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Silence and Solitude

by Br. Bertrand Vogelweide, OSB
“In 1904, at the age of twenty-five, Carrine Gafkjen, an immigrant from the Hallingdal Valley in Norway, staked out a 160-acre homestead thirty miles north of Williston, North Dakota. For a home, she moved into a one-room tarpaper shack. And for the required six months of the claim she lived there alone without electricity, running water, newspapers or visitors. Once a week, she walked five miles to Little Muddy Creek in order to do her wash and haul home enough water to boil for drinking. Potatoes and salt were her only food. She spoke to no one except the man she hired to break the land with his plow and four oxen.”*  Miss Gafkjen’s story is not unique. Many immigrants endured lonely nights on the Dakota prairie. But the lonely homesteader is about as close to the Christ in the Desert story as anyone I can think of. Many of us crave solitude—time out from our harried lives made all the more hectic with cell phones, crazy traffic, and overscheduled work—and we dream about a little place in the woods with no one there to disturb us. Indeed, a hermitage might be the ideal vacation for a time, until the experience turns into something more akin to wilderness.  Night after night all alone in a shack, and far from neighbors, one likely faces many inner demons. Christ allowed himself to be tempted in the wilderness for forty days and nights. Without food and friends, he wrestled the great metaphoric devil that lives in every human soul. Wilderness, in spiritual terms, is a place of trial. Precisely because it is a place to be alone, devoid of comfort and free of distraction, it is also a place of parting clouds and whispering wind.  A homestead is good testing ground. There are few things one can deny in a claim shack. At least with a cell phone I can pretend I’m important. But without it, and no one to call, I have only myself for company. At least in crazy traffic I have some place to go. But without that, inside a twelve by fourteen foot shack and miles and miles of snow outside, I’m stuck in the same little spot. At least over scheduled work delivers me from having to think about unpleasant personal demons. But without work distraction, the silence of four walls, growing darker in the evening, showing up the glow from a pot bellied stove, shadows are created that look like ghosts. Solitude forces me to see myself as I am with all my shortcomings, blemishes and scars.  Denial is a defense mechanism: faced with something uncomfortable, I push it aside and choose not to cope with that part of reality. I refuse to struggle and to learn. Humans have an enormous capacity to bury psychological pain. And in doing so, we embrace outright falsehoods, or we deny responsibility for wrong action. We push guilt aside and construct barriers against the truth.  In solitude there is no one to convince. Left alone, I have no refuge against myself. The first sign that denial is no longer working is an overwhelming feeling of boredom. Most people flee the hermitage as soon as this happens. They can’t get out fast enough, returning to busy society because the Desert is no longer enjoyable. Wilderness is no fun.  The second sign that denial is not working is a loss of energy. Just as in the case of depression, activity becomes oppressive. Even the thought of moving about is burdensome and the hermit can’t get out of bed.  The third sign that denial is not working is anger. There is a defensive eruption against forces that seem to threaten. The hermit fumes and rages inside the little tarpaper shack.  A Christian has to pass through these stages of weakness, fear and sorrow in order to embrace reality and find the way to strength, joy and triumph. Jesus Christ showed us the way in the Desert near the Jordan. He beckons us to follow. Our time of Lent requires a sojourn in the wilderness. A certain amount of solitude is necessary in order to own up to myself just as I am, to admit my need, and come close to Christ.  I don’t know if Carrine Gafkjen experienced any of the classic symptoms of a hermit’s progress towards God, but I can’t imagine that she lived without suffering during her six months alone on the prairie. (Soon after, she married, joined her claim to her husband’s, and raised several children.)  Let us pray for one another that we may, through God’s grace, find our way through our Lenten wilderness to an Easter full of strength and joy. * From Nothing to Do but Stay by Carrie Young.
Spiritual Reflections Spiritual Reflections

Silence and Solitude

by Br. Bertrand Vogelweide, OSB
“In 1904, at the age of twenty-five, Carrine Gafkjen, an immigrant from the Hallingdal Valley in Norway, staked out a 160-acre homestead thirty miles north of Williston, North Dakota. For a home, she moved into a one-room tarpaper shack. And for the required six months of the claim she lived there alone without electricity, running water, newspapers or visitors. Once a week, she walked five miles to Little Muddy Creek in order to do her wash and haul home enough water to boil for drinking. Potatoes and salt were her only food. She spoke to no one except the man she hired to break the land with his plow and four oxen.”*  Miss Gafkjen’s story is not unique. Many immigrants endured lonely nights on the Dakota prairie. But the lonely homesteader is about as close to the Christ in the Desert story as anyone I can think of. Many of us crave solitude—time out from our harried lives made all the more hectic with cell phones, crazy traffic, and overscheduled work—and we dream about a little place in the woods with no one there to disturb us. Indeed, a hermitage might be the ideal vacation for a time, until the experience turns into something more akin to wilderness.  Night after night all alone in a shack, and far from neighbors, one likely faces many inner demons. Christ allowed himself to be tempted in the wilderness for forty days and nights. Without food and friends, he wrestled the great metaphoric devil that lives in every human soul. Wilderness, in spiritual terms, is a place of trial. Precisely because it is a place to be alone, devoid of comfort and free of distraction, it is also a place of parting clouds and whispering wind.  A homestead is good testing ground. There are few things one can deny in a claim shack. At least with a cell phone I can pretend I’m important. But without it, and no one to call, I have only myself for company. At least in crazy traffic I have some place to go. But without that, inside a twelve by fourteen foot shack and miles and miles of snow outside, I’m stuck in the same little spot. At least over scheduled work delivers me from having to think about unpleasant personal demons. But without work distraction, the silence of four walls, growing darker in the evening, showing up the glow from a pot bellied stove, shadows are created that look like ghosts. Solitude forces me to see myself as I am with all my shortcomings, blemishes and scars.  Denial is a defense mechanism: faced with something uncomfortable, I push it aside and choose not to cope with that part of reality. I refuse to struggle and to learn. Humans have an enormous capacity to bury psychological pain. And in doing so, we embrace outright falsehoods, or we deny responsibility for wrong action. We push guilt aside and construct barriers against the truth.  In solitude there is no one to convince. Left alone, I have no refuge against myself. The first sign that denial is no longer working is an overwhelming feeling of boredom. Most people flee the hermitage as soon as this happens. They can’t get out fast enough, returning to busy society because the Desert is no longer enjoyable. Wilderness is no fun.  The second sign that denial is not working is a loss of energy. Just as in the case of depression, activity becomes oppressive. Even the thought of moving about is burdensome and the hermit can’t get out of bed.  The third sign that denial is not working is anger. There is a defensive eruption against forces that seem to threaten. The hermit fumes and rages inside the little tarpaper shack.  A Christian has to pass through these stages of weakness, fear and sorrow in order to embrace reality and find the way to strength, joy and triumph. Jesus Christ showed us the way in the Desert near the Jordan. He beckons us to follow. Our time of Lent requires a sojourn in the wilderness. A certain amount of solitude is necessary in order to own up to myself just as I am, to admit my need, and come close to Christ.  I don’t know if Carrine Gafkjen experienced any of the classic symptoms of a hermit’s progress towards God, but I can’t imagine that she lived without suffering during her six months alone on the prairie. (Soon after, she married, joined her claim to her husband’s, and raised several children.)  Let us pray for one another that we may, through God’s grace, find our way through our Lenten wilderness to an Easter full of strength and joy. * From Nothing to Do but Stay by Carrie Young.
Spiritual Reflections Spiritual Reflections
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