Forgiveness: following Jesus into radical loving by Paula Huston

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explore Lent

Practices, tools and reflections for the Lenten season



Written By Paula Huston

SolitudeAs the oldest of five children, my growing-up years were haunted by a yearning to be alone. I hid as often as I could: in the branch of a maple tree in our backyard, with its leaves like sheltering green hands; in my grandmother’s stately cornfield; in the locked bathroom, where I read for as long as I could get away with it. 

Not that I was an introvert, but something in me powerfully resisted an equally powerful urge to immerse myself in other people and their needs. Something deep inside cried out for a peace that only seemed attainable when I was alone.

Small wonder, then, that this longing would grow more pronounced in adulthood, when I became a wife and mother. Now, however, the need for solitude seemed misplaced, even perverse. I’d chosen my life, hadn’t I? I’d chosen marriage and family and career, and I was thankful for what I had. Wasn’t my longing for time by myself evidence of a secret selfishness? How could you be a loving person and still fantasize about solitude?

What I didn’t understand because I had been away from religion for so long was that this yearning of mine was not proof of an essential self-centeredness but instead the manifestation of a profound spiritual thirst. I needed to be alone because it was only in the absence of the kaleidoscopic distractions of human life that I could begin to intuit the presence of God. 

In order to figure this out, however, I needed guidance. Just at the right moment, a friend took me to a Catholic hermitage on the Big Sur coast of California, where for the first time, I was among people who not only felt the way I did about solitude, but who had embraced it as a rule for life. The hermit/monks of New Camaldoli are modern men who live, as best they can, in the way their brothers have lived for nearly 1,000 years in the forests of Italy. Like most Catholic monks, they follow the Rule of St. Benedict, but with an added focus on solitude, silence, and contemplative prayer. 

When they arrived in America fifty years ago, they built their monastery on the side of a remote mountain overlooking the sea. A difficult area, under constant threat by fire, landslide, or earthquake, but they chose it for a reason. Ancient spiritual wisdom says that it is only as solitaries in the wilderness that we are able to grasp certain important truths about life: who it is we really are, what it is we must let go, how it is God communicates with us.

Though these modern-day monks must support themselves, which they do through their popular guesthouse and bookstore, they deliberately structure their days so as to maximize time away from the bustle of human interaction. For them, solitude is not a guilty pleasure but a spiritual necessity. Their practice is modeled on Christ’s, who regularly vanished into the mountains by himself for a night of prayer.  

I was enthralled by what I was seeing, but still dubious. The life of a celibate, contemplative monk was a far cry from my own. How could I, as a wife, mother, and full-time college instructor, possibly incorporate alone time into such a busy schedule? Wouldn’t I wind up offending people I loved if they thought I was trying to escape them? And what would it be like, as a goal-oriented, responsible adult human being, to find myself utterly alone? Maybe I would hate it. 

Fr. Bernard, an aging but spry French Canadian who had been at New Camaldoli since its founding, thought I should try a little retreat. He loved the word “little” and used it in almost every sentence, as in “a little bird appeared outside my cell this morning,” and “I have found a little book you might like.” According to Fr. Bernard, I should schedule myself a room in the guesthouse for one night only. “This way,” he explained, “you can get used to it gradually.”  He gave me an apologetic smile. “Not that it is so hard,” he said, “but sometimes—I don’t know why—women spend the whole retreat worrying about their husbands and kids.” 

I started to explain why a female person would do that, then shut my mouth. How could a longtime celibate hermit possibly understand the things that mothers gnash their teeth about in the middle of the night? But he had challenged me; it was not so hard, he said.  And deep inside I could feel the rise of anticipatory joy. How long had I waited for permission to take some time by myself?

Emboldened, I ignored Fr. Bernard’s cautionary advice and booked myself a room for three nights. After all, I’d always been a go-ahead sort of person, and if I were really going to do this, I might as well plunge right in. During the six months’ wait for my scheduled time, I could “practice,” I figured, by taking fifteen minutes each morning before the day really got started to steal away into the pine trees on our acreage in the country and sit by myself. That should get me prepared for the spiritual bigtime.

I soon found out how difficult it was to take up a discipline of solitude, even in tiny increments. For example, in order to make my morning escape, I had to set my alarm for 5:00 a.m., because that’s when everyone else in the house was still asleep and wouldn’t be trailing me out into the woods. Thus, one of my first discoveries was just how much I loved to sleep. 

Also, just how much aversion I had to being uncomfortable, as in cold, sleepy, and sore, when the alternative was snuggling more deeply into the down comforter and taking up my dream at the spot the alarm had interrupted it. I had to admit that after the first and second exciting morning of sneaking out into the dawn light on my own, it was becoming harder and harder to bestir myself in the wee hours.

But I kept on. Because once I actually dragged myself out there into the trees, I found myself undergoing an experience of tremulous beauty, the kind I hadn’t had since I was a child, hiding in the maple tree. I heard sounds that had been going on around me for years—the hoarse call of mallards traveling in formation, the trill and peep of sleepy wrens, the agitated stir of chickens on their roosts—that I never had time to hear anymore. I watched the dawn pallet spread out across the sky, a private showing for those who are willing to leave their beds while it is still dark. And I felt something inside me that was hard, blind, and driven beginning to dissolve.

By the time my official retreat arrived, I’d come to love my morning sits. Three days of solitude, however, was another story. I began to feel nervous while I was still driving the highway north, and even stopped at the last outpost to buy a candy bar—something I hadn’t eaten for years—to counteract the feeling of being trapped and deprived in a place without stores. In my luggage were at least fifteen books, including several full-length novels. I felt compelled to fill every moment alone ahead of time as a way to fight possible deadly boredom. Because wasn’t that what happened when you were stuck with yourself long enough? 

The results of that first retreat were surprising. No boredom, for one thing, but not much calm either. Being alone for an extended period, much as I liked it in fifteen minute increments, was not very comfortable.  I found myself skittish without a to-do list to anchor me down. I wondered how things were going at home, how my kids and husband were doing without me. And I fretted about all the grading that wasn’t getting done during this hiatus from normal life. I was such an important person, it seemed, that the world could not function without my ever-vigilant self at the helm. 

This thought, which made me laugh, was a real break-through. For the first time I realized how addicted I was to work. More, that my sense of self-worth was almost entirely bound up in my official roles in life. And that I didn’t really know who I was without my busy schedule staring me in the face. 

I vowed to try to relax, to give over my hyper-productivity to God for these few hours left on retreat, and to listen for what he might be telling me. And as I finally settled into solitude, I began to taste the sweet peace I felt each morning on that bench. A quiet beauty surrounded me. And suddenly I was weeping at the thought of going back.

The hard task since that first retreat has been to incorporate regular periods of solitude, and—even more importantly—the spirit of solitude, into a life that will probably never be less busy than it was when I was teaching fulltime. The difference is that now I think of solitude more like the monks of New Camaldoli do: not as self-indulgent escapism, but as a spiritual necessity requiring resolute commitment and serious discipline. Now, when I practice solitude, it is joyfully, and with great thanksgiving—both for the experience itself, and for the fruits it has borne in my life. 

Copyright © 2009 Paula Huston