Consulting the Cloister

(Photo by Eric Huybrechts via Flickr)

Oh, stop your complaining, I tell myself. You are counting the months since you have shopped frivolously? Julian of Norwich sat in the window of her hermitage while the Hundred Years’ War raged around her, people dropping dead in the streets of the Black Death and the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt drawn, hanged, beheaded, and quartered in a nearby cornfield. “The bishop graciously held his head,” notes a later biographer, “lest it should drag on the ground as he was borne disembowelled to the gallows.”

Me, I just miss shopping.

And movies and concerts and pubs and you already know this list. No one prepared us to live so far from one another, the hustle and bustle a dim memory. I would ask Julian for advice, but she is indisposed. So I do the next thing: I call an order of contemplative sisters who live, in silence, behind a grille.

Explaining my question is a bit awkward, but I am transferred to someone who graciously agrees to talk with me—as long as I do not name the order. She is more than happy to give up a PR op if it excuses her from consulting their order’s superior. Her answer to my long, fumbling question about how on earth they manage such an austere life? “Two words. Prayer and contemplation.”

I forgot to tell her I am no longer Catholic.

“And we can do that being physically still in the world and also of the world,” she continues. “That’s how we are so much aware of what is happening around us, and that is how we respond to what is happening around us, especially now. In prayer, we embrace everybody, especially those who are suffering with this COVID pandemic.”

The phrase comes as easily to her tongue as it does to mine. “So if you stay current,” I say, “you know how bleak the news is. How can we keep from being depressed?”

“Go before the Lord and try to talk about this with the Lord,” she urges. “Ask, ‘What do you want me to do about these things?’ That answer will be very personal.”

A secular translation comes easily to me: There is meaning to be found and good to be done. Listen closely.

When Thomas Merton decided he had a vocation, he used the fifth-century divination ritual, the Sortes Sanctorum, to choose his next step. In other words, he stuck a finger between the careworn pages of a Bible and stabbed blindly at a passage. When he opened the Bible, he saw under the tip of his index finger the words “ecce eris tacens” (behold, you shall be silent). And so, he became a Trappist monk. He even spent time in a two-room hermitage. How did he do it?

I go looking, and I find an essay by—synchronicity!—my favorite college professor, Belden C. Lane. “The stereotype of the hermit is more or less fixed in the popular mind,” he begins. “Hermits are crazy old fools, secluded in their lonely huts, communing with nature, and caring little what other people think of them.” Ah, yes. It is all too easy to feel crazy and old when you are alone—and you do stop caring what other people think, because there are so few opportunities to guess.

Belden is focusing on the hermitage itself: “As Abba Moses reminded the other desert fathers in the fourth century, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” A hermitage is a stripped-down dwelling, as simple as possible. Nothing like our cluttered old farmhouse—although I do find that we live more simply now. Now that the busy comings-and-goings have been subtracted, our routines have an ease. We eat what we know we like, shop seldom, keep quiet by day to let one another concentrate.

I smile at Belden’s description of a hermit “setting aside the protective masks he might have worn in the past and coming face to face with God.” This was written in 2004. We wear more (though not enough) masks now. Instead of deceiving others to guard our vulnerability, they are keeping us alive.

Merton once wrote a poem in which “the whole world is secretly on fire.” How, he asked, was he supposed to sit still and listen while even the stones burned, while “all their silence is on fire.” How can we be quiet, cozy, homebound, with sickness and death swirling all around us? How is it okay, and possible, to be peaceful at such a time?

I asked my source in the cloister how they taught novices to be silent and still. “Usually that is the first chapter of information in—we call it formation,” she murmured. “How the formandi will be able to quiet everything inside her. We give them a series of readings on silence and contemplation. It takes a lot of reading. It is a slow process, actually.”

I envisioned these young, vibrant women who still carried the staccato noise of the modern world, how they must struggle to tamp all that down. Were they lonely? Did they wonder who they even were, cut off from likes and invitations and new possibilities?

“Also, the atmosphere in the community, they feel that,” she was saying. “They say, ‘I think I am talking too much.’ They feel the atmosphere of silence that will also be a language to them.”

In time, the extra, needless words die on their lips. Or, they leave. “For some, this is their first challenge,” she said. “God’s challenge to them, to go into the silence of their heart, the silence of their mind.”

This is my first challenge, secular and politicized: to just. stay. home. Faithless and cynical, I am doing so not as a formandi, eager to be transformed, but reluctantly. I lack Julian’s serene confidence that “all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.” But I know there is meaning to be found—as soon as I learn its language.

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