The Accidental Contemplative: Isolation for Beginners

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Two years ago, I gave up my life in the world and entered into seclusion, offering my life to God in contemplative prayer.

Because my quarantine was voluntary, I had time to consider everything I could imagine being difficult about the adjustment and how the related stress would play out in my life.

When I shut the door behind me, I felt confident that I could handle the process I had mapped out in my head. But there was no process. There was no adjustment period. I was suddenly completely alone in my apartment. Even though I had planned for it, I had no idea what to do.

Here’s how I learned to live in seclusion and create purpose in an isolated life.

Accepting Reality Is Not Optional

In the current Coronavirus quarantine, I am keenly aware that enforced isolation is inhumane. It is also reality. It’s easy to react, to say “No” and refuse to comply with what you are being told to do. I can’t even imagine how many different arguments about justice or hypocrisy or whatever else might be valid. It’s easy to be angry, anxious or incredulous. You might be ignoring the whole thing.

The reality will not change. You cannot go outside. No one knows when this will be over.

In seclusion, your survival depends on maintaining emotional equilibrium. You must create a life that works within the limitations of your immediate environment and meets your daily needs within that environment. This is your job now. And your job is to live a life in your home that makes you happy and brings you peace. This is the truth.

If you focus on the truth and forget yourself, you will create a life instead of a prison.

Creating a System of Operations in Your Home

Whether you’re in isolation by yourself, with your family or your spouse, creating a sense of progress throughout the course of a day will help you sleep at night. This does not necessarily come from feverishly throwing yourself into some hobby you may ultimately abandon (like color film photography). For me, a sense of purpose grew out of the basic arrangement of the things in my home.

When I began my interior life, my house was set up to provide a place to sleep and shower while I was not at work. However, my setup was ill-equipped to actually support the entirety of life’s functions. As a result, everything I needed day-to-day was either on empty or at max capacity.

My daily functions consisted of trying to fix the unexpected problems these conditions created in my world. There was no order to my interior life. Creating order, on paper first, allowed me to envision a pattern and a sequence for my own activity and a purpose for my life became clear. This gave me hope and motivation. It also allowed me to see exactly what I needed in a day, as well as everything I did not.

One of the things I needed was more space. I realized that I had five closets that were packed full of stuff. I decided to investigate the contents because I needed that specific space to be able to do specific things. I discovered my closets were full of junk. Most of it went directly to the curb. A lot of my needs were not being met simply because I had a bunch of unnecessary stuff that took up all the space.

As you make these discoveries, keep track of them. You will begin to see a pattern in your life emerge from them.

Designing Your Sphere of Activity for an Interior Life

Your system requires input in order to fulfill whatever you determined to be its purpose. Creating a regular sphere of activity for yourself ensures that your input is consistent and contributes to the ongoing stasis of your system.

In your interior life, you must gauge your actions. While following rules in your own home might seem like further punishment, creating limits allows you to discover what you can do in an exact sense. It prevents the anxiety of not knowing what to do with yourself at all.

The worst thing you can do while in a secluded state is to suddenly change the input to create a response that you think will alleviate emotional distress, boredom or anxiety. If your actions prompt the system to deliver an unusual response, your regular activities will change as a result. This jeopardizes the stasis of your system and increases your level of distress. Following rules, even when it seems pointless to do so, or incredibly difficult, helps you live in separation from the world without living in a destructive feedback loop.

That said, you will need to release the pressure of pent up frustrations or anxiety. I have one recommendation for planning the controlled release of tensions: order the best headphones you can afford from Amazon and schedule a regular time to lock yourself in a room with Pandora and a beer. Proceed to dance vigorously for a designated period of time. Then stop and resume normal activity. This might sound totally stupid but it is the most effective way I discovered to prevent a meltdown.

If you can’t escape to a room, get everyone in your home a set of headphones and make this a mandatory exercise. Young children definitely chill out after a session of vigorous dance. You will too. And it will be fun! Joy helps the system function.

A Few Words on Prayer and the Structure of Your Life

When I dedicated my life to God, I began to struggle with understanding His purpose for me. The timing was inconvenient to say the least, especially in combination with the endlessness of each day. Nevertheless, I committed myself to prayer, and that’s how I created a series of timestamps that helped me learn how to live without feeling like there was nothing to look forward to.

I recommend going back to the basics of private prayer. I started with the book, Key of Heaven: A Manual of Prayer and Instruction for Catholics. This book explains in absolute terms the correct way to live a devout Catholic life (like it’s 1905). I prayed the morning and evening prayers, which created an official start and end to each day. This was the best thing I did for myself. This became my work.

If you wonder what to do in between morning and evening, I enthusiastically recommend praying The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Independent of the topic of the excellence of liturgical prayer, praying The Little Office presents a stunning arrangement of the Catholic language that helped me know the mystical side of contemplation. Being faithful to the seven prayer times throughout the day makes you feel something like wild amazement and complete wonder. I felt myself begin an intellectual process of understanding beauty as a spiritual sentiment.

It was also how I taught myself Latin. I will tell you that to be able to randomly intone some chant while making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is incredibly satisfying. Especially when you know what you’re saying.

The volume I pray is under the Imprimatur of the Church, and it’s available on the Sisters of Carmel website.

Entering seclusion was a gift that I accepted. My weekly columns discuss the interior life and spiritual health. I aim to help people understand contemplative life through my own experience leaving the world and accepting isolation. I also offer advice and encouragement on Twitter @Meredith_Galvin.

My next column will discuss how to cope with loneliness.

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5 thoughts on “The Accidental Contemplative: Isolation for Beginners”

  1. Ms. Meredith,
    This is the most helpful most healthful piece I have read in a month. God bless you. I’m looking forward to reading more of your articles at Catholic Stand. And since it is now two times today that I have read about the book Key of Heaven, I will have to have it!

    Sincerely

    Christine

  2. This is quite new to me. Do you mean that you live alone in an apartment and not in a convent? How do you survive? Get spiritual direction? Is this temporary or permanent?

    1. It was a permanent decision I made to leave the world. I don’t live in a convent, but in my own place. I don’t get spiritual direction right now. It’s something I considered, but I usually am able to get a clear direction from prayer. I also work on my vocation, which is to write.

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