The highlight of Martha’s day comes after lunch, when she sits in silence. “We’re used to a moment of silence as something that lasts twenty seconds,” Martha explains. “After a while, your cultural conditioning tells you, Okay, that’s enough. But you stay in it. You don’t need to check on the status of anything. You don’t go back. You just delight in the presence of God. I crave it. I always feel wonderful afterward.”
That feeling can temper the ups and downs of daily life. But the truth is, contemplatives are not necessarily any more “Christian”—in the kind, uplifted, or stress-free sense—than the rest of us. “You become a religious not because you’re holy, but because you’re not,” says Brother Horton, who says he counts Andy Rooney as his patron saint. “For a lot of people,” says Martha, “the object of spirituality is to feel good, a cause and effect between spiritual practice and mental health. At worst, they think it’s some kind of magic trick that relieves stress. I don’t do it because it feels good. I do it because it’s how God calls me to fit into the world. In fact, the interior work can be very challenging at times, and not always peaceful.”
Solitude, as psychologists and prison wardens know, is inherently stressful. Contemplatives can’t avoid what we’d call their issues, or, in the words of a diocesan official, “the thorns of your own selfishness.” More than the distractions of modern life, or the difficulty of getting by financially, the solitaries I spoke to warned of depression. “It can be dangerous,” says Brother Horton. “You could end up wearing little paper booties in the nut farm.” There can be jealousy and doubt from other clergy as well. “It’s a very hard life,” says Brother Anthony-Francis. “You get attitudes from people you wouldn’t think would behave that way.”
Eventually, say veteran contemplatives, from the silence comes a pervading sense of peace, which begins to emanate from them, literally. Their ecstasy is often felt by those standing on line with them at the grocery store, or at work. Brother Anthony-Francis tells of how strangers have approached him on the street to share their stories before they are aware of his status as clergy. In dealing with Beliefnet’s users—she corresponds with dozens each day about their faith—Martha takes time, she says, “to hold their concerns in my heart.” Prayer becomes a part of every act they perform. When I ask him how often he prays each day, Brother Anthony-Francis laughs. “We be,” he says of solitaries. “That’s what we do.”
In applying to Bishop Sisk, Martha is joining what is, in the rarefied circles of monasticism, a veritable stampede. The Episcopal Church keeps no official statistics, but enough of the church’s 110 diocesan bishops have had inquiries about solitaries that they are turning to the chair of the national church’s committee on religious orders to establish guidelines for aspirants. It’s not entirely clear why Sisk’s New York diocese has become the epicenter of this particular vocation. Perhaps the city’s sheer size means that there are simply more people to hear a call. Others point to the city’s status as the capital of excess. The majority of aspiring solitaries come from the ranks of the spiritually questioning baby-boomer generation, which has also been the most willing to explore the Eastern contemplative traditions.
Ultimately, however, the reemergence of urban hermits is not explainable by demographics or spiritual trends. Their choice is an extreme and personal one—all the more isolating because, with no physical separation from society, the heart alone becomes the place of seclusion. Contemplatives compare their vows to marriage. It’s the ultimate intimacy, setting them free to explore one person, who, in their case, happens to be infinite, and therefore liberating. “I’m not looking for an answer,” Martha says. “I don’t need to know what God is. Whatever it is, is okay,” she says. “It’s about love.”
Still, such devotion is more than I can understand. Martha and I are sitting in a Pax deli on Park Avenue South, talking about her next steps. If she succeeds in entering the solitary life, Martha will be free to meet friends, sit in cafés. She will wear no special robes, nor shave her head. But as Martha talks about her imminent self-cloistering, I’m suddenly visited by a hint of claustrophobia at the idea of her burrowing further into herself, into what she calls her connection with God. It feels like she’s sealing herself into something too big to rise back out of. When I admit to my passing chill, Martha smiles gently. “That’s because you’re not called.”