Looking for Stillness
In the light of morning I discovered that my little cabin—with a desk, chair, bed, two-burner stove, and tiny refrigerator—was backed into a sand dune. Immediately to the east was a 14,000-foot big-shouldered mountain and to the west the vast San Luis Valley, where the deer and the antelope play, just like in the song, only there are elk there, too.
I began to read spiritual classics with a hunger I hadn't experienced since I'd been a stuck young mother at 17 and literature lit up my life. Back then at the public library I'd found Dickens and Austen, then Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Virginia Woolf. Now I read contemplatives and mystics I found in Nada's library: Thomas Merton, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Evelyn Underhill, and Brother Lawrence. One of the ancients said, "If you wish to attain God, there are two things you must know. The first is that all efforts to attain God are of no avail. And the second is that you must act as if you did not know the first." I believed that if I made room in my life for a practice of meditation, prayer, walking, reading, listening in the silence, one day the spiritual life would become real. As Plotinus said back in the third century about the experience of unity, "We ought not to question whence [it comes]; there is no whence, no coming or going in place; now it is seen and now not seen. We must not run after it, but fit ourselves for the vision and then wait tranquilly for its appearance, as the eye waits on the rising of the sun, which in its own time appears above the horizon...and gives itself to our sight."
And so I listened in the silence and heard my own breath, a bird, a whisper of wind. I tried to remember to be grateful and send up little prayers of thanks all the day long, to look deeply at things, and to see the sacred in the very day. Then one afternoon it began to snow. I stood at my window, and all of a sudden everything slowed so that I could see flake behind flake for miles as though in a freeze-frame, but all of them moving ever so slowly, distinct and separate, together falling. Snow.
It was just as the mystic Bede Griffiths described these breakthrough moments, "...a veil has been lifted and we see...behind the facade the world has built round us.... It is impossible to put...into words; it is something beyond all words...in the language of theology they are moments of grace."
I wept for the gift of it, for the sight of a bunny darting by, a deer up on the hill nibbling on a weed. When it came time to leave Nada, I didn't want to. But I'd been told that the community was in no position to consider a new member—of any stripe. Their founder had been ousted and removed from the priesthood a few years before. The community was still reeling from it and trying to reimagine itself, a task that the nine members, five in Colorado and four in Ireland, would gather to carry out in the coming year.
I moved on to Missouri to visit Estrella, the hermit nun in an order of one, whom I'd met a few years before in Mexico, where she helped organize a hospital and midwifery school.