Guest post by Renée Darline Roden.
When I tell my children about traveling in Europe in my early twenties, I will tell them stories of profound, existential loneliness—the sort of loneliness that reveals God to you.
Most of the world’s religious traditions make space for loneliness in the form of asceticism. Most have included a variation on the ancient practice of seeking God in spaces of loneliness. Holy men and women retreat to the high places, deserts, mountaintops, to geographies where wild wind out-roars the noise of the maddening crowd, and resolves into a quiet palpable to your ears. These single-minded souls seek the holy in the silence of nature far from other people, in the barren space where a heart can slowly decipher the voice of the divine.
Non-monastic orders of religious life, men and women who live their lives ministering in the hearts and homes of ordinary folk, often also mandate this precious time spent apart, in what is called a novitiate year. Before full admittance to religious life, holy hopefuls must undergo a shorter time of monastic trial. This ascetic period tests these novices’ mettle, throwing them into extreme discomfort, agitating their sense of self and their grasp on God.
My friend went to one such novitiate on the side of a mountain in Colorado. Studying to be a priest, my friend was intending to live life on the plains, following his flock into their valleys of darkness, not to dwell on a mountain forever. But he went to the foreign heights of mountain to discover how to listen to the uncanny voice of God. To hear God in the roaring silence of yourself and the mountain wind is to begin to hear God—that which is untamed, that which is radically unlike—in the voice of a neighbor.
My nomad novitiate has been not a mountain, but Europe’s urban landscape. My peripatetic monastery’s bricks are built of the weird asceticism of drinking wine while writing as though my life depended upon it—perhaps, when we are alone, it does—on a crisp spring night in Montmartre’s Place du Tertre. Periods of testing begin with sinking my teeth into a burger patty of juicy Irish beef on a bridge above the Liffey, and end surrounded by couples necking while the rhythm of the city and the river washes over and under my solitary meal and me. Wandering through the Norfolk countryside, in search of a medieval pilgrimage site, I find my novitiate roaming through back roads, seeking connecting bus stops in villages like remote North Stars.
There have been other lives lived in Europe: hiking in Cumbria and Kylemore with friends, falling in love (or something) under Italian sunshine, and laughing nights in London pubs. For some reason, these moments are not those which define Europe to me. When I think of tramping around Europe, I think of all the bizarre, singular moments and movements of loneliness which have been stamped on my heart. Eating crème de marrons crepes while walking through Pigalle. Tracing the steps of thousands of dead souls in Auschwitz on my birthday. Walking from the Bologna airport to its city center in the rain. In these moments, of wandering in solitude, of paying sacred attention to the world around me, in its grungy discomfort, in its dazzling whirl of rain-stained colors, in its heavy scars of horrors and weighty ghosts, in each strange episode of aimlessness the same, mysterious presence—indefinable except in its almost-absence—shimmers just below the epidermis of the empirical. Who are you? I ask the intangible pulse in each step. And why have you led me here?
Perhaps what guides me through the loneliness (why do I persist in traveling alone?) is the hope stronger than desire that the revelation of the divine is just on the other side of the mountain. So thinks the novice, whose faith allows him to endure one more night of loneliness.
In all the searching, the wandering alone through the maze of Rome’s Centro Storico, through the thin paths of English countryside with nothing but a written map and a strong instinct towards home, I search for the God whose whispered voice lies just beyond my footsteps. The promise of divine revelation made by mountain wind tantalizes my soul through its half-epiphanies in the chaotic symphony of the city.
One cold March afternoon, in Rome’s Piazza della Chiesa Nuova, I bit into a steaming Nutella crepe, munching like a smug five-year-old, protected by a strong halo of unassailable ecstasy. In this sort of self-less euphoria of eating rich, good food, watching the traffic speed by on the corso, without the distraction of anything other than my own sensations, I became deeply part of the place. As my ears attuned to the rhythm of the traffic, I counted each breath, taking in the air of the other lungs swirling around me. In silence and sugar-induced stomachache, I could attend to the world with the captivated curiosity of childhood so hard to recover in adulthood. Solitude sharpens the senses. In solitude, we can begin to see what in our hearts and in our environs is untamed and unlike. In this uncanny, we can make out a whisper heralding the divine.
When I tell my children about Europe in my early twenties, I will describe for them the infectious throb of Trastevere’s nightlife surging through my blood. I will tell tales of writing alone in cafés and praying alone in churches. I will paint for them the picture of soaking up June sunlight in Munich’s Englischer Garten. I will paint for them a portrait of the quiet peace of being present which runs deeper than restlessness and can only be found in loneliness.
I will share with them all those strange moments in which I have sought the quiet voice who leads or dogs my steps. Perhaps, they, too, will become seized by the search for the strange deity whose challenge calls in both the following and the guiding: do you trust me?
Renée Darline Roden is a master’s student in theology at the University of Notre Dame by day and a playwright by night. She blogs about the sightings of grace in her life at Sweet Unrest.