Franciscan Bookshelf: A Simplified Life: A Contemporary Hermit’s Experience of Solitude and Silence

By day, guest blogger K.P.—a good friend of Sister Julia’s—reads, writes, and has conversations about literature for a living. By night, she devours theology, sits silently with God, and pursues her calling as a lay order Franciscan through affiliation with FSPA. Each month she will share a favorite selection from her “Franciscan Bookshelf.”

For 25 years, Verena Schiller spent a life cultivated from quiet at the edge of the world. She lived alone in a weather-beaten shed on the precipitous edge of Llŷn Peninsula in Wales, battling both the elements and overpowering roar of her own silence. A member of the Anglican Community of the Holy Name and a consecrated sister, she shares her story in A Simplified Life, a book that rewards its reader for the slow turning of every page with a deeply felt sense of the holy struggle of solitude.

Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Simplified-Life-Contemporary-Experience-Solitude/dp/1848250258
Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Simplified-Life-Contemporary-Experience-Solitude/dp/1848250258

In prose that is as difficult and as raw as her salt-grimed cove, Schiller nudges her reader towards gentle insights about the interconnectedness of our inner and outer landscapes. The book winds together three complementary narratives: the rich spiritual history of the peninsula itself, overlooking Bardsey Island; the natural history of Schiller’s new habitat; her discovery of companion plants, animals, and tides; and the personal history of her journey from consecrated sister to solitary hermit. For readers interested in the ecological obligations of the Christian, the possibilities of practiced silence, or the structure of a life that is voluntarily secluded and driven by prayer and survival, Schiller’s story will be achingly beautiful, meditative in its rhythms and depths.

Two words that have drawn me, slowly but surely, onto my Franciscan path are the following—simplicity and solitude—and Schiller delivers a thought-provoking account of both. Silence … what a bonus that would be! But sadly, I think even at the edge of the world, I’d be pouring forth in conversation with the wildflowers, the gulls and the seaweed—as Schiller occasionally finds herself doing, actually.

This is not a journey white-washed for those (like me) who occasionally luxuriate in the idea of becoming a hermit: Schiller’s story makes clear that this is a life of struggle, but also of incredible purpose and beauty. I left these pages feeling extremely grateful for the sacrifice of these sisters and brothers whose quiet prayers animate the abandoned corners of our world.

Radical hospitality and responsible parenthood

While driving home from church last Sunday, I watched a man frantically chase a public bus for an entire city block, only to miss it by a few seconds. The bus stop he was trying to reach is just steps away from my house, and I waged an internal debate with myself as I pulled into my driveway: Should I turn around and pick him up?

On the one hand, he was a stranger, a male stranger, and I was in the car with my two young daughters. I didn’t know if he was intoxicated, mentally ill, or violent, and my first instinct as a mother is to protect my children from any potential harm. On the other hand, it was cold and rainy, and I knew the next bus wouldn’t arrive for at least another hour. It would be so easy for me to give him a ride half a mile up the road to intercept his bus, saving him a great deal of time (and sogginess). As campy as they were, those ubiquitous WWJD? bracelets from my youth certainly did drive home a point!

Photo courtesy of freeimages.com
Photo courtesy of freeimages.com

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.  Hebrews 13:2

After hemming and hawing for a few more moments, I finally backed out of my driveway and pulled up next to the man. Although he was surprised and initially suspicious of my offer, we ended up having a very nice, brief conversation together. When we arrived at the bus stop, he thanked me for “proving that there are still good people in this world.”

My three-year-old had remained silent during the five-minute ride, but as soon as the man stepped out of our car, she was bursting with questions. The experience opened the door to a fruitful discussion about the privilege of owning a vehicle, the need to look for opportunities to help others, and the practicalities of being a follower of Jesus.

“But, Mama,” she asked, “how could Jesus give someone a ride when there weren’t any cars where He lived?”

This is just a small example of one of the greatest struggles my husband and I share as parents: How do we answer Jesus’ call to radical hospitality, while honoring our primary responsibility to protect our children?

Before we were parents, my husband and I worked extensively with the homeless community in Chicago, even inviting a man experiencing homelessness to sleep at our apartment when he missed the evening deadline for his shelter.

I wonder: Would we issue the same invitation now?  How could we?  How could we not?

I do not want to use motherhood as an excuse for staying complacently in my comfort zone, but I also want to safeguard my daughters from injury and trauma. So how and where do we draw the line between nurturing those who depend on us to keep them secure, and welcoming the stranger into our cars, homes, and lives?

How do we reconcile responsible parenthood and radical hospitality?

I wish there were an easy –or even a single– answer to this question. I know, though, that much like parenthood and simple living, each family’s response requires personal discernment and no small amount of humility.

May we parents all pray for one another, then, that we will not allow our legitimate desire to protect our children from danger to blind us to the many opportunities we have to entertain angels … or to feed the hungry Christ in disguise.

Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s and mom to a three-year-old and one-year-old. She writes from the Seattle area where–especially in the winter–the need for radical hospitality is evident and abundant.

As the insects, like the swans: Living the vow of obedience with a free spirit

I am in the woods on Mount Subasio above Assisi, Italy, at a sacred place of prayer called La Carceri. It’s July 20, 2014. I am on a pilgrimage, thrilled to be praying in this holy place where St. Francis and the early friars spent much time in contemplation.

I too am in contemplation on this holy ground. I am pondering what I just heard preached during the Mass, where our Franciscan pilgrimage group gathered around a stone altar underneath some tall trees.

Rays of Light through Tall Trees, La Carceri, Italy. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Rays of Light through Tall Trees, La Carceri, Italy. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

I was reminded that the path to holiness is a journey of struggle. Even though we’re living a religious life, we’re just as human as everyone else. And, when we’re real with ourselves, we can admit that much of our life is spent wrestling with the reality of our own frailty, our own sinfulness. St. Francis spent more than 200 days in hermitage each year, even while admitting that…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report.  Continue reading here.

The backwards blessings of being busy

A little bit after my Christmas break began a couple weeks ago, I realized something was wrong with me.

Here I was, entering into days that were meant for rest and rejuvenation, and I totally felt stressed out about all I had to do. Sure, it made sense. The end of the year and the holidays are a busy time for most of us. Maybe procrastination had gotten the best of me. I do know that during those hectic weeks between Thanksgiving and the start of my Christmas vacation, I moved several things on my to-do list into those big gaps of “free time” on my calendar around Christmas.

But even though it may have made sense that I felt stressed, it didn’t seem right. I couldn’t actually relax and just take pleasure in the things I needed and wanted to do. I even found it difficult to actually focus on the work, because my anxiety about it all felt so intense. A sudden abundance of “free time” strangely seemed to put extra pressure on me to achieve, accomplish, produce. Whew.

I couldn’t help but to wonder: Am I addicted to being busy? 

My heart was deeply pondering that uncomfortable question. My body was desiring some real rest. And, my mind was longing to actually accomplish some necessary tasks. So, I couldn’t help but to pause and immediately read this article when it came across my Twitter feed:

Why is everyone so busy? The Economist

I took a break from the anxiety about the work and delved right in. Then, I totally calmed down. It was an incredible and interesting read, not something I could skim. In fact, the article actually stirred up some good personal reflection for me. The article contained particular insights that I found to be so striking that they lingered with me during the rest of my break (especially whenever I was tempted to feel shame for not being productive.) Here’s a few quotes:

  • Nowadays professionals everywhere are twice as likely to work long hours as their less-educated peers. 
  • Lunches now tend to be efficient affairs, devoured at one’s desk, with an eye on the e-mail inbox. At some point these workers may finally leave the office, but the regular blinking or chirping of their smartphones kindly serves to remind them that their work is never done.
  • The rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all.
  • The endless possibilities afforded by a simple internet connection boggle the mind. When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it.
  • The struggle to “have it all” may be a fairly privileged modern challenge. 
  • The years soon bleed together and end up rushing past, with the most vibrant memories tucked somewhere near the beginning. And of course the more one tries to hold on to something, the swifter it seems to go.
  • Leisure time is now the stuff of myth. Some are cursed with too much. Others find it too costly to enjoy. Many spend their spare moments staring at a screen of some kind, even though doing other things (visiting friends, volunteering at a church) tends to make people happier.

It wasn’t news for me to know that I am an experience junky and that I am over-ambitious. And, I know I have some bad habits. I’ve been aware for a while that more mindfulness and intentionality about how I use my time would benefit me. But the real striking and fascinating, thing I learned from the article is that part of the reason I feel such a pressure to be productive is that I am a well-educated and privileged American. There’s a backwards blessing in being busy mixed into all this.

As a Franciscan Sister, I find that my life really is an awkward dance of service and contemplation, of solitude and community. I have chosen this lifestyle/God gave me this vocation, because the life really does offer much potential for balance. With balance comes health and happiness.

As a disciple of Jesus, I continue to learn and re-learn that what matters most is not what we do after all. God doesn’t necessarily call us to be productive, but to be present. (I recently came across another brilliant piece of writing that deeply explores this dynamic of our busy lives.) The kingdom of God is build through relationships and love, not goals and accomplishments. What matters most is how we are with each other.

In the end, I did have a restful and rejuvenating Christmas break, with a good balance of leisure and work. I’ve been back to teaching for a couple days now and in the classroom with my students I feel lighter and more grounded than when my vacation began. The balance of my break has had healthy impacts. I am so thankful that I was able to fill my time with stronger doses of human connection and celebration, contemplation and rest, as all of it helped me be a better teacher and servant.

Now, the question that I felt challenged to confront at the beginning of my Christmas break lingers: Why do I allow myself to be so busy? I am not sure what the answer is. But, I don’t think I am addicted to being busy after all. My new years resolution is to remain balanced, intentional, to move slow. Then, maybe, I can enjoy the blessings of being busy.