Monastic life affords a generous amount of time in which an aspirant can taste the fruits of solitude that grow in the gardens of cloistered life.
From a view outside the walls of the enclosure, I think a common perception is that only monks are called to live out their years in solitude, as if it is a special call from God reserved for a select few. From within these walls, I have gradually learned over the years that all of us are called to learn from the need for solitude that is a natural dimension to our being.
Whereas it might be said that we monks enjoy a more refined or focused realm of solitude — it is encouraged by the structure of our days — we are aware that we need to encourage those who come for us for retreats or spiritual direction to nurture the need for solitude that is within them and that attracted them to here in the first place.
I try to point out to them people who have craved solitude and who have fashioned marvelous and beautiful testaments to its value in linking us to God and each other. I may need a monastery for that. There are many who do not — and who have found what I am seeking here.
I recently came across a name that was new to me. I more or less stumbled upon him on the Internet. His name was Sergio Larrain (1931-2012). He was a Chilean photographer.
I saw some of his pictures on a website and they are beautiful — many of them black and white photographs of children that were taken on his trips through the poor sections of Santiago and Valparaiso, Chile. I also read some letters that he sent to Henri Cartier-Bresson, the acclaimed photographer, and Agnes Sire, a former art director at Magnum and current director of Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Larrain lived a hermit-like life. He lived modestly in a small house in Chile and raised his son there. He loved solitude — his way of connecting with the outside world was through the writing of letters.
He hoped to raise the consciousness of those who saw his photographs of the poor. He wanted people to see, to care, to make a difference for the better in the lives of those he captured for a moment in the lens of his Leica camera.
As he wrote to Agnés Sire, (taken from The Little Brown Mushroom photography blog, which drew from Sergio Larrain, Aperature, 2013), “Good photography, or any other manifestation in man, comes from a state of grace. Grace comes when you are delivered from conventions, obligations, convenience, competition, and you are free, like a child in his first discovery of reality. You walk around in surprise, seeing reality as if (it is) for the first time …”
Again, to Agnes in 1987, “In the eternal moment which is reality Agnès, you have to give time to rest, to renew, as with the land, if you exhaust it, by permanently asking fruits, you disorganize the rhythm…the breathing…Silence, peace and loneliness are necessary to receive inspiration, (to) be empty for the new … for the reign to come, daily … adios.”
I may once have thought that when I came here, I, too, saw reality for the first time. But as the years have passed, I am discovering that I am really seeing what I always had before me and within me, but did not pay much notice to it.
Now, I am glad to see that people near and far are finding joy in being still and taking in the world, be it through a lens, a paint brush, a cloister window, a pen and paper. God finds us all — and calls us, from wherever we are.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.