One of the boundaries that has helped me integrate my creativity and my spirituality is the sister-discipline of solitude. I’m a true monastic at heart, but it has been extremely hard for me to come to a place where I’m not crippled by guilt in my efforts to live in a way that is, as Macrina Wiederkehr so lovingly put it, “kind to my own soul,” to make choices with my days—even small ones—that are not only good for me emotionally and creatively, but that keep my heart calibrated to its true north.
In a world that is whirling faster than ever, I long for soul anchors, rituals and ancient rhythms that connect me to my center. One of the things I do, in an effort to make my days more liturgical, more centered, is to try to keep the traditional monastic hours of prayer—I want to emphasize try. Some days it doesn’t happen at all, and there’s not a single day I have kept every one of them. But the “interruption” of a few moments of prayer in the midst of a busy day keeps me connected to the Source that makes my work meaningful, whether it’s doing the laundry or cooking a meal or writing a novel. Two practical helps have been Seven Sacred Pauses, a layperson’s guide to the monastic hours by the Benedictine sister Macrina Wiederkehr, and Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours, a series of prayerbooks divided into the seasons of the year.
Another anchor is the commitment I’ve made to show up at my desk for at least two hours a day. After years of struggling to justify the habit, it’s finally become a debt of honor—whether anything “productive” comes of it or not, I’m learning to accept this discipline as part and parcel of each day’s obedience.
In a more general sense, I seek sincerity in my choices between various opportunities: to let my yes be yes and my no, no. Again, this has been a thorny path for me (you can ask my husband!), but to the extent that I have learned to extend grace to my own heart—in other words, not saying yes when my heart is saying no—my days are saner, more centered, and my love more genuine. Say no, the Lord told me a few years ago, until you can say yes with freedom and joy.
It’s taken me a long time to make peace with this facet of my personality; to admit without shame—even to a roomful of likeminded rabbits!—that I seem to forget everything I know about myself and about God without relatively enormous amounts of solitude. I say relatively—I think previous generations didn’t feel quite so hagridden to justify “wide spaces” in their own hearts the way we do in this efficiency-enamored era of ours. But all I know is that for as long as I can remember I have been haunted by something I have only recently begun to refer to as the Monastic Ideal—a phrase I lifted from an Elizabeth Goudge book—the sense of stepping back from the world in order to make something beautiful by which to love the world.
This is from one of Goudge’s first novels, The Middle Window, a book I would love for this passage alone, it was so life-changing:
“That’s the monastic ideal,” said Judy, “and I’ve always thought it rather selfish—a creeping away from life.
“Then you have misunderstood it,” he said. “The monastic ideal is a core of sanity in a loathsome world, a core of sanity that spreads. Again and again men have gone into solitude to create beauty, and the beauty, created, has revolutionized a whole country.”
Judy was still unconvinced. “But if nothing can get through the mountains to contaminate your Utopia, how can the beauty you create get out into the world?”
“If you light a bonfire in a sheltered valley, the protection makes such a huge blaze of it that those outside see the whole sky lit up.”
When I read those words, something elemental in me leapt to answer them. I wanted to be that bonfire in the sheltered valley, the branches consumed by holy fire! I wanted to create from a place of soul-sanity, a place where I might glimpse some gleaming shard of God’s image that the world might not see otherwise—and could not see, but for the darkness of this God-haunted solitude at my center. It was a moment of epiphany. And like all epiphanies, it was followed by the difficult task of following where its bright finger pointed.
Last August I was in a slump. It had been one of the hardest seasons of my life, and I was living through the three remaining weeks of exile before my husband and I traveled to the coast, to an island that is my spiritual home if there ever was one. I was treading water, really. And in a total funk with my writing. Anyway, before we went I was sitting in the vet’s office with one of my dogs or cats—I can’t remember who now—and I pulled up Sarah Clarkson’s blog on my phone. (In case you didn’t know, Sarah Clarkson is one of my favorite people on the face of this earth) I started to read her latest post, a beautiful and heartfelt piece (of course!) written from Scotland where she’d journeyed on a writing trip. She was staying with this lovely, saintly, Goudge-like old woman, and while she was there, Sarah read the woman’s memoir, a chronicle of a life of adventuresome devotion. One afternoon, in a tumult of inner questions, Sarah set off on a long walk. Remembering how Venetia (isn’t that a lovely name?) wrote in her book that, occasionally, when she really needed guidance, God had given her mental signposts in the way of pictures or images or stories. Sarah made bold to ask God for the same thing: a picture of what she was to do for Him, of what her writing life looked like. In Sarah’s own words:
Instantly, I do mean instantly, a Millais painting came to my thought. It has long enchanted me for its vivid, startling image—that of a blind young girl sitting amidst a glory of a golden field with two rainbows like stairways to heaven behind her. Not a bit of it can she see. But in that painting, a small child sits next to the blind girl, peeking out from under her cloak, neck craned in awe at the glory, telling the blind one of all the beauty. And I knew in that image that my task, as a soul, but particularly as a writer, is to be that child.
Write the rainbow, God told her. Tell this broken world of things it cannot see.
I read that and my heart burned with kindred longings. But I was also mad. Sarah was having all the adventures and, besides, she’s a better writer, so, of course, God would give her a noble charge like that! But the notion of God speaking in pictures lingered, and I made up my mind to pray about it just as soon as we got back to the coast and I had my mind and heart still again.
Accordingly, I survived the intervening weeks. And then, miraculously, we were there again on our island. One morning—I think it was the first, I was so eager—I got up quite early and went for a solitary walk along the marsh. I optimistically took my little notebook, on the off chance that I “got something.” And away I sauntered, under the summer trees, into the golden stillness and warmth of a quiet August morning. When I got to the farthest bench on the path, I sat down and looked up into the live oaks above my head.
“All right, God,” I said. “I read about how You spoke to Sarah, how You gave her a picture of what it is You want her to do. You gave her an image of her writing that was unmistakable and it was very precious to her.” Silence for a moment as I gathered courage. “I’d like to ask that You would do the same for me. I’d like a picture, please—I’d like an image of what You want to do with my writing, of what my work looks like, if anything.” More silence, and in a kind of frantic despair, I spoke again. “I mean, maybe You love Sarah more than You love me—I mean, I would, if I were You—”
At that moment—I am not kidding—I was interrupted by such a gust of wind that my mouth literally dropped open. It came out of nowhere and roared through the tree over my head, sending leaves skittering from the branches in frightened little shivers. It was not so much angry as reproving—I felt reproved by it, and in the instant that it subsided, the cicadas, which had been maintaining a low, steady hum—so low and steady, in fact, as not to be noticeable—suddenly raised their pitch, and with it, their volume to a high, insistent whine, for all the world as though they, too, were protesting my petulance. It was almost deafening for a moment or two.
After it subsided, I sat in a chastened quiet.
“I’d like a picture, please,” I murmured, humbled.
Nothing came. My mind was a jumble of nothing. I knew that Philip was waiting for me for breakfast, so up I got, trying not to feel discouraged. God does not always answer, of course, and when He doesn’t…
As I walked along back to the hotel, smiling at the beauty around me, clutching my little notebook tightly, a picture flickered into my mind: wavered, faded, materialized. And then it faded again, as I dismissed it with a smirk. Nothing more than a picture from one of my childhood books. One of my favorites, in fact, but obviously so firmly established in my memory that my brain, hunting feverishly, had found it without effort. Oh well. God doesn’t have to speak to me the way He speaks to Sarah and to the saintly Scottish lady.
It never really occurred to me to wonder why that image, out of literally billions that must inhabit my brain. Especially when I had not seen it, or so much as thought of it in years. I can be kind of dumb that way, I guess. At any rate, a couple of weeks later I was sitting at my desk, grinding out my Hutchmoot talks—at great pain and effort, I might add. I was feeling like such a fake, a failure, a poser, a fraud, and I just laid my head down on my desk in complete and utter defeat.
“I just can’t do this, Lord,” I told Him. “I’m not one of these brilliant souls and I don’t know why I’m speaking at Hutchmoot and I don’t even know why I’m on The Rabbit Room.”
That kind of thing. And as I moaned and mullygrubbed, that same picture from the island morning came back into my mind. As at an audible charge, I immediately got up and went downstairs to the bookcase. I knew right where it was: The Tasha Tudor Bedtime Book, one of my all-time favorites as a little girl. I turned to the well-known page with a trembling heart (and trembling hand), and stared at the illustration of “The Star Dipper.” It was just as I remembered it: the little cottage, the girl and her mother gazing up into the night sky, the corgi at their feet—and above them in the warm blue, the radiant formation of the Big Dipper. I read the story again with tears in my eyes.
The story goes that a little girl lives with her mother in a cottage at the edge of the wood. It has been a long, hot summer, and her mother is ill. Her mother sends her to the well to draw her up a dipper of water because she is so parched, but when the little girl endeavors to do this, she discovers that the well is dry. Undaunted, she sets out with her dipper into the dark night, certain of finding a hidden spring she knows of in the wood, the waters of which run cool and clear.
Off she goes—but it is a dark night and the way is very difficult. Much more difficult than she had anticipated. It is so difficult that she fears she has lost her way. The branches tear at her face and her dress, and the stones cut her feet. She is near despair, but the thought of her mother and her great thirst drives her onward.
At last she comes out into a little clearing and there it is: the Hidden Spring. With joy she fills her tin dipper with the crystal water, thinking what healing it will be to her mother. Immediately, she proceeds to return the way whence she came, but somehow it’s not quite as dark. The lowly dipper glows with a faint light, just enough to guide her way. As she goes, she encounters an old man, bent with years. He begs a drink of her from her dipper, the night is so hot and the springs are all dry. Quickly reasoning that there is enough for her dear mother and enough for the poor old gentleman, the girl lowers her dipper that the man might have a drink. The water is so pure and cold that he is revived at once, and thanks her with blessings.
Resuming her passage through the wood, the little girl notices that there is even more light than before. “Could it be that the moon has risen?” she wonders. But, no—it is the light of her little dipper, no longer tin, but shining silver in the dark night. Next she encounters a little dog, so tired and weary it can hardly beg, its tongue hanging out of its mouth for thirst. Without a word or a hesitation, the girl kneels and allows the dog to lap from her dipper, wherein she is thanked accordingly, as only doggies can do (and, to surmise from the illustration, he follows her home, which makes my heart glad, of course!).
As she once more resumes her homeward journey, the little girl is amazed at the brightness shed across her path, for her dipper, no longer silver, has turned to a brilliant gold that lights her way. When she reaches her own cottage, she rushes in to her mother’s bedside and holds the golden dipper to her lips. The mother drinks with grateful alacrity, and the water is so cool, so refreshing and healing, that she feels well at once. The little girl sets the dipper on the table while she tells her mother of her adventures, but as she does, a kaleidoscope of light and color begins to flash about the room, like the sparkle of gems, and, suddenly, the once humble dipper flies out the window and shoots up into the night sky, no longer an earthly dipper at all, but a heavenly one, made of diamonds, so that all who saw it would remember the little girl’s hard passage through the dark wood and the loving gift she found there, bestowed with such generosity to all she met.
Before I was done with the story, I knew what God was saying to me. I knew that He wanted me to write and keep writing. And I knew what He wanted me to do with my writing, in one of the clearest, tenderest moments of insight I have ever had:
Fight your way through the Dark Wood. Find the Hidden Spring. And bring back the Sacred Water you find there for the good of all.
Find the Hidden Spring.
Since that time, the image of the Hidden Spring has given me courage again and again to keep doing this thing—to make it my sacred charge and pilgrimage, whether a living soul validates it or not. This work is not of me—this great thirst is not mine to quench. That doesn’t mean that the Dark Wood is not terrifying at times. But that gives me strength, even when I’m plunging through it—to know that the Spring is there and that it flows with the original Creative Love that set the stars in the heavens and calls them each by name. It’s a deep, bone-level call, at once rigorous and refreshing. I did not make the Spring; I do not fill it with water. But it’s there. And Love will show me the way to it. I can count on that. Mine is only to do as I’ve been charged and leave the matter to God.
Carey Wallace expressed the harmony between creative discipline and spiritual discipline in a way I won’t forget:
An artist’s failure to work is rarely mechanical—fingers that fail to curl around a pen or a brush—but spiritual: a fear that has rendered them artistically blind or deaf. The solution to them all is to draw closer to God, the source of all order, rest, and freedom, and of every image, sound, and word.
Go then, saints beloved of God, and find your Hidden Spring—the world is parched for its water. I’ll be brave for you, if you’ll be brave for me.