Thursday, January 24, 2008

Spiritual Solitude in Manhattan

New York magazine devoted its issue last week to finding "peace and quiet" in the city. I've found that the way to do that is to leave. Nothing says peace and quiet like "200 miles outside New York City." Of course, the other answer is to have a ton of money. I'm reminded, as I sit here typing to the dulcet sounds of a construction crew on the floor immediately below me and a scrappy dog immediately above, that better real estate in New York, among other things, often means quieter real estate.

But I'm not writing to complain about noise. I'm writing because the issue included a piece that I found fascinating and rewarding, about a woman named Martha Ainsworth who is trying to become -- while living in the most populous city in the country -- a "solitary" in the Episcopal Church, which is...
...a designation in the church’s canon laws that recognizes a life of solitude and silent prayer. If the bishop accepts her petition, Martha will embark on a years-long process to discern her fitness for religious life. She’ll undergo a background check and assemble a board of advisers to oversee her practice. She’ll take annually renewed vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, like any other monastic novice, in the hope of making them permanent.
I enjoyed the article partly because Ainsworth is a compelling character -- being me, I especially enjoyed learning that she's a thoroughbred racing fan and occasionally visits Belmont Park (though she doesn't bet, of course). But mostly, it was the investigation of prayer and solitude, and what they mean, that kept my attention:
Most of us think of prayer as asking God for something: Let the surgery go okay, keep the kids safe, let Matsui get on for Posada. We’re praying for peace of mind; it’s a means to an end. But what if we prayed until we couldn’t think of anything else to ask for—and then prayed some more? Contemplatives attempt to reverse the direction of prayer’s flow, to listen instead of ask. If you approach prayer this way (and pray enough), Martha explains, it leaves the dimension of words altogether, and the distractions—even the unceasing stimuli of New York City—drop away. “If prayer is quietly having a conversation with the divine, then it’s impossible to pray on the subway,” says Brother Horton.

Instead, the practice of a contemplative is to enter a sort of suspended time in which he feels alone in the presence of God. “You could say the Centering Prayer in Grand Central station at 2 p.m.,” says Brother Horton. “I wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner, but I’ve done it. It’s like breathing.”
I was most taken aback -- and not for the first time by a statement like this -- when Ainsworth discussed her moment of religious transformation:
At age 16, standing alone in her family’s Episcopal church in Visalia, California, Martha had a “moment of clarity,” an intense sense of God’s presence. It was a somewhat vague experience until Martha asked what God wanted her to do. “Did you ever have a moment when it seems like someone took a highlighter and marked the answer for you?” she asks, lifting a hand and swiping the air in front of her.
My answer to that question is a most definitive "No." I'm clinically indecisive, which is mostly a bad thing. I've been irreligious during my adult life, but if I ever did have a "highlighter" moment, all bets might be off, because I'd know that no such clarity would be coming from me.

Of course, following that moment of clarity, for the most rigorously spiritual, doesn't necessarily lead to waves of more clarity:
“For a lot of people,” says Martha, “the object of spirituality is to feel good, a cause and effect between spiritual practice and mental health. At worst, they think it’s some kind of magic trick that relieves stress. I don’t do it because it feels good. I do it because it’s how God calls me to fit into the world. In fact, the interior work can be very challenging at times, and not always peaceful.”


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