Thursday, January 17, 2008

601. Two worlds

An interesting article in New York magazine about a woman who chose to join a contemplative religious order of one:
A Hermit of the Heart

Martha Ainsworth rides a bus into Port Authority from New Jersey at least three times a week, twice for work and once on Sunday to attend Mass at St. John’s in the Village. Like any good New Yorker, Martha tries to make use of her commute. As soon as she’s settled in her seat, she pulls out a rosary and begins to pray. By the time she has boarded the bus on a normal day, she’s already spent more than an hour in formal prayer and at a kind of devout study known as lectio divina. By the time she goes to bed, she’ll have spent three more hours in prayer. Some days, she is so transported that an hour steals by without her realizing it.

Last month, Martha wrote to Bishop Mark Sisk, head of the Episcopal Church’s New York diocese, formally requesting to become a solitary, a designation in the church’s canon laws that recognizes a life of solitude and silent prayer....

...But unlike a cloistered monk, who shares chores and helps generate a common income by making cheese or fruitcakes, Martha will arrange her prayer life around a schedule that looks from the outside like any other citizen’s. Week after week, she will encounter the din of the city. She will keep her apartment, shop for groceries, answer her phone, and earn a paycheck. She’ll have no abbot or abbess, and no sisters, owing her obedience only to the bishop. Martha will become, in effect, a contemplative order of one. more...

At first I thought, as I read: what a daring and counter-cultural way to live life in New York. Then I considered a typical Hassidic man in Williamsburg, married with a dozen kids, who davens three times daily and studies for hours more at a yeshiva: his prayer is not silent (and with a hevruta partner, may be full of yelling and debate), but he also lives with one foot in the mundane, concrete world and the other in a contemplative life.

And there are those who practice daily yoga, or are Muslims who manage to pray five times a day in the middle of a busy work life, or Jews at seminaries like the Academy for Jewish Religion who prepare to be rabbis or cantors while balancing part-time study with a full-time profession. I love Martha Ainsworth's story, but it's not really breaking news. She's just one of many New Yorkers who have figured out how to simultaneously retreat from and remain engaged with society, how to speak deeply on a regular basis with both God and man.

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