Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Elusive Solitude

I'm just back from three days at Pecos Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico, a 50-year-old community of a dozen or so monks and two sisters who live on a thousand acres of pinon forest, meadow, and river in the mountains east of Santa Fe. This is wild country, and the contrast between warm chapel interior and frosty outdoors is stark. Everything seems arranged for aloneness before God, and despite my long years as an oblate of a contemplative order, I found this curiously unsettling. Why?

It seems that by now my life is so intertwined with New Camaldoli that going there is like visiting family. Those tender human relationships I've built up over the years have come to dominate my experience there, which in turn colors my experience of God while I'm on retreat. The landscape at Big Sur-- one of the most dramatic in the world--has become so familiar to me I can walk it in the dark. At Pecos, I know nobody but the busy abbot, so I was capable of being jarred in a good way by an experience of solitude I am no longer able to find at my beloved monastic home base.

Genuine solitude, it seems, is as elusive and fleeting as a light snowfall; it barely touches us before we have managed to melt it in the warmth of human relationship.

Yet occasional experiences of solitude are critical for those of us on the spiritual path. What can they do for us? They can shake up our complacency, thrust us up against the fact of death, challenge us to face the mystery of God without the usual screen of beloved human faces in between. This helps me understand why the writers of the two Rules I am trying to follow took solitude so seriously. Benedict spent three years living in a cave; Romuald, founder of the Camaldolese, adopted the eremetical life of the desert fathers. My guess is that they knew who they were--how easily they were swept into the warmth and security of human love--so they purposely restricted their access to people. As a wife, mother, grandmother, my times of solitude are going to be much rarer, but also that much more necessary and precious.


Chris and Debi Lorenc said...

Thanks for creating this blog, Paula. It will be so good to follow it. And this last one already really resonates as Debi and I are traveling. You can get comfortable even being on the road -- when you follow familiar traditions and routes. For instance, I feel stirred and unsettled arriving in Istanbul in just the ways you describe Pecos for yourself.



Paula Huston said...

Which is the absolute beauty of traveling, in the way you are doing it. I experienced what you are talking about here when I was on my own round-the-world pilgrimage some years ago. What I constantly found myself doing--and maybe this is what you are referring to--was seeking out security to counterbalance the uneasiness of not knowing quite who I was or how to be without my familiar people and surroundings. It's insidious!

Thanks for writing, Chris.