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The New Hermits: In Quest of Themselves, self help article by Lionel Fisher

Happiness and wellbeing personal development article about self help, happiness, personal development, self growth. size=1>

In the golden autumn of 1996, my dog and I embarked on a six-week, sixteen-state journey of 15,000 miles in search of new hermits. It was something I suddenly wanted to do, and when I couldn’t think of a single reason to keep me from it, I promptly set out. Not long on the open road, though, a sense of eerie displacement came over me, as if I were the only person left on earth with enough time to drive casually across the country, the last easy rider in a transonic land.

William Least Heat Moon’s “blue highways,” I soon discovered, had faded into Americana, displaced by freeways of frantic pursuit. Even George and Martha behind the wheel of their retirement Winnebago were in an all-fired hurry.

This uncanny feeling may have been triggered by a postcard I received from author Kathleen Norris the day before I embarked on my travels with Buddy. Several weeks earlier I’d written to her, requesting a meeting of whatever duration she could afford, in the hope of securing a few quotes for my book on celebrating time alone. My travels would take me past her rural Midwest town, I explained, and whatever time she could spare would be greatly appreciated.

“Sorry,” she demurred in her postcard, “but my schedule won’t permit an interview.” It was the word “schedule” that lingered with me as I set forth on my quest for magnificent loners, for it frayed the cherished image of this eloquent author cloaked in contemplative stillness beside her beloved monks. Upon forsaking Manhattan to move back to the Great Plains of her youth, Mrs. Norris had found the land’s silent call “powerful without being seductive,” leading her not ”aside or astray, but home,” as she recorded in her enthralling book, “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography.”

Perhaps, too, the word stayed with me because a few days earlier I’d come across an illustration in Utne Magazine of a tonsured monk on the run, briefcase in hand, newspaper under an arm, breathlessly hailing a cab. “Monks in Overdrive,” read the title of the accompanying article, excerpted from the National Catholic Reporter, which made the case that work, American style, is destroying monastic life as we romantically picture it.

There’s nothing particularly monastic about monastic life these days, Gregory J. Millman pointed out in his iconoclastic essay, quoting Father Timothy Joyce of Glastonbury Abbey in Massachusetts: “Monastics have become workaholics, always rushing around. I don’t think our life is any different from anyone else’s.”

What a dismal thought. And how different from the gentle image evoked by Dakota’s closing words: “Soon, the monks, too, will begin to sing, the gentle lullaby of vespers and compline, at one with the rhythm of evening, the failing light and the rise of the moon. Together, monks and coyotes will sing the world to sleep.”

In jarring contrast, Millman’s article concluded with a discouraging remark by Father Terrence Kardong, a member of Kathleen Norris’s own adoptive monastery, Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota: “You have an option of being shaped by culture or trying to follow your calling. Our calling is not to be tossed around by the storms of culture. We can decide our lifestyle. But how poor do you want to be?”

Ah, there’s the rub. How poor do you want to be?

“As poor as it takes,” I wish Father Kardong had added, but he didn’t.

Someone, after all, has to keep the wolf from the door, even from monastery porticoes. And if even monastics are overworked and harried, unable to keep themselves from being sucked into the money trap, what hope is there for the rest of us?

After passing, then, through Bozeman and Billings, I plunged into the prairie vastness of Wyoming, and then the amber emptiness of South Dakota where it parallels Nebraska. “The sky is a dome of eggshell blue tapering to turquoise at its edges, the land an ocean of hills and hollows,” I wrote in my journal on that glorious afternoon.

The whole month of October turned out to be magical, each Indian Summer day as benign as the one before it. Driving through Minnesota’s saffron fields stretching to the edges of the sky, I wondered if what Kathleen Norris might have told me would have been as worthwhile as the things I had found for myself.

But I already knew the answer.

Nearing Madison, Wisconsin, where my daughter was entering the final weary months of her doctoral pursuit, I paused to watch a cooling wind stroke a hillside trembling with the russet leaves of fall and learned the meaning of ”quaking aspen.”

My final stop on my autumn travels with Buddy before wheeling westward toward Phoenix, Reno, San Francisco, Portland, then Southwest Washington and home, was a Jesuit retreat house on a tiny Wisconsin peninsula jutting into Lake Winnebago. Here, at a breathtaking place called Fahrnwold–once a millionaire’s mansion, then a school for handicapped children, then a novitiate, and now a sanctuary of silence–I met with Father Richard McCaslin and Sister Marie Schwan.

At a picnic table wrapped by ancient oaks and an oyster- blue shoreline, I asked the two retreat directors, “Why do people come here? What are they seeking that they can’t find elsewhere?” Neither answered for a few moments, then Father McCaslin spoke first.

“More,” he said. “They’re looking for more. They come in search of meaning, for purpose, to make contact with something else, something transcendent. They come to find peace, to find freedom, to satisfy a hunger deep inside them for more than what their daily lives have to offer. They come to fulfil the longings of their human heart. They come with the need to step inside themselves so they can step outside again in a more fulfilling way,” the Jesuit priest added softly.

“They come to be quiet, to validate what they already know, to trust the authenticity of their own being. They know how to pray but they need the assurance they still can.”

Father McCaslin lapsed into silence, and then Sister Marie spoke: “We help them track their own inner path, to follow God’s footprints which are already there.”

“We each have within ourselves what we need for our own journey. The answers aren’t out there, out in the world, but within us. And we will only hear those answers if we are quiet enough.”

“I see women on their journey, working so hard,” Sister Marie said. “I have an image of their souls, stretched so tight they’re pulling apart, strained taut, frayed at the edges. ‘I invite you,’ I tell them, ‘to let your soul rest. Drop down into your deepest self and just rest, like a child in the arms of a good mother.'”

I drove away from Fahrnwold with that vibrant thought.

And another: We need to tell ourselves what we long to hear. For it will be truer than anything anyone else can tell us.


This article is excerpted from Lionel Fisher’s book, ”Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude” (Beyond Words Publishing, Spring 2001). He also writes a column on the art of living alone. Reach him at beachauthor@hotmail.com (c) Lionel L. Fisher

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