Retreat from Loneliness

Jean P. Kelly
Jean P. Kelly

I’m not sure why I thought the solution for abject loneliness was a four-day silent retreat alone. Perhaps I was so low that I thought only redemption could follow after going even lower. As a spiritual writer I admire once wrote, even Jesus had to descend into hell before he could rise again.

Or perhaps for the first time in my life I had nothing left to lose, nowhere else to be and no one to answer to about my absence on the weekend ending with Christmas Eve, 2018. Put that way, a trip to a Cistercian monastery south of Lexington, Kentucky, where philosopher Thomas Merton once lived, seemed almost a luxury. In reality, it was a gift to myself for the first major holiday without my immediate family: I wanted to understand how Merton and his fellow monks found in their lifestyle not loneliness, but rather joy in solitude. The wisdom I gained that distant holiday helped me endure with grace the unexpected retreat caused by Covid-19.

Six months earlier, loneliness had been thrust upon me when I moved out of my home of 24 years during a toxic marital separation. I chose to leave, giving up much that I loved—pets, farm animals, a beautiful home of antiques and paintings nestled on a bucolic property. But I didn’t choose to leave my teenage daughters; I thought they would come with me. Ten months after the divorce filing, however, I learned I’d misjudged the extent of my family’s brokenness. I found myself living alone in a four-bedroom rental.

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Overnight, I went from managing all aspects of a five-member household to opening the door of an empty house in the city after my day as a journalism professor. I’d jokingly call out to the four walls, “I’m home!”

No one answered. The closest thing I had to a pet was a Roomba vacuum.

I filled my days the best I could with a new routine that included work, exercise, writing, meditation, reading and praying—the last three usually at the same time. I adhere to an ancient monastic practice called “lectio divina,” or spiritual reading. First established by St. Benedict in the sixth century, lectio divina involves four steps: lectio (read), meditatio (meditate), oratio (pray), contemplatio (contemplate).

While I do sometimes read Scripture, I tend to choose decidedly secular texts for this practice—fiction, journalism and essays—everything from novels, to gothic Flannery O’Connor short stories, to Dorothy Day’s old Catholic Worker newspaper. The key is choosing a small selection and then walking through the four steps to find some inspiration in the work. Though a lifelong Catholic, it is no exaggeration to say this form of prayer has changed my life and deepened my faith, one page at a time.

More than once I have attempted to “lectio” Thomas Merton, considered one of the foremost spiritual thinkers of the 20th century. He was a convert to Catholicism who, after a lonely childhood, became a Trappist monk. I always admired his embrace of Eastern mysticism as compatible with Christianity and his outspokenness about issues from racism to the Vietnam War. Contrary to popular belief, monks do not enter a monastery to escape the cares of the world; instead, they pray intensely for the solution to those problems.

Before his death at age 53 in 1968, Merton wrote more than 70 books of poetry, commentary, essays and religious guides, many while he was in self-imposed exile, apart from even his fellow monks in a remote hermitage near the abbey. But I must admit, I sometimes struggled with his heady observations, scriptural allusions and philosophical musings. Until, that is, I, too, was alone.

When my family fell apart, I turned to Merton as sort of a literary spiritual adviser, studying his copious personal journals to learn just how he embraced being alone. I read, meditated and prayed, gaining insights but never quite wrapping my head around his love of solitude.

Clearly my mind and body both needed to experience the place where he seemed to find so much joy, so I checked in for a weekend at his monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. I made a point of telling my siblings, daughters and best friend that I would be going dark from emails, texts and calls, rare as those had become.

My first stop was at the visitors’ center on the 2,500-acre monastery grounds, which includes housing for more than 30 resident priests and brothers. There I learned about the rules of the Cistercian Order of Strict Observance, brought here by French monks in 1848. I read displays about the monks’ vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability, but stopped the longest at a description of monastic solitude. “Solitudo … is a quality of the community corresponding approximately to what might be called ‘separation from the world.’ It is a communal withdrawal … not so much a question of aloneness, but of being at a distance from whatever could blunt the sharpness of spiritual living.”

Then, I found it a little hard to believe that separation and solitude could be achieved in community. But I checked in with an open mind.

The monks pray and sing in a simply adorned church seven times each day, starting at 3 a.m. and ending at 8 p.m. Right away, I discovered something comforting about the rhythm and routine of walking to the church from my modest room in the retreat house every time the bells rang the call to prayers. Each time, I’d encounter fellow retreatants in the stairwells. We did not speak because that was against the rules. Once inside, I prayed and bowed along with the monks, who sat in wooden cells. Some fellow visitors sat quietly, either transported or grounded by the simple ceremony—I had no way of knowing. We seemed to become a community even though we had never spoken to one another. We were apart, but somehow together in our appreciation of the beauty of the ancient Hebrew psalms that the men in white hooded robes and black scapulars chanted in sweet tenor voices.

It was a little awkward to eat in a dining room full of people where the only sound was that of silverware clinking on china. I favored the long table with chairs on only one side so I could face a window, rather than face a stranger and not speak. In time, however, I began to appreciate the refreshing anonymity that freed me from small talk. A smile and nod was all that was needed to let me be alone with my thoughts. It was a relief not to explain why I was apart from my family at this time of year; I felt equally blessed not to have to hear the stories of others.

Between the clarion calls of the chimes, I was often in my small room reading a book of Merton’s journals from 1946 to 1952, published as “The Sign of Jonas.” The entries were written just after he made his final promise to stay at the abbey in lifelong silence. In one entry, he shared a discovery that led me to one of my own: “I finally resigned myself to being a writer, and found that the job had one big compensation: It brought me solitude.” Committing words to paper for an audience has brought me joy for 50 years; Merton’s words helped me recognize the blessed solitude I’ve found in this pursuit.

Merton’s journals also reveal that his chosen life of solitude was not without pain, loneliness and darkness. One entry shared an ancient Latin prayer: “Lady, Queen of Heaven, pray me into solitude and silence and unity, that all my ways may be immaculate in God. Let me be content with whatever darkness surrounds me, finding Him always by me in His Mercy.”

As I prayed more with the monks, I began to think that the writer of the psalms likewise understood my emptiness. In their rhythmic and repetitive stanzas, the scriptures seemed to shout and whisper about desperation and hope, endings and new beginnings, all at the same time. From the depths of my suffering, I heard them calling my name: “You have seen my affliction and taken heed of my soul’s distress. You have not handed me over to the enemy, but set my feet at large.” (Psalm 30)

For the first time, away from my responsibilities and familiar surroundings, I felt not just alone but enlightened. Freed. Perhaps solitude was simply a matter of accepting emptiness, not filling it with busyness, possessions and anxious over-achieving. As I did that weekend, perhaps I could fill lonely moments with silence, reading, writing, running or even nothing at all. As the priest who offered one of the Masses that weekend observed, “Love grows out of that empty place of silence and mystery.”

When darkness came quietly to my last night in the abbey, I took a seat in the balcony for the compline service. For anyone newly lonely, nighttime is always the toughest. I often go to bed early just to get the day over with, only to sleep fitfully or not at all. But that evening, a psalmist, who likely wrote from his own exile centuries ago, promised me a good night’s repose. “From anguish you released me. ... I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once. For you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

After the last prayer, the retreatants followed the monks two by two down the aisle toward the altar and a priest in purple vestments. I was reminded how, when they were still young enough to permit it, my three daughters would line up for a goodnight kiss on the head, my last chance to protect them with love and wishes of sweet dreams. That night it was my turn, sent to bed with a new understanding of solitude along with a few drops of holy water on my bowed head, bestowed by the priest’s silver aspergillum. I had no trouble sleeping that night, alone but no longer lonely.