In my late twenties, back when I still had my hair and my faith, I spent a week of silence in a monastery in rural France in an attempt to overcome the anxiety and worries that bullied me in my daily life. Other than the two short meetings with a monk to discuss my experience, I spoke to no one for seven days.
I’ve been thinking about that week recently due to our current period of isolation. I know the two experiences have little in common. No lives were in the balance. I chose to go to the monastery. I knew that after a week the silence would end and I would go back to my regular life.
However then, like now, I wasn’t on my own. For that week of silence, I stayed in a house on the monastery grounds with a group of twenty or so others. I knew none of them beforehand but we cobbled together a surprising effective sign language when we met for meals or washed the dishes together.
There were no televisions or radios in the house. Phones were off although they were less handy as distraction devices in those days. One monk advised we could read. Early in the week I started a muscular crime novel. It entertained but jarred. Brutal murderous vendettas weren’t entirely in keeping with my spiritual and physical location so I tried to settle into the silence. I write my observations and thoughts in the little notebook a monk had given each of us.
We were encouraged to pack snacks and water and go for long walks in the beautiful countryside. I did this most days. As I walked, I hoped and waited and prayed for my anxiety to be dispelled forever. I wrote down whatever insights I needed to write, filling page after page of the notebook. I once felt the presence of God shaking through me in the forest. Minutes later a farmer shouted at me for walking through his field and my fears returned.
When the week ended, a few hours were spent in the monastery before leaving. Some of my group went back to talking immediately as easily as turning on a tap. For myself and others, it was hard. Words didn’t come easily. They were ill-fitting in our mouths and needed to be forced out at first.
I found my way to the TGV train for Paris and to the apartment of a friend who worked in the OECD. That night her friends from all over the world arrived for a dinner party. At first, I was resentful. It was too much stimulus. I wanted to hold onto the silence but I flowed with it and was back to my chatty self soon.
That was not far off twenty years ago. I still have my anxiety. It has peaked at times in recent weeks but I also have coping skills that help accommodate it. I have my vivid memories of that week in France, but not the notebook and whatever cryptic wisdom I scrawled within it.
On the night before leaving the monastery, I walked on my own on a dirt path back into the woods. I was scared but followed where I believed the spirit was leading me. I crawled right through the trees to the bank of a river. In the moonlight, I dropped my notebook into the river and whispered, ‘My life is my prayer,’ and walked back to the monastery.
I don’t fully understand what that phrase means anymore, but I know it felt true when I said it.
It feels true to me today.
Ours lives and how we choose to live them are our prayers now.