Tuesday, August 22, 2023

On Solitude and Loneliness

Note: Since I'm living in France now, I've added a "translate" option for those who want to read the blog in French or any other language. This particular blog post, however, is going to be confusing in translation. English distinguishes between "solitude," as the outward condition of being physically alone, and "loneliness," which is the painful emotion of being isolated or disconnected from human companionship. French, Spanish, and probably lots of other languages use the same word for both. So if you find this post confusing in places, you might want to switch back and forth to the original English. If the word translated as "solitude" starts with an "L" in English, it is the painful emotion. If it starts with "S" or "A", it's the emotionally-neutral state of being alone.


    It's been almost 5 months now since I moved into my new village hermitage in Burgundy, France, near my new Benedictine monastery, the Abbey of La Pierre Qui Vire. I'm starting to settle in, and take stock of how different my eremitic life is shaping up to be here, as opposed to the way I lived back in Maryland. I'm beginning to make friends at the monastery, and the people in the village are friendly but reserved, the perfect balance for a new hermit in town.

    I'll tell you what, though: the first few months were tough. This is why it's been so long since I posted ... I've been struggling! I cried a lot. I'd never been so lonely in the first four years as a hermit! In all of last year, living in Spain, I never made any friends and I spent much more time alone, but I wasn't lonely like this. But I think it's like when you get absorbed in something and forget to eat, but you don't feel hungry until you smell dinner cooking, and all of a sudden you're ravenous. There were no monasteries near me in Spain, no obvious ready-made community that I wanted to connect with. The loneliness hit once I settled next to this monastery here in France, thinking "these are my people!", and then coming up against ... the cloister wall. I was just ravenous for connection, and could not find a way to connect. It was excruciating.

    Other hermits talk about loneliness being a part of the vocation. But it never had been for me before. I love my solitude! Back home in Maryland, I lived in a cabin in the woods, very alone, and often spoke to no one at all between Sunday afternoon and the following Sunday morning. Those were the best weeks, I reveled in my solitude. I did not go to daily Mass, only Sundays and major feast days. But on those Sunday mornings, I would go to St. Anselm's, and be among a real community of friends, and collect hugs to carry me through another week. 

    Here, I go to Mass at the Abbey every morning, and Vespers almost every evening. And although I still have plenty of beautiful trails to hike all around, my hermitage itself is right in the village. I am far less alone, but also far less connected. I'm a solo expat in a country whose language I don't speak well, and I'm a woman trying to make friends at a cloistered men's monastery. And I'm trying to reestablish some kind of a hermit's life here, not going out collecting a hundred acquaintances out of which a few might become real friends.  

    So, loneliness. And my friends, I don't like it. Yes, to some extent, I was able to ride it deeper into the heart of God, my Beloved. I was able to go deeper into my own eremitic vocation, on that sense of emotional crucifixion. Yes, there is a purifying aspect to it, as there is any time some painful reality is embraced rather than resisted. 

    But also ... I need people. There may be hermits who are called to a more radical solitude than I am, but I think for most of us, we need a balance between solitude and human connection. Yes, I have some neurodivergent community online, and my St. Anselm's oblate community, and my spiritual director and I meet by Zoom, and chats with family back in the U.S. My beloved brother and brother-in-law are in the next country over, and I made a couple of road trips to visit. And that all helps, but it wasn't enough to keep the loneliness away. So I've kept on trying and trying to connect.


    Now, nearly five months in, it has started to get a whole lot better. By pure chance, I met the abbot and another monk at an event at a different monastery, and we had lunch together, and it turned out that they also were delighted to finally meet me. Then I had a couple of opportunities to spend some time in conversation with a group of the younger monks. The abbot invited me to join some of them one day for morning prayer in the village church, which I think helped to open the whole community toward me, like he was publicly giving me his seal of approval. And at my request, I have a wonderful elder monk to meet with weekly one-on-one, a sort of monastic mentorship.

    Honestly ... I am head over heels in love with this monastery, and the monks are more and more responding, more and more welcoming, to my delight in being there with them. They are so obviously a healthy community, I mean psychologically healthy, as individuals and as a family of brothers. They do beautiful liturgy, well sung, with long, meditative silences in between. The homilies are thoughtful, meaningful. The abbot is wise and obviously deeply prayerful, deeply contemplative. They have brothers from Vietnam and others from Burundi, which gratifies my native-Washingtonian love of human diversity. They are deeply committed to "green" living, and they live in a magical environment, a lovely forest with a little river running right behind the church.

    I want to join! Obviously, it's not possible ... I'm a woman, it's a monastery of men. And anyway, I need solitude, it is my true vocation. Still I am fiercely drawn to this community, with all my mad neurodivergent intensity, and my mind insists on slotting that desire into a known category, wanting to enter as a postulant, as a nun among the monks. But if I can hold that thought lightly, I understand that what will actually happen, with patience and suppleness of discernment, is that I and the community of La Pierre Qui Vire will grow together as friends and neighbors, as sister and brothers, and the link between me and them will develop in ways that none of us can yet imagine. I know that I will grow in my monastic vocation under their influence and example, with strengths and lifestyle so very different from my city monastery back home.

     A prayer for any lonely ones who read this, that you too find true community, or whatever form of genuine human connection you want and lack. Amen.

∞∞∞∞∞∞ PEACE ∞∞∞∞∞∞

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