Monday, March 2, 2009

Desert Day

The monks of New Camaldoli each have one "desert day" per month, to be used at their own discretion. For those hours, they are released from their normal duties and the need to show up in public. The desert concept harkens back at least a thousand years, to the time of St. Romuald, the Benedictine monk of Ravenna who heeded the call to leave behind his cenobitical life in a monastery in favor of a more eremetical, contemplative existence. In so doing, he was following the path of the fourth-century Christian hermits and cave dwellers of Syria and Palestine and the great Sinai wasteland. New Camaldoli's desert days are meant to open up space and time for the kind of solitude, silence, and individual prayer that are often hard to find in a busy monastic community.

I've always admired the desert day policy, but never adopted the practice for myself. Yesterday, however, I woke up under a cloud; I felt disconnected, disinterested, and listless--fairly unfamiliar territory for an energizer bunny like me. Was I depressed? I didn't think so. Getting sick? Perhaps, but if so, without any particular symptoms. Discouraged? That seemed closer, though I couldn't think of a cause. All I could say was that life had suddenly lost its savor. If I had to put a label on it, I'd have chosen the ancient spiritual term "acedia," as in Kathleen Norris's recent book on the subject. Acedia refers to a state of being imprisoned by malaise or ennui in regard to spiritual matters; it is a pronounced boredom, with nihilistic undertones.

Acedia can thus be dangerous, and something told me I needed to respond quickly. So I declared a desert day for myself, which meant canceling several upcoming events, setting aside a writing project despite a looming deadline, and "disappearing" in regard to phone calls and emails. I also skipped my usual morning routine of devotions and Mass. Instead, I bundled up and took a walk, then sat by the pond with my brain in neutral, not even trying to pray. By late afternoon, I felt the faint stirring of desire to do something useful, so I sewed a couple of patches on Mike's holey jeans, but that was it. A completely useless day, by all normal standards.

Yet, mysteriously, it worked. I slept hard and dreamlessly that night, and woke up this morning as myself, full of energy and thanksgiving and joy, full of delight in the newness of the new day. I have no idea what happened, only that complete rest--from duties, from creative work, from social relationships, from spiritual practice--helped avert looming despondency. That Sabbath-like rest was a balm for my silently hurting soul, a soul that cannot speak for itself but instead relies on me to love it and care for it in the ways it requires.

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