A Hermit of the Heart

Martha Ainsworth praying in Times Square.Photo: Ann Weathersby

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. If the bishop accepts her petition, Martha will embark on a years-long process to discern her fitness for religious life. She’ll undergo a background check and assemble a board of advisers to oversee her practice. She’ll take annually renewed vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, like any other monastic novice, in the hope of making them permanent.

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.

An urban hermit is not the contradiction it sounds. Even the holy men and women of the fourth century who struck out into the desert in search of God remained connected to the city life of the time. “These were public people,” says Roberta Bondi, a retired Emory University professor who has written on the desert fathers. “They were considered countercultural.” One of the best known early hermits, St. Anthony, became an influential voice in the affairs of Alexandria, accepting visits from townspeople coming to bring food, gawk, and ask advice. Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century English anchoress, lived in a cell attached to the cathedral of East Anglia’s plague-ridden market city. “A hermitage is often thought to be isolated from the outside world,” says an official at the New York Episcopal Diocese. “But someone who is really grasping this life is a hermit of the heart. That can happen anyplace.”

That doesn’t make conducting a life of prayer in the middle of a metropolis like New York easy. Some of the challenges are the same ones any New Yorker feels. “I tried for a long time to use my bus ride for meditation,” Martha says. “It was just too hard. The person in the next seat might cough, and I’d start thinking about germs. Or something would catch my eye. The rustling of newspapers, the snoring of other passengers, someone’s cell phone going off, all seemed to conspire to keep me from prayer.” Then she bought a rosary at a church fund-raiser and found, as contemplatives have for centuries, that handling the beads helped her block out the distractions.

Martha’s real problem is that she is a relative newcomer to the life of prayer. Silence, the inward kind by which contemplatives seek the presence of God, is like a muscle that takes years to build. Brother Randall Horton, a former manager at a major Silicon Valley computer company who has been living as an Episcopal solitary for more than a decade, moved from rural Connecticut to Yonkers in 2001. Praying in the city is simply different, he says. “I can’t say that it’s harder or easier. I did have to get used to the sound of gunshots at night. I was used to hearing the deer at the salt lick.”

Most of us think of prayer as asking God for something: Let the surgery go okay, keep the kids safe, let Matsui get on for Posada. We’re praying for peace of mind; it’s a means to an end. But what if we prayed until we couldn’t think of anything else to ask for—and then prayed some more? Contemplatives attempt to reverse the direction of prayer’s flow, to listen instead of ask. If you approach prayer this way (and pray enough), Martha explains, it leaves the dimension of words altogether, and the distractions—even the unceasing stimuli of New York City—drop away. “If prayer is quietly having a conversation with the divine, then it’s impossible to pray on the subway,” says Brother Horton.

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.

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.”

A Hermit of the Heart