Our first evening, after Estrella lit candles and served and blessed our thick steaming vegetable soup, she prayed that my stay would give me clarity, and hoped I would talk as much as I wanted about all that was happening inside, about dreams, about anything, so she could help me with my spiritual discernment. I had a dream about caring for a baby I'd neglected. "It's God," Estrella said. I had another dream in which there was a stick in my salad. I poked it with my fork to bat it away, but it turned into a beautiful, regal bug, bedecked in jewels, wearing a crown. "That's you," Estrella said. "God made you a peacock. Somehow you will use that."
Now I grilled her about her nunhood, and she explained how after her three daughters were grown, she had visited 30 monasteries and convents looking for the one that was right for her and never found it. So she wrote her own vows, and with the blessing of her spiritual director, a Trappist hermit priest, she founded her own order. No bishop or pope has recognized her, but Estrella is the holiest person I know. Her altar is lit by candles that are never extinguished, and lined with pictures of those who have asked for her prayers. The phone rang with prayer requests every day. She counsels mothers, and while I was there she gathered food and clothes to bring to a single mother in need. Like the simple Brother Lawrence, she is in a constant dialogue with God. We practiced yoga together, prayed over our meals, sent up prayers of gratefulness for the littlest things: the honey in our tea, the warmth of her house, the car starting in the morning.
On Estrella's holy land, I began taking my lead from Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century woman mystic who said, "God wants us to allow ourselves to see God continually. For God wants to be seen and wants to be sought. God wants to be awaited and wants to be trusted."
One morning I awoke knowing what I had to do: make a commitment to God as I was never able to make to any other love in my life except my child. I wrote down three vows—Chastity, Silence, Constant Prayer—then read them to Estrella, who took my hands in hers and said, "I am so happy for you!" We drove to Estrella's spiritual director, who blessed the vows in a Mass in his living room. No church official would recognize me as one, but that didn't matter, I was a nun.
At the Desert House of Prayer near Tucson I continued my study, my meditating, my silence. It was cold in January, and after Lauds and Mass in the morning the retreatants, sometimes as many as 20 of us, gathered silently to take our own breakfasts. There is a fire in the living room one can sit in front of, but in the kitchen if you sit at the table you can watch the birds at the feeders hanging from a big old pal-o-verde tree.
The king of the birds was a cardinal, magnificently large and regally red. One day I spotted him sitting in another tree, yards away, minus his tail. He could still fly, and balance, but he was clearly diminished and waited till the crowd of birds dispersed before he came around to scavenge for seeds. I was sad for the bird, and concerned that he would die. I wondered if this diminishment of his abilities was a prelude, a preparation for death. And I wondered, too, if my own aging, the imminent diminishment of my own abilities, had at bottom been what fueled my desire to leave the world and draw closer to God. I also wondered if God had been calling me all along and I'd never heard. I'll never know. But I do know that by the time I left a month later, that big old cardinal had begun growing another tail. And I was thinking that instead of embarking on a Prelude to the end, I was beginning Book Two, in which God was my coauthor.