Unfolding the Map
In this post, I get reflective, very reflective. It's William Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) fault because he stops at a Trappist monastery to learn why monks remove themselves from the world. That leads me to reflect on my own inability to do so when I need to, and to examine the journey of a friend who seems to be able, through running, to find the best of both worlds. I hope you find your healthy solace and solitude through reading this post. Click on the map at right to see where LHM did his own little retreat, and feel free to let me know how you occasionally step away from the world.
William Least Heat-Moon: "Why would a sane man sequester himself? Renounce the world? How could he serve a religion that makes so much of love among peoples and then keep to himself?"
Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 17
Brother Patrick, Trappist: "I begin with this broken truth that I am. I start from the entire broken man - entire but not whole. Then I work to become empty. And whole. In looking for ways to God, I find parts of myself coming together. In that union, I find a regeneration....
"....Coming here is following a call to be quiet. When I go quiet I stop hearing myself and start hearing the world outside me. Then I hear something very great."
Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 18
Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Georgia
As I get older, I am a man who is beginning to understand himself. Two years ago, after I finished my dissertation, I began to emerge from the self-imposed home exile into which I had put myself. When one writes a dissertation, one immerses him or herself into the writing. Days are spent trying to get something, anything on the paper. The time for socializing is limited. I had moved to a new city, Albuquerque, in 2004 and unlike in other cities where I lived, I didn't really go out seeking friendship and companionship. I had work to finish. It took four years. While my wife was working and meeting people, I spent most of my days at home in front of the computer.
I was growing unsatisfied with life. It seemed that my wife was ramping up her life with her career, her professional activities, and her friendships, and I wasn't ready to go along. I was not willing to, as I saw it, careen from one event to the next. I wanted something more sedate and controllable. But conversely, I was also lonely. I hadn't developed many friends in Albuquerque. I was alone a lot, and I didn't like the aloneness. In fact, I feared it and always had. Wounding, hurtful views that I had about myself, created in the cauldron of family dysfunction of my youth, always came flooding to the surface when I was alone. My doubts and fears, my self loathing and hatred, they always were lurking under the surface of my active life. To be alone was to face them, and I didn't want to face them.
When I finished my dissertation, I ended up taking a one-year position as a visiting professor in Lubbock, Texas. My wife stayed in Albuquerque. I spent my weekdays in Lubbock, and drove five hours to Albuquerque on Friday and five hours back to Lubbock on Sunday. In Lubbock, I was both alone and lonely. I was lonely for my wife, lonely for friends. And I was alone. I feared greatly being alone five days a week. But it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I reveled in it. I watched movies and I wrote. I found the Zen of doing dishes and laundry.
When my assignment in Lubbock was over, I came back to my life. But for some reason, I had trouble bringing with me that ability to find solace in aloneness as I got back into my Albuquerque life. It was like having a retreat, but once the retreat is over, everything reverts to normal. But I take as inspiration a friend who, I think, has found how to put a desire for silence and aloneness in balance with his duties and activities in the world.
When I was in my twenties, I joined a Catholic volunteer organization and lived with another man and three women in Milwaukee. All of us did some kind of social work in the community. The other guy, TJ, and I became close. We initially bonded when the women in our house were in an argument over something, and both of us separately left the house and ended up together at a bowling alley where we drank some beer and played video games.
I considered myself artistic and literary, an English major. I wrote poetry. I was shy around and about women. TJ had been a business major, a member of a college fraternity, and he'd had a lot of girlfriends. But he was searching. We talked and he began writing poetry and stories. We both were competitive, and played games to win. He taught me euchre, and one night when I couldn't lose he got so angry that he picked up a book, the Trappist Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, and threw it across the room.
In time, over that year, I came to consider him possibly the best friend I ever had. He became important to me in a way that many others never had up to that point. We were close, but we had difficult moments. We both fell in love with one of our roommates. It could have torn things up between us. But that experience taught me just how emotionally fragile and immature I was, and set me on a path to some eventual inner healing. I could have seen the situation as another competition between us, but for once TJ didn't make it that way. In fact, both of them were generous enough to patiently put up with me until I could make peace with the situation. That generosity made a huge impression on me. Some years later, I was honored to be asked to be best man at their wedding.
A short time before the wedding, TJ decided to do a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery in Iowa. How ironic since he had once thrown Thomas Merton's book forcefully into a wall. He had flirted with the idea of becoming a priest, and I think that the retreat was a way for him to decide, once and for all, whether he really wanted marriage or to look into life as an ecclesiastic. He was also drawn to silence. He often spent time alone doing prayerful reflection, and certainly a Trappist monastery would offer a lot of time for silence. His fiancee was, as you can imagine, worried about where this exploration would lead. He did the retreat, and came home and made a decision. He left any possibility of a path toward priesthood behind, and embarked into married life.
They had two children, both girls. I was lucky enough to go on business trips to the East Coast where they moved and stayed with them three or four times a year. Their youngest daughter became my godchild. TJ became a high school teacher. But he was troubled. He started drinking more, and there were some signs of depression. He sometimes spent evenings with a glass of whiskey in a darkened room, thinking and ruminating. His wife was worried, and called me. I offered what I could in phone talks. He recognized what was happening, and made a decision to start counseling. Things got better. But it seemed that he was searching for something - that he felt in need of something that he still hadn't found.
I suggested once, when I was in a running phase, that he and I should train for a half-marathon. I would train where I was living, and come out and run a race with him in his city. We both trained, and we both ran. Through running, it seemed he suddenly found what he needed. He began training for marathons, first one, then another, then another - three or so a year.
Today, TJ seems more centered and grounded than I ever knew him to be. He has nurtured his love of the written word, and teaches English at his high school. He loves to try to help high schoolers see the joy in reading a great book. His daughters are beautiful and growing. He and his wife are busy with the girls but they make time to do things together. He's lost his competitive edge - he doesn't even really follow his beloved football and baseball teams anymore. He's given up drinking entirely. And he runs. He loves long distances, whether training or racing. I imagine that he finally found, in running, the way to that silence, that spirituality, that way to set himself apart from the world that I think he needed. What the Trappist monastery couldn't provide, he made for himself.
If I sound envious, I am. I still seek a way to embrace aloneness at times and be comfortable with it and with myself. How I beat myself for the smallest things. If I sound admiring, I am. I admire how he found a slice of perfection, a life in good balance. If I sound like I miss him, I do. I miss both him and his wife, who regardless of the years and miles apart still make me feel happy and a little more whole when I think of them. There are few people with whom I share such a friendship. Every time I talk with TJ now, I find he helps me briefly center myself when my problems seem overwhelming.
Everyone seeks that balance - a mixture of being of the world, and yet able to step apart from it so that it can be seen for what it is and appreciated. A very few sequester themselves in monasteries. Many can carve space in in the midst of the myriad activities of their lives. Many never find that place of solace. I am still looking for a way to make it a part of my life - to find a time and space where I can put the world aside and be comfortable with my aloneness. I find it in pieces, but not as an everyday occurrence. I think TJ found running to be his daily retreat into reflection, spirituality and peace. He gives me hope that I will find my own balance one day, without having to join a Trappist monastery - instead, I'll find it within myself. To answer LHM's question, above, I realize that I am often broken, but TJ has taught me that I can mend my brokenness by removing myself from the world for small periods, even as I remain active and engaged in my world.
If you want to know more about the Monastery of the Holy Spirit
Next up: Alexander City, Alabama