By Madonna Hamel
“If you love the truth, seek silence.” That’s what St. Isaac of Syria said. He was one of many hermits, ascetics and monks, or abbas, who, in the 4th Century, headed for the desert and the wilderness to live and listen to what the silence would tell them. They took very little with them. The spiritual path is a path of subtraction, they said.
There were desert mothers too. I had stumbled on the ammas while reading the annals of my ancestor, Sr. Marie Morin, years ago in Montreal. “Give me a word,” the ammas and abbas would ask of the silence. And they would sit with whatever word arose. And then, they would pass that word to their adepts. I began each morning asking for just one word.
I arrived here by accident, with my whole life in my car, only intending to stay for a month. I had nowhere else to go. I intended to write and walk, to recover from a thousand stumbling quests for “something more.” Here is where I began emptying myself into the silence. Here is where I found solitude and a space to sit and write for a month that stretched into two-and-a-half years.
That first summer, roused by the birds at 5 a.m., I rose from my little bed in the tiny, bright mother superior’s cell in the basement of The Convent Inn. I dressed in warm clothes and big socks and padded my way up two narrow flights of stairs to the kitchen, where I made my coffee. Waiting for the water to boil, I’d stare at the writings on the blackboard, the very same blackboard my mother sat in front of as a farm child. Only instead of sums and impeccable calligraphy and musical notes, it is now covered by pithy sayings, chalked by visitors from around the world, encouraged by Robert and Mette to share their favourite quotes. I keep returning to: “The wind gives the grass a voice, the grass gives the wind a face.” But I’m also fond of: “In life, there’s never justice; but there’s always mercy.” However, I substitute “never” with “rarely”.
Then I’d carry my cup down the long hall, lined with glass cabinets full of old catechisms and French grammar books, to the chapel at the far end. Some days I’d stop to read the book titles, to see if a single word would call out to me and jumpstart my writing day. But more often than not, a word was already there, every morning, waiting for me to wake. If the hour was getting late, it would nudge and prod at me from my dreams, getting louder and more insistent until, finally, it lifted my eyes open, like stuck, swollen wooden window frames suddenly jarring free.
The chapel was my office, with a solid wooden desk at one end, an altar at the other. The altar was covered with objects left by visitors: An old bible. A smiling Buddha. A tarot card. A chipped and faded statue of Mary. A bag of rocks. A sprig of sage. A holy card, depicting an Orthodox icon of Christ releasing the dead from their tombs. A rope of prayer beads. I left a snake’s skin I’d found on Butte Road. It had hardened into a perfect infinity loop. But Mette decided it might be too much for some guests and returned it to me.
Sometimes I have no idea at all of my effect on people, or what’s socially appropriate. Other times, I am called to behave, be hospitable, join in. What I am learning here is that it’s all a choice. In the silence, as in crisis, you can only play at being “eccentric,” “misunderstood,” “exceptional,” “unique” for so long and then, if you’re lucky, you get called to flip burgers at the bonspiel, or you remember to take Caspar that rice pudding, because he has no teeth, and now he has no Theresa, either.
Or someone like Ervin swings by and offers to take to you to Swift Current for Chinese food and a double bill at the movie theatre.
“But it’s been snowing all day and they’re calling for another 24 hours more!”
He just looks at you like you’re speaking Swahili because he’s driven this road more times than you’ve had hot dinners. And it’s only after the horror flick and the magical musical that the real show begins, on the drive home, with snowflakes flying at the windshield like stars at a ship in outer space. Snow piles up in drifting dunes before you, covering the road like a duvet. The world is one muffled, silent snow globe and shrinks to the reach of headlights on high beam.
“The trick is to bring what silence has done for you – to you – back into the world,” I wrote my first weeks here. But often that meant waiting for what the world asked of me. The trick, also, is not to wait too long. Don’t wait too long to enter the silence, but don’t wait too long to enter the world. And keep dancing between the two, where you both need and are needed.
In so many ways, I noisily remind myself of the gift of silence. I continue reading my earlier words and begin subtracting, deleting word after word, finding little I love: delete, undo, backspace, escape, escape, escape.
August, 2014 I wrote: “Most of my life I’ve been insisting: There has to be something more than this! Now, in this silence, I find myself saying: there has to be something less than this. Less worry, craving, striving, comparing, proving, earning of favour, comfort, approval. Less needing to understand.”
I did not seek silence as much as solitude, when I came here. But it was the silence that thrilled me most. Thrilled me, then stilled me and got me down to work. Some days it feels like I’m tracking God, waiting, finding patience, here, where there is nothing but grass and sky. I am having to be “a good animal,” which, according to Herbert Spencer, is “the first requisite in life … First, be a good animal, remove all distraction and affectation from the task at hand. Feel the elements. Find the rhythm. Every day has one, then slip into that particular day’s rhythmic measure. Like a jazz musician joins in on a session, finds the steady beat of the song and joins the others. Improvise with all your heart.”
We got back from our big night in Swift about one in the morning, the snow still coming down. I watched it fall from my living room window long after I waved goodbye. I knew I had to write this column by noon the next day so I decided to get started. I picked up a book from the stack on my desk and opened it at random. I read: “What defines Canadians is constant movement between the tame and the wild. An alternate penetration of the wilderness and return to civilization is the basic rhythm of our lives.”
This morning, while looking for desert abba and amma stories, I read even more from my early days in the convent: “I have found that the longer I live in ‘civilization’, the harder it gets to find my animal rhythm, the rhythms of the wild. I drag city rhythms with me into the wild, missing its subtle, enormous revelations, entirely. That fact frightens me more than anything else: that I might find, upon entering the wild, that all my good animal instincts have left me. “
I laughed because the territory need not be romanticized as much as met on its own terms. I can hear Ervin and others warning me: You can have all the animal instincts you want, but the truth is, if you don’t have a bag of warm clothes, a blanket or two, matches and a shovel in the trunk you aren’t going to going to survive squat.
Seems along with boxes of books and sweaters I came loaded with dangerous romantic illusions about the Prairies and its revelatory capacities. But then, I came bearing similar hopes and illusions to every territory upon which I’ve ever lighted with earnest intention: The West Coast, The American South, and that other solitude, La Belle Province, Quebec. I suppose we all project something before us. Like those headlights on high beam, leading us home, we need something to get us there, until we find our sea legs, one more time.
I awoke to snow on snow on snow and more snow silently falling. Thomas Merton’s daily reader sits nearby. This morning he says: “It is in solitude that we recognize, with a shock, how lost we have been, and that now we are found, rescued, recovering conscience, returning to ourselves, to Truth.” Despite my romanticisms about this place, its undeniable gift of solitude beckons me daily, to return again to Truth.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.