Over Christmas and New Years I spent ten days in a renovated farmhouse in the Catskills on a self-directed silent retreat.
I chose this locale because in 2011 I had done a long retreat in silence at a nearby convent “The Monastery of Bethlehem” in Livingston Manor New York.
Unfortunately this year I had waited too long to register for one of the hermitages on the convent grounds. As an improvisation, I reached out to a local realtor to see if I could rent a space nearby. That way at least I could go back and forth to enjoy the offices and mass at the convent as part of my retreat experience.
I did find a beautiful spot in a building on a farm on top of one of the countless hills in this part of the country.
But I found that not being on the convent grounds was a different experience. I was one large step removed from the community environment. Even though the retreat in 2011 was in silence, there was the sense that I and the other retreatants were still part of an extended community, a community with a very dedicated focus and intention to the contemplative life. I found that simply being alone in the midst of a mainstream society was different from being alone in the midst of a dedicated contemplative community. I learned again how important community and high quality shared litrugy is to sustain the discipline needed for serious contemplative efforts.
When all around you are engaged in a similar effort of silence, devotion, bright joy, and honest struggle, it is more possible, at least for me, to maintain my focus on the labors at hand.
In addition to being a few miles away and needing to “commute” back and forth, I also underestimated how difficult it can be to travel in a mountainous area in the dead of winter. As a consequence, I was only able to get to the convent for an occasional service and mass. This too was instructive. Being on the premises and being able to walk back and forth to the chapel allowed me to be carried along by the rhythym of the daily schedule of the community. Being able to walk back and forth without needing to climb in and out of a car allowed me to be able to drift back into the many centuries when there were no cars and no machines, into the time and rhythyms of life of the desert fathers and mothers and the medieval and early modern saints and mystics.
For in a sense all monastic life is from pre-industrial times. While I am not one to reflexively disparage the benefits of modern science and industry, I gained a fresh sense as to how different life was in the long generations and centuries before life began to accelerate to the ever faster tempos of modern times. This too was instructive.
I could see how much slower life used to be. I could see how much different life was without electricity and modern plumbing. Once again I am not saying the conveniences of modern life do not have their attractions. What I am saying is I could see how different life was in older times. I could see how different prayer and meditation were when they were not juxtaposed with countless forms of electronic media and the non-stop global news cycle.
But there is a reason why I have drifted off into living a semi-reclusive lifestyle, one that is not too closely affiliated with any community. That is because all of the communities I have known had their oppressive and stultifying attributes along side their positive attributes. Rather than being caught up with the old errors that I sense are intertwined with the beauty of the ancient truths, I decided I was better off in the margins of society where I could be free to partake of the ancient ways without having to be stymied by the limits and dysfunction of the ancient ways. I could also engage without fetter, my love of free and open thought about how to reform both ancient and modern traditions. I have known for a while this is at best a precarious solution, but it was better than the alternatives.
But this retreat in solitude and silence alone on a farmhouse among the frozen hilltops of the Catskills in the dead of winter was an eye opener. I was unable to take full advantage of the great freedom I had. And, I could see how much I had lost by stepping back from any kind of community life and liturgy.
The retreat was painfully difficult at times. Yet there were many real benefits, most of which only became apparent after I returned to regular living.
One of the most important benefits was the need to try again to find, or to start, a community where people have the right balance between solitude and times when the community comes together for liturgy, support, and the simple joys of fellowship and art.
Have you chosen a semi-eremitical lifestyle in either the Catholic or Buddhist tradition?
If so, please send in your notes and stories.
While there are not a lot of us out there, I know there are quite a few. I would like to, if possible, to get an informal network going that is similar to what the folks at Raven’s Bread have developed.
Will Raymond Author of The Simple Path of Holiness” firstname.lastname@example.org
Host of MeditationPractice.com