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A Hermit of the Heart


Instead, the practice of a contemplative is to enter a sort of suspended time in which he feels alone in the presence of God. “You could say the Centering Prayer in Grand Central station at 2 p.m.,” says Brother Horton. “I wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner, but I’ve done it. It’s like breathing.”

Brother Anthony-Francis, a solitary who lives in Washington Heights, complains about unruly neighbors banging on his apartment walls. But his short, self-published book The Boulder Writings is a journal of the months before 9/11 when he would stop on his way to work to pray on an outcropping of rock at the southern end of Central Park. The busyness around him, passersby and animals as well as trees and sky, became a part of his devotions.

There may in fact be no better way to understand the spiritual work of a contemplative than in the tension between the crowded city and the contemplative’s inner life. The point of prayer, says the official at the New York Episcopal Diocese, who has studied the solitary life, “is shutting down the noise”—not only the noise around you but inside your head. “It’s then,” he says, “that you can hear.”

If you were walking down Waverly Place as service at St. John’s let out on a Sunday morning, you wouldn’t pick out Martha Ainsworth as the hermit in the crowd. Short and solidly built, she has watchful hazel eyes that light up at the least sign of merriment going on around her. She doesn’t dominate any discussion, but when talking about the hymnody or Thoroughbred horses—she’s an occasional (nonbetting) visitor to Belmont—she exhibits a born raconteur’s sense of detail. Still, Martha confesses she can happily go days without leaving her apartment. It’s not that she’s shy or afraid of crowds. She simply never feels so accompanied, she says, as when she is alone. That feeling of companionship she understands as the presence of God, and she believes God has been leading her to her new vocation since before she was fully an adult.

At age 16, standing alone in her family’s Episcopal church in Visalia, California, Martha had a “moment of clarity,” an intense sense of God’s presence. It was a somewhat vague experience until Martha asked what God wanted her to do. “Did you ever have a moment when it seems like someone took a highlighter and marked the answer for you?” she asks, lifting a hand and swiping the air in front of her. In the church hall next door, the choir was rehearsing, and in the way the music reached her, she knew that God wanted her to teach people how to express their faith in song.

But it wasn’t the answer, at least not forever. After college, she married (briefly), moved east, got a graduate degree in sacred music, and directed church choirs professionally for a decade before joining the Princeton Singers, the preeminent chamber choir based in New Jersey. When the digital boom began, she signed on to run the message boards at the religion site Beliefnet.

Still, she was restless. She took a course in the Centering Prayer and began exploring the spirituality of the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, on whose teachings the Centering Prayer is partly based. Then, last April, she went to Film Forum to see Into Great Silence, Philip Gröning’s documentary of the Carthusian contemplative monastery in the Chartreuse Mountains of France. She walked out transformed. “It had been building in me for nine years,” she says. “But it all cohered when I came out of that movie.”

While she looked for monastic orders that might take a 53-year-old divorced Episcopalian woman with an independent streak, Martha embarked on a life of prayer. But though she works from home three days out of five, her schedule is the Carthusians’ in reverse: The monks spend a few hours working and relaxing each day and some ten hours in prayer; Martha can only afford four hours of prayer—or even fewer, depending on whether she works from home or goes to the office. She spends about half of this prayer time saying the Daily Office, a cycle of devotions for every part of the day, some version of which is said by nearly every clergyperson in Christendom—most using thick books bound in black leather. Martha, usually awakened at about seven by her hungry cat, turns on her computer and clicks to a Website that queues up that morning’s Bible reading, psalm, and canticles—holy songs that by tradition were first uttered by New Testament figures or saints. She says the Office again at noon, praying at her desk if she’s at work, or singing in a small room her boss lets her use. When she gets home she usually sings the late-day prayers known as evensong. After dinner and some free time, she says the compline and goes to bed.

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