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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org
(c) Lionel L. Fisher
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