by Sarah Brock
Making choices is one of those inevitable bits of living life. We make them every day. Little decisions that are so insignificant they are made unthinkingly and big decisions that we know will be life-changing. It has been my experience, and perhaps it is true for you as well, that the more significant the decision, the more significant the experience of loss that accompanies it. Sure, choosing coffee over tea for my morning cup has almost no impact on me. Choosing to spend nine months as a monastic intern is a whole different story.
When I was first accepted into the internship program, it seemed all bright and shiny and exciting. I was embarking on a brand-new journey in a brand-new city; a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Then the packing and preparations started, and reality began to sink in. The awareness of what I needed to give up gradually dawned on me, an awareness that would only increase as September drew nearer and my journey commenced.
It started with the obvious things. I would be living in a small room in the monastery guesthouse, and so I spent most of the summer sorting through my possessions. A small selection of clothing, books, and personal items I would bring with me; the rest I tossed, donated, or packed in boxes for storage. Then things began to get more serious. I found a temporary home for my cat. Knowing that he would be well cared for, spoiled even, only slightly diminished the sting of loss. Limited parking at the Monastery meant that bringing my car along was not realistic. Never having lived in a city where public transit was a prominent form of transportation, I had come to think of my car as a symbol of autonomy. Giving it up, even temporarily, was hard. And then there was the matter of my smartphone. Given that this is an unpaid internship and we would receive a relatively modest monthly allowance for our personal expenses and Sabbath day pursuits, I made the decision to minimize my bills as much as possible—a decision that included downgrading from my smartphone to an old flip phone my brother had lying around. How on earth would I survive?! I felt so disconnected. But these losses were mostly superficial, possessions that I quickly adjusted to living without.
It was after the first several weeks, as I began to settle into the community and the routine, that a much deeper feeling of loss began to surface in my awareness—the loss of constant noise and distraction. I was discovering that even life in community and days that lasted from 6 am to 9 pm six days a week left plenty of room for solitude. More, in fact, than my life before the monastery ever provided. Without the constant distractions of TV, social media, and socializing I suddenly had a lot more time to think and pray alone. The lack of such distractions also meant that my primary focus was on myself—who I was and who I was becoming. Not only was this very uncomfortable (who really wants to take such a close look at themselves for such a prolonged period?), it was also lonely. My sense of isolation only intensified as I grew increasingly aware of the challenges of the geographical distance of my family and many of my close friends. Yet, it was exactly in the deepest depths of this loneliness that I experienced my most profound moments of encounter with God. For, in my experience, it is only in solitude that we are able to truly seek and encounter God within ourselves. Loneliness, and the vulnerability that accompanied it, opened me up to a more authentic offering of myself to God. A self full of gifts and faults, triumphs and failures, love and mistakes. Frankly, it is pretty difficult not to be authentic when you encounter God in the depths of your own soul. And it was God, who himself experienced the loneliness of death on a cross, that walked with me in my moments of isolation and loss.
Such a close encounter with God within my own self is one of the gifts that I find myself most grateful for in my time at the monastery. I am fairly certain that I would never have sought out the solitude necessary for such an experience on my own, and I cannot think of a better place to have made that journey into my own depths. The encouragement and support of the brothers and a good friend provided the courage and persistence I needed to remain in this space of vulnerability in the presence of the Divine. Living in community in this place, alongside these brothers, taught me not only the importance of solitude, but the importance of balancing it with togetherness.
I originally entered the internship seeking formation in Anglican liturgy and tradition. What I did not expect to experience was a profound feeling of loss, or of loneliness, for that matter. (Seriously, who expects to be lonely living in community with a bunch of other people?) But what I received runs much deeper than formation. The gifts of silence and solitude led to finding God present in the depths of my need. In the end, my sense of loss turned into immense gain and new growth.
Following the completion of her Master of Divinity at Bexley Hall Seminary in 2013, Sarah Brock embarked on a journey as a monastic intern at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Currently, Sarah is establishing her life and ministry outside of the monastery and listening for where God will lead her next.