The summer of 2002, I entered my own great silence when I ventured to live with Roman Catholic monks – specifically Trappist and Benedictine – across North America. In Roman Catholicism, great silence is the period beginning at the canonical hour of Compline (night Prayer), in which monks are silent until the first office of the next day, Lauds (morning prayer). Great silence is meant to create an atmosphere for monks to converse with and deepen their relationship with God.
When I started my journey, I didn’t know what great silence meant – for me, or for the monks. My intention in going to live with Roman Catholic monks was to do research for a novel which I had started writing in which a monk discerns his vows. My questions were straight forward: What did it feel like to believe in something, to devote your life to it, and then second guess it? Was it possible to walk away from monastic vows? Did anyone ever really know if they were on the right path at the right time? Was it choice or chance that dictated our paths?
Deciding to take a leave of absence from my job to live at monasteries was part spontaneous, part survival as I needed to shift my life to a more manageable rhythm. I had spent most of my twenties working full time in publishing and achieving multiple graduate degrees. Having survived 9/11 and witnessing how quickly one’s life could transform, I wanted more from the days I was alive beyond working nonstop and checking accomplishments off my to do list. I wanted to write and explore versus sit in an office all day.
As I mapped out my adventure, coordinating daily with monastery guest masters, I believed I was ready to go off on a solitary mission. I had read Seven Story Mountain and The Monastic Journey by Thomas Merton, in addition to Kathleen Norris’s Cloister Walk and various books by Esther de Waal and Frank Bianco. Beyond my studies, spiritual adventures were not new for me: I had been on vipassana retreats and had spent many weekends up at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, studying spirituality, meditation, and yoga; I had spent dozens of summers at writing retreats; and, I had recently completed an 18-month yoga teacher training program, which had commenced two days prior to 9/11, and transformed my life in meaningful ways. A daily yogi and runner, I thought I understood the essence of going inward, silence, and the journey toward serenity. I was ready.
I started my journey that summer at the Himalayan Institute in Pennsylvania, where I spent a few weeks in a Self-Transformation Program to unwind and transition before I traveled to my first monastery. At the Institute, my days started with 4:30 am meditation, then yoga, before our “workday” began, during which we were typically situated in the ayurvedic gardens or given jobs chopping up vegetables in the kitchen or working around the grounds. My friends in the STP were all trying to find their way, too: some were going through divorce, others were kicking drug habits, or in between jobs. We were a motley crew and while I began to unwind a bit, I also began to overthink everything. Was I doing the right thing taking this leave of absence? Was I writing enough during the days, or was I spending too much time each day socializing with the STP crew and working around the Institute?
I had second thoughts daily. My life and career back in NYC seemed dreamy after days spent pulling weeds in the garden and eating bland vegan food. Maybe a leave of absence wasn’t the best idea. Maybe I was better off going back home and calling off my adventure. Or maybe that was just fear creeping in and making me question everything. I worked on grounding myself and melting away the anxiety that uprooting my life instigated. While requesting the leave from work took confidence and trust in my plans, going off on the solitary quests I planned required me to be courageous. I was about to step into a world I knew nothing about. My mind was on overdrive, trying to process what I was about to embark upon.
Weeks later, when I boarded the plane to Canada to head to the first monastery in Muenster, Saskatchewan, the plane was full of men. From conversations overheard, I assumed they were fathers, sons, brothers, and friends who were all going hunting (I had watched them check their rifles as we waited at the check in counter). I focused on my breath throughout the flight and spent time journaling. Busy-ness was the key to quell my anxiety. Little did I know that my first major trial was about to begin.
Upon landing, no taxis wanted to take me to the monastery, which was two hours away. This was 2002, and Uber and many of our modern-day conveniences didn’t yet exist. Finally, a woman, Nora, agreed to drive me, first going to her house to pick up her taxi-driver husband, who she asked to come along for the long drive on barren country roads. It was a steamy July day, and when we finally arrived at the monastery grounds, which were scenic in areas, austere in others, I felt panic rise in me. I was so far away. I felt nowhere. Nora seemed to sense my disorientation and wrote her name and number on a card and told me that I could call her at any time and she and her husband would come to get me.
I had transitioned from a stiletto-wearing Hamptons weekend girl who lived on New York City’s Upper East Side, to little-house-on-the-prairie long-skirt wearing girl in a matter of weeks. After getting in trouble for wearing tank tops (i.e., showing skin) at the Himalayan Institute, I had been sure to pack long sleeve shirts to run in, and modest body-covering outfits to wear at the monastery, hoping to blend in.
Unwinding is complicated. As much as you are open to it, it’s emotional and requires you to let go and make room in your life for the unknown. Being alone in my room that first night – antiseptic and barren with the black wrought iron cross on the wall below the twin-sized cot with a sheet and thin blanket, the sound of owls and wolves in the background – I felt vulnerable and small. There was such a big world out there. The monks had been kind, showing me around the grounds and guest quarters, and dinner – a light vegetable broth and salad – was quiet and uneventful as I sat at the guest table, taking it all in. After dinner, the guest master told me that the following day, he would introduce me to the woman’s writers’ group that was coming to visit for a week, but the truth was, I felt lost. Where was I, and why? I wished I was back home, far from this strange new world.
Running around the monastery grounds each morning in Muenster, I was clear that there were corners of the world from which one could disappear. If I got lost out there in the Saskatchewan prairie or got lured somewhere by a stranger up to no good, I would vanish. I was that off the grid. Out on the prairie, my perception was off – everything seemed so close, although it was far away. I rationed my water as I looped the sandy six+ mile stretch around the monastery grounds, a survival skill which would help me so many years later when I became an ultramarathon runner and often ran 10+ mile stretches in extreme heat with no water sources in sight.
Moving out of my hectic lifestyle and into peace and quiet gave me an opportunity to process and reset. As I shed my hectic, always-on New Yorker instincts and entered the realm of great silence, it was as if I were stepping foot in a foreign country. Although this new space provided an opportunity for reflection, the frequency I was living in was very different. The silence unearthed an abundance of turmoil within me. It’s one thing to live in NYC and go into your apartment and turn all off; it’s another thing to live within a cloud of silence and be silent within it. Often, I felt as I had jumped into the ocean and got caught up in the current, drifting farther from the shore.
I spent my mornings running and practicing yoga, afternoons writing in my room or one of the common spaces: the guest wing, sitting in the garden – which later would become the setting for the garden in my novel – or sitting on the ground outside by one of the monastery’s buildings, as poplar cotton-fluff flew around me. At night, after dinner, I went for walks with the women’s writer group who had taken me under their wing, inviting me to join their late afternoon excursions to visit local fine artists who lived a few miles off in the distance.
There was something addicting to the silence of the monasteries – once I had a bit of it, I wanted more. And yet, I craved people, too. I learned, though, that people came with stories, and stories took up mental energy, and I was just beginning to lose the world long enough to think about my life and move into the novel I was writing. When I wasn’t thinking about those things, I was learning what it meant to be a monk. I was watching how the monks moved and interacted and prayed and trying to envision the world through their eyes.
After St. Peter’s Abbey in Saskatchewan, I ventured to Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, one of the 15 Cistercian Trappist monasteries in North America. Compared to the barren prairie, the grounds at Mepkin were mystical with enormous oak trees scattered around Cooper River. At twilight each day, as I sat on the porch of my simple wooden cabin, I envisioned the commanding trees with their majestic branches and dense shadows coming to life when darkness set in, and moving about the grounds, like sentinels, making sure all was in order.
Next, I was off to Spencer, Massachusetts which involved a car wreck with my rental car being towed off I-84. It was hours before I was equipped with new rental car and drove to Mary House, which was situated down the road from Saint Joseph’s Abbey, and where I was to reside for a week, with day visits to the Abbey. In August, I ventured to Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, California and invited a local friend to join in my adventure. By this time, I was feeling more lost than found. My unraveling had left me unsure of everything in my life – my desire to write the novel, my career, my next steps in life. I had grown so used to being alone, spending hours each day in the monastery and writing, that I didn’t know what to talk about the hours I spent with my friend.
Two months in, the silence of the monasteries was deafening for me. There were days that I wanted to escape from myself, but more than any other experience in my life, living alongside the monks taught me how to be with myself. How to reflect. Over time, it taught me not to be overwhelmed with the silence, but to open to it. It taught me how to breathe through anxiety and how to settle myself when everything inside of me was screaming and trying to break free, and seek distraction, comfort.
Running on those desolate roads out by the various monasteries, I marveled over the fact that we found our way back to our lives, our homes, again and again. That seemed like a bigger miracle to me than anything. How weren’t more people physically lost in this great big and complex world?
My final adventure was to a Buddhist Monastery upstate New York, where we sang praises to White Tara during the day, and all slept in a barn and camped out together, walking over bodies during trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night. What astounded me most at the Buddhist Monastery was that most of the people I met there lived in cities and were professionals, who if I had met them in their normal 9 to 5 life, I would have never known this other version of their lives in which they prayed and meditated and sang hymns.
Each journey led me somewhere new on the outside, as well as the inside. I learned how to adapt, accept, and overcome adversity. I learned how to listen to others and to myself, and how to cultivate my curiosity so that my questions didn’t come off like I was always interviewing others, so much as I was experiencing them.
There was always a multitude of mishaps to sort through each time I landed and began the journey anew: finding my way to the monastery, being shown my room, learning the rules – when I ate, when we prayed, when it was lights out. I learned how to manage my emotions, my fears, and my desperation. What I didn’t know at the time was how much my experiences would help me to manage all that was to come in the next chapters of my life: my mom’s illness, my brother’s illness, ultrarunning, and much later, the pandemic. I was unaware at the time how much the silence and reflection I endured would help me later in my life as I pondered career transitions, relocating to new cities, and relationships, too. At the Roman Catholic monasteries, when the bells rung, everyone showed up in the church to pray. It was a reminder to me about the power to find our way back to who we are and what we believe in regardless of how much we may stray each day. Finding my way back to my core turned out to be a great guide whenever I evaluated big and small decisions.
The answers to the questions that propelled my journey came over time. I learned that no one really knows if they are on the right path, but rather we follow what feels right, as haphazard as the path may be, and go towards the light we see and sometimes the light we trust is there. I learned that we dance between chance and choice our whole lives, and that in the end, it’s up to each of us to carve a path and follow the route that feels right for us, with an awareness that down the road, we may need to shift lanes. I learned that the goal – if there was one to life – was to be good to others and aim to move towards something bigger than ourselves.
The great silence taught me how noisy we are and how difficult it is to reconcile our minds and hearts. It taught me about the patience and practice it takes to still the waves within us. The silence taught me that I have options: when the world around me becomes too much, as it often does, I can navigate the journey with my mind and heart. I learned that silence enables me to make sense of my thoughts and feelings and wishes and wants and release what is not serving me.
During the darkest days of the pandemic, when no one was on the streets and travel was at a halt, I was brought back to the silence of the monasteries. I thought of us all floating together in the silence, each of us on our own journeys, but still together, even if we could not see one another. It was in that space that I buckled down to edit my novel, over a decade after I visited the monasteries. It brought me back to the profound truths I learned at the monastery: that you cannot tuck yourself away in this world – even at a monastery – and escape from your heart and soul. Your turmoil and your joy come with you wherever you go and that regardless of our zip codes, our heaven and hell is that we must live through each day of our lives. There is no easy solution to working on ourselves except to do the work. When we step into great silence, we hear so much. It’s up to us if we listen and carve our path based on what we hear.