a voyage to the moon

journalism

This story was first published in the UK’s Catholic Herald newspaper on September 11, 2010.

a voyage to the moon

When I opened my eyes it was still pitch black. Feeling in the darkness I knocked the alarm clock off the table. From somewhere overhead there came a low refrain, the words barely audible:

“Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” The green digits of the clock read 5:36 A.M.

I dressed and went up to the chapel where the monks were finishing the Liturgy of the Hours. Out of the window in the grey light of dawn the silver skyscrapers of the downtown were growing out of the horizon.

Directly below, a telegraph poll had a mustard yellow sign on it that read ‘Slow.’

The Little Brothers of Saint Francis are a community of contemplatives based in Boston. They were set up by James Curran, an opera singer who turned his back on the musical world after experiencing a moment of epiphany during a reception at the White House.

Taking the life of Saint Francis of Assisi as his inspiration, Brother James founded a contemplative order in the late sixties in the working class suburb of Roxbury. I stayed a weekend with them recently.

They live in two plain wood-board houses painted dark brown. On each house a simple cross and a small sign above the doorway are the only indications of the occupants. Even so, their years of service and the distinct blue denim cassocks they wear mean they are well known locally.

According to its charism, the order “bears witness” to the plight of the city’s homeless. They offer no charity beyond their presence but as Brother James explained later at breakfast, that alone was a source of consolation for individuals isolated on the streets.

Round the table he told the story of Bob, a rough sleeper he met in the early seventies. He used to buy him breakfast at a nearby diner, and listen as Bob talked about baseball. Ignorant of the game, the monk bought the daily papers to keep up with the conversation but the scores Bob was quoting did not seem to tally with what he read. He discovered eventually that Bob was quoting scores from two decades before.

“It was then that I began to realise it was more important to listen than to speak,” he said. Later on, he would see him wearing a sandwich board prophesying the end of the world. Bob died alone and — like many of the men they come into contact with — it was left to the brothers to organize both his funeral and a small wake.

After mass we continued our conversation in the Little Brothers’ common room. On the wall behind him were maps of Assisi, including a medieval drawing showing the friary created by St Francis. On another wall hung Brother James’ portrait. (“Probably when I am gone they will throw darts at it.”)

Brother James spoke in a voice as light and grainy as his Celtic skin, gripping one hand in the other to stop them shaking – a result of the Parkinson’s disease he was diagnosed with ten years ago. His fine white beard wrapped his face like a chinstrap.

A good listener, he was also a good storyteller and was fond of name-dropping. He talked about the time Mother Theresa came to stay (she insisted on sending coffee and donuts out to the police car assigned to look after her) and his encounters with Pope John Paul II and John F. Kennedy.

He was raised alone by his mother after his father died in the war. Growing up he revealed a talent for singing and after a short career he became a publicist for an opera company.

It was at Lyndon Johnson’s White House in the late sixties that his life changed. He had gone there to stage a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s “Voyage to the Moon” for the astronauts taking part in the space program. As glasses clinked and the hum of conversation drifted to the Apollo 11 lunar mission just two years away, Brother James heard what his spiritual director later termed “an interior voice” ask him: “What are you doing here?”

“I began to realise that perhaps God was calling me towards a downward mobility rather than an upward one. That’s hard to explain, because most people think you are wasting your life.”

Choosing to heed the call, he turned his back on the rarefied world of opera and became a monk.

In the last four decades he estimates around 300 men have passed through the doors of the Little Brother house, and only a handful have stuck around.

When one of these longer-term residents decided to go, he said, it was like “going through a divorce.”

Of the five other little brothers that share the house now, one is an ex-teacher and another a former construction worker. Brother James acknowledged a monotony to the life, comparing his vocation to the responsibilities of the married man who must get up for work each morning though he might rather lie in bed.

“Living the Gospel means living with the people God has thrown you in with,” he said. “That’s a real challenge. It means nothing to say ‘I’m going to go out and love the forgotten and rejected people’ if you can’t love the brother that’s sitting across your cornflakes.”

That evening, after Brother James had gone to bed, I talked with Brother Anthony, who takes care of the day-to-day running of things since illness has forced the founder to take a back seat. A former barber, he joined the order over 20 years ago.

He said many people came to them with a deluded idea of the lifestyle. “A few years ago we had to turn away this young man,” Brother Anthony said. “He had this vision of himself ambling through the fields in his habit doling out alms to the poor from a wicker basket. I remember thinking, ‘does he not realize we’re in the city.’”

After just one day I had no such illusions that the monastic life might be for me. I have a mortal fear of early mornings, and those dawn liturgies were more than I could take. With that in mind I turned in early, preparing myself for a last bruising encounter with the guest room’s alarm clock.

 

the nuns in the tower

journalism

This following story was first published in the British newspaper, The Catholic Herald on March 19, 2010.

the nuns in the tower

In the darkness Clare beckons me to the window. Outside, London is ten thousand lights glittering to the horizon. Far to the right the skyscrapers of the docklands cluster like shards of crystals, while ahead the high rises of Hackney are solid rectangles dotted with light.

Returning to the sitting room we pass a small, carpeted room, unfurnished except for low wooden benches skirting two walls. It is a chapel.
Dressed in navy trousers and a dark pullover, Clare’s slight frame moves down the narrow stairs ahead of me. She is light on her feet, and I am genuinely surprised when I find out later she is 83 and has spent most her adult life working as a cleaner.

Back in the sitting room a black and white portrait of a man with a thin, dark beard hangs on the wall. The man has the same high cheekbones and dark eyes as Clare and though she refers to him as Brother Charles, they are not related.

Charles de Foucauld was a soldier who left the French army in North Africa to become a monk. He died in obscurity a century ago having won only a handful of converts among the nomadic tribes of the Sahara desert.

In the years after his death a religious order was formed taking the hermit’s life as its inspiration. Today the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus are all over the world: in refugee camps in Lebanon, Pygmy villages in Cameroon, and here, on the 13th floor of an east London tower block.

If you have never heard of them, it is not surprising. They are a contemplative order characterised by anonymity. The sisters, for
example, wear no religious habit — the only outward sign of their calling is the wooden cross around their necks.

Instead they try to find parity with the communities they live among, doing low paid, unskilled jobs. Offering solidarity to the most marginalized, in place of scripture.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, for example, a community of Little Sisters in the U.S. relocated to an exclusively Arab
neighbourhood of New Jersey.

Clare, who is from an old family from western France, used to clean at the department store C&A.

“Our inspiration is in following the hidden life of Jesus,” says Catharine, who joins us in the sitting room. She means by this the
life that Christ led in obscurity before he began to preach.

Four Little Sisters live in the flat. Their community is a reflection of the diversity of the city that surrounds them — Catharine, a 66
year-old retired care worker, is the only one from the UK.

The flat is small, the sisters’ bedrooms narrow. It can be a trail, says Catharine, to share such a cramped living space.

“The hardest austerity is living in a tight-knit community,” she says. “I have spent 20 years in this tower block. It is the contemplative life that gives meaning to this banal life we lead.”

For her the contemplative life started early. She says she first considered taking vows while a boarder at a Catholic girls’ school in
Kent.

She discovered the Little Sisters by chance when a monk visited her class. The man was meant to be doing a slideshow about Africa from where he had just returned. As he flicked through images of the continent he came to one that seemed to stand out from the rest.

It was a picture of some young women waiting by a roadside. These were nuns, the monk explained, who had joined a travelling community in France. It had nothing to do with his talk and, in fact, he did not know how the image had got mixed in with the other slides.

Catharine looks thoughtful after she relates this story as if the appearance of the picture in the slideshow carries a meaning for her that goes beyond mere coincidence.

In any case, the revelation that there was an order where contemplation and a life on the road were not mutually exclusive must
have seemed tantalising for a teenage girl.

Her first assignment as a postulant shattered any romantic delusions she might have harboured, however. She worked in a jam factory in Leeds. Her parents were upset when they came to visit. “I was in a tiny back-to-back terrace where we shared an outside toilet with four neighbours.

“They couldn’t see why I would embrace a life of poverty. Their own faith was deep in its way but more practical I suppose.”

Catherine’s journey of downward mobility is a gentle imitation of the more extreme trajectory taken by Foucauld.

Born into the French nobility, Brother Charles was a complex figure. As a young man he was a glutton and a womaniser. Yet in North Africa the overweight bon viveur became a fierce ascetic who took self-negation to frightening extremes: when he fell ill, for example, he wrote of his disappointment on finding out it was not tuberculosis.

After dinner we return to the chapel at the top of the stairs.

The sisters sing hymns and recite psalms and scripture. After a period for silent prayer Catharine offers thoughts for the victims of Haiti’s earthquake. Canh, the Vietnamese sister, prays for the people who are teaching her English. On the floor a candle flickers.

Not much later I say my goodbyes. Outside the January night is cold and unforgiving. On the streets all is quiet. I try to get my
bearings, but London is such an improbable matrix when you get in amongst it.

I imagine Clare in the tower block behind me, looking out on the spaghetti of streets that dissolve into confusion at street level but
is clear and easy to navigate from up there. I try to figure her as I saw her earlier, gazing in rapture to the horizon. Seeing for miles
from the narrow confines of her 13th floor flat.

a voice in the wilderness (part 4)

* doug, hermits

By the time I emerged next morning from the cabin Doug was nowhere to be seen.

a voice in the wilderness (part 4)

I sat on the porch waiting for him, listening to birdsong. The day was sunny with the last nip of winter still catching the air.

Behind me in the hermitage, his supplies were arranged neatly around the room. Compared to the melancholic decay of Virgil’s home, there was a calm order to things here. On the shelves were boxes of crackers, bucket-sized tubs of peanut butter, dried milk, oatmeal, rice, tins of tuna and Spam, cocoa and powdered mash. On the wall there were photos of the family of his benefactor in Albuquerque. On his annual excursion there, he went with his benefactor – a businessman and devout Catholic – to the wholesalers where he bought his entire  supplies for the year with change from $1,000.

His only real luxury was a shelf by the images of the Virgin that contained deluxe teas from a café chain based in Berkeley. They had given them to him with a big reduction after he explained his story.

In a short time he returned. He had been walking in the surrounding hills praying the rosary, he said. He offered to show me over the property, the enthusiasm of the previous night undiminished. “This is my bathroom,” he said, pointing to a granite slab that had two rocks resting on it and a branch of pine balanced between them. To use it he threw sand on to the granite and leaned on the pine. The shit dried together with the sand – in this arid heat it took no time – and the resulting mix he put between a wire grill to dry further and then crushed in a tin using a stick as a pestle to make fertilizer.

“It actually smells good. Like potassium” he said, rubbing some between his fingers.

Next he showed me the well he had built in the small creek below the old corral. The well was six-foot deep with a horse trough at the bottom and stones and boulders packing the sides. He dug it out using a trowel in the summer when the creek was dry. Piping ran from the well to the water tank that sat on raised ground behind the cabin. He had a small generator to power the pump.

We began to walk up one of the trails that he was building to another 40-acre plot of land Marshall owned a few miles to the east. The trail curved behind the cabin and up a ravine where snow still lay in drifts on the ground. He told me a story about a hermit who had lived here in the 19th century and after whom the ravine was named. The man had been
disfigured by a bear and crazed by the solitude had taken to trapping other bears and torturing them in cages.

He said he had encountered a few bears cutting trails but they had always fled when they saw him. He kept no weapons. When he was making trails he had a bow saw for cutting away branches and a shovel for upending roots. There was also the steel bar and a car jack for when the rocks got really big.

I asked him about the trails. The route that we were on and the one that led back to Bear Creek were for Bob, he said, but the others he cut for no other reason than to have something to do. Physical labour was a way to get close to God.

Although he had exiled himself to this isolated spot of wilderness he claimed to have no special love for the environment. The fragrant pinions with their bark like alligator pelt, the surging creeks and prehistoric cacti – all of these left him unmoved. For natural beauty he preferred the sea.

This was with one exception. He loved the rocks. The jagged rock outcroppings and sheer bluffs attracted him in a way the vegetation could not.

He attached no spiritual significance to these natural features. He liked their individuality, their clarity of texture and the sense of strength they exerted on the landscape. As we walked he kept stopping to mend the path and where a rock had been dislodged he was always careful to replace it with its weathered, lichen-spattered side facing upwards.

Later when he was writing about silence, he included some thoughts on the rocks.

“They seem sterile in comparison to the natural life of vegetation with which they are surrounded,” he wrote. “Yet, they seem to me to exert a static power. Though lifeless, they are as the composition of the Baroque artist who sought to freeze the movement of a singular act of time on a peace of canvas.

“Here too the comparison fails, for while the artist captures the life of action, the huge bulk of rock, whether sheer cliffs, outcropping, or columns, never cease to release their subtle form of power. In the mountain one sees majesty. It is in the cliffs and formations that the mountain’s character is defined.”

By now we had returned to the hermitage and the afternoon was drawing in. I gathered my pack together and said farewell. Walking back over the lava flows it occurred to me that the rocks had somehow rewarded Doug’s devotion. After years of pushing them around with a simple steel lever, the condition of his back had improved dramatically.

He ascribed the change to faith. For Doug all the good things in his life came from the creator. When a friend of Bob Marshall’s brought him a pack of Oreos he said a prayer of thanks because God had answered his call. This was because only a few days earlier he had prayed for chocolate biscuits. He remembered doing it, he said, because it was unusual for him to get cravings for chocolate.

I could see how someone like Doug could find God’s work in so much in his life. The fizzing pathways of his brain seemed wired to seek out more connections than most. The neat piles of food cans, the network of trails that organized the wilderness, the search for a schema for Catholic spirituality: By instinct and religious formation he was a lover of order.

And in the grand design, the grand designer had brought him to that little patch of land in the forest — an old corral for horses — where he lived in peace, the only disturbance to the gentle murmurings of nature his own excited voice.

a voice in the wilderness (part 3)

* doug, hermits

When he was younger Doug and some friends discovered a network of caves in a tobacco field in Virginia.

a voice in the wilderness (part 3)

The cave system ran for miles into the earth and when they stopped to rest he would sometimes go alone into a neighbouring cave, switch off the light “and just feel the pressure.” In that pitch-black passage several hundred feet underground the total absence of illumination was complete in a way he had never experienced before. True darkness.

In a similar way, out here in the wilderness he occasionally encountered true silence. It only happened a handful of times each year but the way he described it, it was as if the silence at these moments was coming from somewhere other than the environment, like an extraterrestrial force. He said it left him frozen to the spot, afraid that the noise of even one footstep would be deafening.

As I lay awake listening to my heartbeat and the faint rustle of an animal on the forest floor I wondered if Doug’s monologues were a reaction to this profound silence — like Virgil and his gunshots.

From its inception Christian monasticism has placed a strong emphasis on silence. It is the legacy of the Desert Fathers, a movement of Christian hermits and ascetics who went out in to the deserts of Egypt starting in the third century to find God in silent prayer.

Many holy orders still take vows of silence and within the contemplative tradition it is taught that only by quieting the sources of external and internal noise can the soul be released from the constant distractions of temporal life.

Against the backdrop of this tradition, Doug’s chatter was a concern for him. It seemed to undermine his vocation as a hermit in the Catholic tradition.

Because of the difficulty in pinning down his thoughts in normal conversation I asked him to explain this dilemma in writing later on. This is some of what he wrote: “It is as if the thoughts of my mind must find life in created words and intonations.  Without verbalization, my thoughts seem dormant, unfulfilled acts. Skeletons without flesh.

“This process of verbalization is so natural, that there seems to be no ability of its suppression, any more than the ability to empty of thoughts themselves.  It is in this dual conflict that interior silence seems to be unattainable.”

He was not hopeless however. He believed internal silence could be achieved through what he termed a “mystical marriage” between his being and “the divine nature.”

“Now, I consider the possibility of an interior silence that may extend beyond the confines of the soul’s faculties,” he wrote. He seemed to be saying that there was a silence beyond silence, an inner stillness that existed outside of words and thoughts, and which could only be reached through “the gifts of faith, hope and charity.”

I read this later scratching my head. I admired the sentiment but I felt like I was still in the rabbit trail.

a voice in the wilderness (part 2)

* doug, hermits

In the tiny cabin we sat in darkness. I asked him again to explain how he had come here.

a voice in the wilderness (part 2)

He had thought of becoming a hermit since his mid-twenties when he was at seminary school, he said. But it was nearly a quarter century later before he realized the dream.

He was living in Oakland working as a producer for a religious radio station when he began to think about abandoning the Baptist faith of his upbringing in favour of Catholicism. He found the number for a Catholic Church in the phone book and asked the person on the other end “if there was such a thing as monasteries.”

“I had heard the word but I truly had no idea if they still existed.”

After he converted he helped out at a retreat centre in Chico, Calif. and entertained hopes of becoming a monk. But his inability to stay quiet made that impossible.

In March 1999, aged 48, Doug rode the bus from the west coast to Silver City, New Mexico, with $150 in cash to his name and an 80lb pack on his back. He wanted to see if he could live alone in the forest, entrusting his survival to God.

There were events in his life that might have precipitated the decision – his only sibling had recently lost a battle with cancer – but he said that most of all he had felt a calling.

It was a risky venture. Though national forest much of the terrain occupied by the Gila is still classified as high desert. As a consequence it experiences temperature extremes at both ends. Doug said the creeks were dry for two thirds of the year while in the winter the bar dips as low as 12 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 11 Celsius).

There was also the matter of his health. Since falling out of an apple tree as a child Doug had suffered chronic back pain as an adult. When he told his chiropractor in Oakland the man thought he had taken leave of his senses. Bemused by his plan, the chiropractor asked him if he had ever truly been alone. Doug realized that he never had.

The chiropractor was not the only discouraging voice.

He chose the Gila Wilderness because his spiritual director at the time told him to seek advice from the abbot at a Catholic monastery in the region, Our Lady of Guadelupe. After meeting with him the abbot told him
he doubted he would make it as a hermit.

In spite of the dissenting voices he pressed on. At the youth hostel in Silver City a guest told him about a creek where he could be guaranteed fresh water. On the day he walked out the strain of the pack on his fragile back was so bad he kept stopping to throw up. A layer of snowfall coated him by the time he reached his destination and he set up camp
on a rocky escarpment overlooking the stream.

After several weeks he left the escarpment and built a shelter below an exposed rock face using slabs of stone and fallen trees. He showed me photos. It was ingenuously put together, the rock walls sealed with sand from the creek bed and the roof made from logs cut with grooves to hold them in place. He even made vents and a chimney modelled after a
classic eighteenth century design for fireplaces. He made a seat for himself by packing creek mud on to the rock and rubbing a groove in with his behind. When it was finished the hermitage was less than a metre wide and he slept straight on to the rock.

When walkers chanced upon him he showed them round the hermitage – “oh boy, they thought it was the cat’s meow.” But most of the time he kept a low profile, concerned that if the rangers found him they would make him leave, since it was forbidden to build shelters on forestry lands.

He lived there nearly a year, every couple of weeks hitchhiking to Silver City to replenish his supplies. On one of these journeys he caught a ride with a man who told him about a realtor who owned an empty plot of land deep in the forest. The realtor was Bob Marshall and when he met Doug he decided to let him stay on the 40-acre plot – the site of an old Corral. In return the hermit promised to build the trail back to Bear Creek.

Doug spent a year in a tent on the property before Marshall brought in the fibreglass cabin and a thousand-gallon water tank on the back of quad bikes. That was eight years ago.

He had come out here with nothing, sick and penniless into a fiercely hostile environment. Yet he had not only survived, he had prospered. For all his chiropractors misgivings his back had actually got better. The migraines had stopped and he was able to move 500lb rocks with no more than a steel bar.

It was the grace of God that had brought him here and it was that which allowed him to stay, he said.

That night he insisted I have the cabin and he set up his tent outside on the hard earth. I tried to protest but he insisted. “It will be good to get the tent out,” he said. “For old times’ sake.”

a voice in the wilderness (part 1)

* doug, hermits

Doug lives as a religious hermit in a cabin in the Gila National Forest, New Mexico. Raised in a Southern Baptist family in Virginia he converted to Catholicism before moving to the woods to live alone.

the catholic who talked to himself

Inside the one-room cabin the light was fading. I was not certain how long I had been there but Doug had not stopped talking the whole time.

He sat on a small chair opposite, his long legs tucked in, his features grainy in the twilight. I had asked only one question since arriving. I wanted to know why he had come here.

Here was a stretch of secluded woodland on the edge of a plateau of cinnamon-coloured granite. The plateau faced a formation of jagged upturned rocks known as “Devil’s Garden” and beyond this the pine, juniper, oak and mahogany of the Gila National Forest – an area of woodland covering 3.3 million acres – stretched far into the distance.

Doug fussed over me, fed me rice, made tea. “Boy it’s such a treat to have ya hear.” He spoke with a homely southern accent, in a voice shrill with excitement, slowed down occasionally by the remnants of a stammer
that by the sound of it had once been severe. When he stood up he hunched forward in that way tall people do when they want their height not to be issue — an act of simple modesty often construed as weakness.

I guessed he felt starved of company but he insisted it was not like that.

He was never lonely out here, he said. He experienced what he called “aloneness” sometimes but it was not the presence of another person that he craved in these moments so much as a sounding board for his thoughts.

It had always been like this. He said he was compelled to articulate every thought. When he was growing up in Arlington, Virginia, he estimated he had written out the entire encyclopaedia by the time he left high school as punishment for talking in class. Nor could he harness the tangential leaps of his mind, which made
listening to him like watching a blindfolded man fit together a jigsaw puzzle.

Many years ago a hunter had told him that animals, like humans, travel in circles when they become lost in the woods. His mind did the same thing, he said, running off at odd angles but eventually finding its way back to the starting point. The proverbial rabbit trail.

“Ah yes, you asked me why I came here. You see, I didn’t forget.” Then he started to talk about the door handle.

Later on he showed me a theological schema he was working on that he said explained “everything about Catholic spirituality…in a rectangle.”

In the room a wood stove gave off some heat and in the other corner next to images of the Virgin Mary there was hung a portrait of Padre Pio, a Capuchin priest who bled 50 years from a stigmata and was reputed to have the gift of bi-location.

Doug said he sometimes talked with the Padre, also with the Virgin. In fact when he was alone – which was almost all the time – he carried on conversations with many people who were not there. He was not delusional, he said. It was simply that in the absence of real people he imagined they were present so that he could tell them what was on his mind.

If he was making a trail, for example, and he could not find the size of rock he was after, he asked aloud for help from Saint Stephen – the patron saint of stonecutters and masons – and when he found what was needed (and he always did) he articulated his thanks.

If he wanted to talk theology he might conjure up Brother Pascal, a monk from a nearby monastery who used to come by to see him once in a while but who had since moved north.

It was Brother Pascal who first told me about Doug. The timing was serendipitous. He left a message on my phone the very same afternoon that I left Virgil. He described Doug as an “exceptional soul” and his hermitage as “the real thing.” There was no road or habitation within ten miles of him and apart from a trip to Albuquerque once a year to
restock his supplies the brother said that he never left the cabin.

The route to Doug’s place switched back and forth across a stream gushing with snowmelt known as Bear Creek. Somehow I missed the turn off so by the time I reached him it was six hours since I set off and I was dog-tired.

Doug built the trail that led up from the creek. Bob Marshall in Silver City had told me all about it. Marshall was full of
admiration for the extraordinary lengths the hermit had gone to in making it. It had taken him two years to finish and using only a metal bar he had shifted rocks at least three times his own body weight.

Since then he had made more trails from the cabin, some with a definitive endpoint and others out of curiosity. In the decade he had been here he estimated he had cut around 12 miles of trail spiking out from the cabin in all directions. His ambition was that they would one day all meet up.