Sometimes what seems like no answer is The answer.
I once did a 40-day silent retreat. I was far from home, and had given up my apartment in L.A. and had set off with an undefined but extremely pressing urge to get closer to Christ.
All my life I’d had a burning hunger, a drive for meaning that had only grown over time. That I had found my way to my three “homes”—sobriety, writing, the Church—was the treasure of my life. Writing was definitely my vocation but the thought that perhaps there was more—some other, further thing I’d been put on earth to do—gnawed at me. I did not understand the very deep pull to solitude I had felt since childhood.
Sometimes I wondered if I was too much alone, and sometimes I wondered whether I should be alone more, whether I actually had a calling to be a contemplative hermit which is kind of funny but not really. I wanted to give all of myself and I could not seem to find the situation or place or person upon which to focus my desire.
I was even willing to consider joining a religious community or some kind of community, though the problem there would be that after about three hours with people I get extremely antsy and edgy, even if they’re not talking. I’m very easily annoyed and triggered, not because I’m especially mean or impatient, though I can be both, but because the way I live is at a sort of inner fever pitch which requires a ton of solitude and silence. I love to talk and gab and chat, too, but within pretty well-defined limits. Like sometimes friends will say, “I watched a couple of movies today and went shopping then went to a party” and I’ll think, If I had to do that for even a single day I would die. I would jump out of my skin at not getting to just wander about and think, write, ponder, take a solitary walk, regard nature.
Anyway, Darwin would have had a field day at this retreat house. The place was teeming with life. Armadillos huffed around the foundations of my cabin at night. Javelinas ambled out from the palmetto scrub. Broods of wild turkeys, a mother and eight or ten babies, bobbed across the drives. Two pygmy owls and their three babies were nesting in the tree across from where I said Morning Prayer. Heart-stopping Altamira orioles, brilliant orange-gold with jet black markings, were as plentiful as sparrows.
The first thing I noticed, being at this place, was that it was not that different from the life I lived in L.A. I already lived the life of a contemplative in the middle of L.A. The second thing was that I had really hoped to get some kind of spiritual direction, some encouragement, some validation, some direction. And for whatever reason, there was nothing. I don’t mean just a little, or not what I wanted to hear. I mean nothing. I was not foundering. I had not lost my moorings. I was not (for once) exaggerating the situation or feeling sorry for myself. But I would have had to be sort of willfully ignorant not to notice that over the previous several years I had had a lot of failure, a lot of no answers, a lot of no matter which way I turned, a blank wall.
I also began to see that I was being formed by the blank walls. I began to see that my strange little existence had some kind of weird value. I was in the world but not of it: I never had been. I’d been a blackout drunk for twenty years, and then I’d gotten sober, and married, and divorced, and written, but even when I’d been doing “normal” things I’d known that real life lay “beyond.” It’s not that I hadn’t fully participated, it’s that I had always seen the things on earth as pointing to the things beyond.
Every night after supper I’d take a long walk. Every once in awhile a pickup from the adjacent game preserve would drive by: I’d wave, they wouldn’t. I’d study the sky, marvel at the wildflowers. I’d think about what I was working on, wonder what was going to become of me, and worry about my mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s.