that you are debt free and are registered with social security."

Looks like I'd better get to writing.

A day in the life

6:30 a.m.

Loud purring wakes me. The cat has taken on the role of hermitage alarm clock. Opening one eye, I see him staring, and can imagine him saying, "Benedicite!" in good monastic fashion. Sending a sleepy thought heavenward, I mutter, "Deo gratias..." then begin to drift back to sleep. This earns me a pat on the face from an impatient paw. So rolling out of bed, I make my way to the bathroom, shower and dress. Then, gazing out the kitchen window, silently greeting the wildlife in the backyard, I absently munch on a soy protein breakfast bar and the cat nibbles his breakfast.

7:15 a.m.

As my brain begins to simulate human functioning, my first task is the first of four Daily Offices. The Daily Office is, primarily, a practical program for reading the Bible. If you do it daily, you end up reading the entire Bible, in short daily doses, over the course of two years. Morning Prayer is the longest of the four, with two Bible readings, two canticles, and additional prayers. Sitting at my computer and tuning it to the Mission St. Clare website, I find the day's readings and prayers neatly laid out. I keep silence for a minute, to focus my attention, then begin.

The Office is not my favorite part of my practice. I don't always connect with the readings; sometimes I catch myself skimming over the words without paying attention, as my mind wanders to the day's tasks, or other things. I found that using my body in worship improves my attention. For one thing, most of the Office I will say silently, but certain portions I will sing. At first, I felt a bit self-conscious singing alone, but eventually it began to feel more natural. Sitting for most of the Office, I stand to sing, and at one or two other significant points. Using my body for worship is important.

As I begin to chant, I do my best to appreciate the words of the psalm. Often the psalms will resonate with me, when they are the words of an ancient whose spiritual journey resembled mine in some way. Today's psalm does not particularly connect, but I never know when some bit of text will leap out at me and capture my imagination, so I stay open to the possibility. The first Bible reading is better, since it contains the words to a famous aria from Handel's Messiah: "Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion..." Impossible to read it without thinking the music. I read each lesson slowly, focusing my attention on each thought.

I always take time at Morning Prayer for intercessions. For me, this does not mean asking God for anything. I simply hold each person in my heart for a few moments, reflecting on God's love for them. I update my list frequently, adding various people to be remembered, some for a time, some always. Ending with a prayer of thanksgiving, I rise.

7:40 a.m.

An hour is set aside for manual work. I am coming to appreciate the physical dimensions of contemplative practice. It is tempting to stay in the chair at the computer all day. But the Holy One intends us to use our bodies, as well as our minds, for praise. Being sedentary does not help me. Manual work for me mostly means housework, as I am still trying to convert my apartment into a proper hermitage. The physical activity, however light, feels good. I try to approach it with an attitude of "divine wakefulness," seeing God in all, no matter how mundane the activity might seem.

8:45 a.m.

After completing a few tasks, I take a short break to check messages online. I do not keep a precisely timed schedule, nor do I always do everything in the same order. Typically I would take an hour or more in the morning for a particular type of reading called Lectio Divina, sometimes known as "praying the reading." But today, email draws me in, and I must start my day's work. I will make time for Lectio a bit later.

9:30 a.m.

I am fortunate to have a good job that allows me to work from home most days, via the Internet. I report to work by signing on to IM and opening my email. I won't come up for air until noon.

12:00 noon

The furry hermitage alarm clock rubs my leg to remind me about lunch. I get up to feed him, then return to the computer for the Noonday Office. It is very short, just five minutes; a mid-day reminder of who I am and with whom I am in relationship. It is also an opportunity for self-examination, to get back on the right path if I have gotten off it during the morning.

At the end of the Noonday Office I always take time for centering prayer, or some other form of contemplative prayer. This is easily the most significant part of my practice, to me. To sit in silence, alone with the Alone, is the greatest joy I know. It might be anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. I crave it. I always feel wonderful afterward.

And hungry. Sliced roast chicken, steamed vegetables and a little brown rice provide a pleasant break. I allow myself a short bit of free time after lunch, before returning to my work.

2:00 p.m.

The afternoon's work is briefly interrupted by a knock on the door. I order my groceries off the Internet, and the delivery is here. The UPS guy is right behind him, delivering cat food, also ordered off the Internet. I reflect momentarily on the fact that except for walking a few yards to my mailbox, I rarely leave my apartment on most days. I am content in my solitude.

5:30 p.m.

The Office provides for the sanctification of time. It is time to mark the transition from day to night with Evensong, the most beloved of the Offices in the Anglican tradition. Although I only sing the plainsong versions of the Magnificat, my mind often is drawn to the many wonderful musical settings I have sung in the past. I may be sitting at my computer, in my small apartment, but it is easy to close my eyes and remember the times I sang these words in the great choir of a cathedral. I know that as I sing and pray, all around the world countless Anglicans are doing the exact same thing I am doing, whether alone, or in small groups, or in great cathedrals with glorious music. I feel connected to them all.

6:00 p.m.

At the conclusion of Evening Prayer, I spend a few minutes simply being aware of the silence. Except for sung prayers, and a handful of words with the delivery guys, I will not have spoken today (though I will have emailed). I am content with that. I relish it. The silence allows me to listen with the ears of my heart.

After a light supper, I go back for Lectio. I have not spent as much time at study today as I would have liked, but there was no help for it. Today I am reading the Spiritual Canticle by John of the Cross. Its rich imagery fires my imagination and propels my heart toward my Lover, the Lover of Souls. Suddenly a sense of being loved washes over me so strongly that tears come to my eyes.

7:00 p.m.

A little more light manual work (in this case, laundry) and then free time for the evening. Most likely I will use the time on the Internet. I write to friends, other Solitaries, others who work from their homes as I do; we support one another, while understanding each other, and the place of our relationships relative to our one, primary relationship. No matter what I do, it always seems to offer an opportunity to recognize God's presence, and his love.

10:30 p.m.

The day draws to a close with Compline, a brief but beautiful way to mark the passage of time. I am especially fond of the chants and prayers for Compline. In this time, I feel that I am held close, and loved.

With this thought, I sleep, at peace.