Looking for Stillness
I was 55 and my priorities had changed. The prospect of being freed from small conversations, maybe from all conversations, filled me with awe. I pictured myself walking down a hushed hallway, passing another nun and merely nodding. I craved silence and realized that I probably always had.
I decided to take six months to sample the life—and, in case I really was being called, see if I'd be led to a monastery that would have me.
An obsessive search on the Internet yielded a few discouraging facts. The monasteries all seemed to have age ceilings, by whose standards I was a dinosaur. And the contemplative orders were cloistered, which would mean, basically, no visits to my family. But since a rock-solid faith was what I aspired to, I tried to believe, and often succeeded, that if God wanted me in a monastery, God would work it out.
I can't re-create exactly the process by which I came to choose the places I did because logic was not much applied. For example, in Snowmass, the first place I visited, there was a Trappist monastery for men, which surely would not invite me to join. I stayed at Nada, a hermitage in the Carmelite tradition with women and men. I visited my friend Estrella—a hermit nun in an order of one. I wanted to try at least one place run by Catholics who were not in community, that was more a house of prayer, catering to retreatants. And I went to a monastery of Benedictine women who incorporate Eastern practices into their worship.
At Snowmass the snow fell and it fell. I covered my face with my scarf and dug my hands deep into my pockets as I walked to Lauds and Mass, to Vespers and Compline, down the mountain to the chapel whose lights beckoned in the dark. The Psalms were in English and I sang along with the monks and other visitors from a songbook, trying to blend my voice with theirs so well it disappeared. I cooked meals in my little octagonal hermitage and resumed my practice of meditating three times a day. But every time I sat on the cushion, my teeth began to ache. I thought it might be because my ego was threatened and trying to distract me, or maybe toxins were being released. I observed how the pain did make it harder to sit on the cushion, but the pain also took me deeper and made me more tender. I'd read somewhere that Christ's beginning point was not sin but suffering, that God didn't prevent pain but stood with you. I'd also read that one should try to talk to God as an intimate, as a friend, to bare your soul, to tell the secrets of your heart. I avoided this conversation. It was too hard; I had no idea why.
In the silence of Snowmass, my own silence shouted so loudly I heard the echo of all the words left unspoken in every relationship of my life. This realization made me so sad my body fisted into a ball as I wept. When I finally stopped, I wept all over again—from relief, because I remembered how deeply I did believe that anything is possible with God. Even intimacy. And I was not alone.
The night I arrived at Nada Hermitage was moonless and pitch-dark, but luckily Sister Kay, a radiant young woman in jeans, was waiting to show me the way. She said I'd find all the information I needed in a notebook in my hermitage, but she wanted to make sure that I understood that the monks were in the middle of hermit week, and if people didn't say hello it was not personal. She said that there were also hermit days during each week, and, in fact, if I wanted to be a hermit the entire time and never speak to a soul, I was welcome to do this.