When I was about 12 years old, I lived in the Carmel Valley in Northern California, very near Big Sur, a gorgeous part of the country with magnificent high rocky bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and giant redwoods and other ancient trees growing amidst the boulders. It made my heart ache just to be amidst the beauty of it. My mother, a sadistic, deranged woman who was chronically ill with multiple sclerosis that occasionally paralyzed her, had moved us to the valley so that we could be near Big Sur, but, like all our moves, it would not last long and we would be pushed on to another place, just ahead of the creditors.
In the meantime, however, I grabbed at the beauty, holding it to my heart and cherishing it. Every day, when the weather permitted, I would hop onto my little Schwinn Bicycle with the banana seat and the tall handlebars, and work my legs like mad to get myself into the town of Carmel. Mostly, I enjoyed the Catholic Mission. I was drawn to it strongly, drawn to a different sort of beauty that I sensed it contained.
Forced to live a life always on the move and having to adjust to new surroundings, new friends, new teachers, new homes, at least once a year, I found peace in a place that represented tradition, and the contiguous history of faith. It had stood there since 1771, and I yearned for a version of the stability of the place and its people.
The kindly man behind the counter at the gift shop felt sorry for me, I am sure. My clothes were old, tattered and unwashed. My hair was choppy and sloppy, the work of my mother who was jealous of its beautiful color, thickness and waves. She regularly forced me to sit still while she pushed the dull, old kitchen shears into it, until it was a crazy nonsensical shape, with cowlicks springing here and there. She would not allow me to grow it long.
Never having any money to spend, I could only gaze wistfully at the books, the sparkly rosaries, and all the captivating symbols of a faith I knew nothing about but which drew me mysteriously to itself. I had been promised an allowance many times by my absent, wealthy father, but never once received it, despite my earning it with "A's" in school. He was too busy buying airplanes and women. Thus, I never had a dime to spend at the gift shop.
Surely, I was a pathetic sight, always alone. My mother was interested only in men. My younger sister, my mother's pet and her sounding board between husbands, despised me, encouraged by my mother's insane desire that I be treated like the black sheep. I am sure that the solitary nature of my life radiated from me loudly, being so contrary to the condition of most children. The fact that I continually appeared by myself at the mission's gift store surely spoke volumes to the nice man behind the counter.
The Lord, when he created me, in his ultimate wisdom and mercy, gave me a temperament most introverted and studious, perfectly suited to a life lived with Him alone. Occasionally, I was lonely, but it was an ordinary loneliness that did not clash with my customary inclinations. I found joy in silence.
Often, the nice man behind the counter would give me little gifts, mostly book markers, inexpensive little medals of St. Therese of Lisieux, and pamphlets. It was to one of these pamphlets that I turned when my mother moved us to Monterey, far away from my beloved Carmel Mission. I could no longer ride there on my bicycle.
The pamphlet was produced by the Carmelite nuns from their monastery in Carmel and discussed vocations to the contemplative religious life. The descriptions of a silent life lived for God alone, in the company of other women, just captivated me. I began a correspondence with the nuns, but my mother, who hated Catholics, quickly put an end to it, telling me that because she had been divorced, I would not be welcome in the convent. She must have written them, telling them not to correspond with me any more, as I never heard from them again, but I remember them fondly, more than 50 years later.
I left home when I turned 17, escaping the torments of a crazy mother who had turned to Jehovah's Witnesses and began to tell me I was going to go to hell...basically because I would not become a Jehovah's Witness. My sibling had quickly fallen into line, but I wanted no part of that crazy religion.
I DID yearn for some religion, though, something by which to guide my life. At 17, I joined the Scientologists (a different crazy religion) and ended up on their flagship that traversed the waters between the Island of Madeira and Basque country in the North of Spain. L. Ron Hubbard was a bizarre man whose penchant for assigning young teenage girls with very tight uniforms to be his personal "messengers" gave me the creeps. One of them always seemed to be on hand to light his cigarettes. I couldn't get off the ship fast enough and was assigned as a department head at their newly formed "Celebrity Center," which, at that time, was located in an awful part of town, on the East side, on 8th Street, I believe. It ended badly.
In my mid-20's, I tried Nicherin Shoshu Buddhism for about 5 minutes, dismissing it as a very thin, propitiatory religion.
In my late 30's, I discovered the Vedanta Society. I had decided I needed to learn how to meditate, and their name in the Sacramento phone book sounded East Indian, and I guessed, rightly, that they were "into" meditation. This began a decades-long affiliation with them in which I learned an awful lot. In the end, I learned that I was meant to be a Christian contemplative, but in the meantime I had been exposed to a Hindu contemplative monastic tradition that spoke to my deep desire for relationship with the Lord in a mystical union.
I left the convent when I was 38 and immediately signed up for an RCIA class at a large Catholic Church near where I was working at a law firm. Having read hundreds of books of the saints and doctors of the church, I was surprised at the games and gimmicky "lessons" that passed for Christian education. When the nun in charge of the classes got wind that I had been divorced, she hauled me into her office and told me it would be years before they would agree to baptize me because I would have to have an annulment of my marriage beforehand. This was and is completely wrong. If I had been living with someone in a second marriage, there could have been an actual problem, but this woman was just off the beam. I was too green to know what to do about it because, although I knew the FAITH fairly well, I wasn't acquainted with canon law. I felt fairly sure she was wrong, but I didn't know what to do about it. This would not be the last time that a Catholic tried to frustrate my efforts to grow close to the faith.
Finally, I gave up and went to the Episcopalians for baptism, but it was an unsatisfying experience because it wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to be baptized as a Catholic. As much as the "high church" Episcopal Cathedral across the street looked the part, I could sense that something crucial was missing. It had all the "bells and smells" and the lights were on, but no one was home.
In terms of career, romance and finances, my life was wretched and exhausting. I worked very hard to support myself for more than 30 years, but it was a constant struggle for survival because of numerous inherited illnesses and rare conditions that grew worse over time and multiplied, so that, by the time I was about 48, I was completely disabled and was no longer able to work at all.
Becoming disabled, although it further complicated my life and put me under tremendous stress, had a happy aspect: It was the opportunity to spend more time in prayer and to build a life completely centered on God, with no distractions, or so I thought. That was in 2003.
At the time, I had wandered back into the Hindu fold and had become a "swami," though that is not the right title for a female version of a Hindu renunciate or teacher. I think "swamini" may have been correct, but I am not sure.
One morning, I was having breakfast at the diner across the street with an Ursaline nun, who turned out to be my 11th cousin. When I told her the story of my having tried to become Catholic, she was disgusted by the shabby treatment I had received by that nun in the RCIA class, so many years prior. Sister Sheila confirmed what I had long suspected, that the other nun had been completely wrong. Later, I would learn that education in the faith had been very poor and that even those whose job it was to know it were ill equipped to share it with anyone. This theme would be repeated continually in my Christian journey, though I did not realize it at the time.
While talking with Sheila, I felt a hitch in my throat, and an old yearning that had smoldered for years began to blaze again. The attraction to the monastic life of prayer pushed itself to the forefront of my awareness. All of the information I had about the faith, however, I had received through books about the saints and doctors of the church that I had read in the Hindu convent in my 30's. I had no experience of parish life and I did not realize that the silence, the reverence for the faith, the mystical heart of the faith, was nowhere evident in the parishes. I had decided to become Catholic based upon the faith alone, with no reference to how it is lived in the world, and it is turning out to be a sad lesson.
After attending mass at various churches in town, I fell in love with the Byzantine Catholic liturgy and traditions, which is practiced in only one church in this city. This Eastern Catholic Rite is fairly sparse in America, so New Mexico is lucky to have even one Byzantine parish.
One of my minor vocations in life has been as a professional genealogist, and I discovered that I am descended from and otherwise related to more than two dozen saints, one of which being a Ukrainian 30th great grandmother, Saint Anna of Novgorod, an Orthodox saint. Further back, I am descended from great grandmother SAINT OLGA, EQUAL TO THE APOSTLES.
My genealogy research was confirmed by my DNA, part of which comes from that general area. The Byzantine Church I was attending has its roots in that area of the world and, although it is not orthodox, its liturgy is mostly the same.
I am convinced that, surely the saints in heaven are praying for their ancestors and other kin as a matter of course. Perhaps this is one reason why I continued to love the church and attempt to enter it, even though most of the people I met seemed to want to keep me out. I am not saying that I have been personally snubbed. The impression I have received over the years is that Catholic parishes are not particularly friendly or inclusive. Nor are they reverent.
Some will behave in a friendly way toward you for two hours on Sunday, but you do not exist once you walk out that door. I do have a couple of Catholic friends, and we truly care about one another, but thinking about my favorite Bible quote, "they shall know you by how you love one another," is an occasion for sadness. You do not love people in whom you have no interest except when you happen to run into them at church.
After Sheila offered to tutor me and be my sponsor for confirmation in the church, I approached the priest at the Byzantine Church and asked if he would agree to this arrangement, since I was unable to attend the regular adult faith formation meetings, due to my disabilities. He gave permission and told me to coordinate with the deacon.
When I approached the deacon, he was dismissive and brushed me off without stopping what he was doing or even looking me in the eye. He said, "I don't have time for that. I'm too busy," and, basically emphatically "no." I was dumbstruck. The deacon was in the middle of trying to become a priest and was too absorbed in his personal career path to be at all concerned with someone who wished to become part of the religion.
Sheila was likewise upset by this, but called around to some people that she knew at other parishes. Eventually, an ex-nun working at a parish near my house agreed to let Sheila take me through whatever material I may have missed, and I would be accepted into the church on Pentacost, along with another man who was seeking entry.
As my disabilities worsened, and I learned more of the general requirements of most convents, it became apparent that I was not suited to monastic life lived in common, due to my age, disabilities, debts and divorce, but I adjusted my dream to the reality of my situation and resolved to live a monastic life at home and to turn my apartment into a sacred space. To the extent that my limited finances have allowed me to do some part of this, I have followed through.
Although the name of this blog is "Diary of an Accidental Hermit," my life condition is more accurately described as an anchoress, since I have spent 11 years anchored in an apartment in a city, rather than the isolated places of hermits. I find that the Lord often demonstrates His sweet will for me by forcing me into a situation that reveals my true happiness, and I have found joy in solitude with the Lord, even though the situation has become almost completely intolerable at this location, and it is urgently needed that I find a more appropriate spot that will allow me to continue my life of prayer, study and writing, while attending to burgeoning disabilities, which now includes the threat of blindness, due to macular degeneration, which I have had, apparently, for at least five years.
An "anchoress," for those of you not familiar with the term, is a type of solitary who, in the middle ages, used to live in a small cell attached to a church. She could watch the mass through a small window that opened directly into the sanctuary, and would also receive the blessed host through that same small window. Each anchoress had her own particular situation and her own rule of life. Townspeople would seek the counsel of an anchoress that was believed to be of a particularly holy and wise condition. They would bring food and other necessaries for her, and she would impart her wisdom. St. Julian of Norwich is an example of one type of anchoress.
Now that I have spent a dozen years living as an anchoress of sorts, I find that I love it. It suits me. It is perfect for me. However, except for my heart and mind being anchored in the Lord, I am not anchored to the church or to a faithful church community. Online "community" is not real community any more than a paper fish is anything like a real one just pulled from the lake.
There was a long time in Catholic history when anchoresses were more common, they lived in towns and cities that were entirely Catholic, and they were supported physically, emotionally, psychologically and, most important, spiritually, by a community that held common values and beliefs. They were not surrounded by atheists, new-agers, Hindus, and anti-Catholics, yet this is the situation in which I now find myself. I am vulnerable prey to Satan and his minions.
Just this week, a young neighbor who has been very nice to me previously and who knew quite well that I am Catholic, verbally assaulted me with horrible lies about the faith. She got her "facts" from a program on television.
I realized that she, like most Americans these days, thinks that it is permissible to attack Christianity. She dislikes the faith because she is living an immoral life and earning money in an unethical way. Christianity is inconvenient to those who are morally bankrupt.
Many people are willing to freely show their contempt for Christianity in a culture that, supposedly, believes in freedom of religion. I have been verbally ambushed like this more than a dozen times at this apartment complex. I am surrounded by people like her, vulnerable to attack at any time.
We live in an age when the supportive Christian atmosphere must be deliberately created. Isolated elderly and disabled ladies, as well as frail widows, are spread out in the city, surrounded, for the most part, by those who are hostile to the faith. Even one's own family cannot be relied upon to maintain the faith, since there is so much pressure to conform to a society that hates us.
"Divide and conquer" is a familiar tactic of the enemy, and we have to fight this tendency to split from one another. My dream is the dream of the Christian ashram, similar to what Father Bede Griffiths lived in India.
In a culture that is hostile to Christianity, it may be time to return to the catacombs and support Jesus' vision and one another at the same time.
The Hindu version of this is the ashram, but ashrams are more inclusive than the Christian model. In my experience of ashram life, monastic and lay people live and work together, joining several times a day for set prayer times in the temple.
I lived at the Vedanta Society for about 8 years, several of which were spent in the convent, and I never felt more secure and supported. It was a wonderful life. It was just the wrong religion, which I discovered while reading the Catholic mystics in the Hindu convent.
My dream is for the creation of Catholic neighborhoods, where the church is the center of the community, but the parish church must be of a spotless character and completely faithful to the magisterium, or the community will fail. We have many unfaithful and some heretical priests, bishops and cardinals in these dark days. There is a homosexual cabal that nearly rules the Vatican. Entire diocese in America are polluted by unfaithful clergy living perverted and immoral lives. The pedophile priest scandal scratched the surface of the depravity. Pope Benedict, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, strongly stated that "we must get the filth out of the church."
I have often wondered if his retirement was at least partially due to pushback from Vatican insiders. We will likely never know.
In addition to some heretical clergy that is determined to dismantle the faith until it is as wishy washy as your nearest big box Protestant hall, we have a Catholic laity that is uneducated in the faith and which ignores the guidance of the faith with regard to all the sexual sins in particular. Fornication, birth control and abortion are as common as dirt, and these sins open the gateway to Satan. Unfortunately, these people don't believe in Satan or Hell, a topic about which Jesus spoke more than any other.
Obviously, when I speak of Catholic community, I am not thinking of these cultural Catholics or Catholics in name only, who are little more than poor Protestants in disguise, the wolves in sheep's clothing.
My dream is that those who yearn for perfect obedience to Jesus gather together in neighborhoods, with The Church at the center. I long to be situated in a small house with a little yard for my service dog and my seeing eye dog, where my life of prayer can be conducted in a safe, holy, quiet place that also accommodates my disabilities.
I dream of having an excellent lending library of The Church doctors and fathers, mothers and saints, and a special room for prayer and meditation in my home, to be shared with others.
I long to be surrounded by faithful Christians as my neighbors and to be close to my faithful church. This, to me, is heaven on earth, and I encourage all Catholics to begin thinking in these terms, because it is time to circle the wagons and draw tightly together. The persecution is just beginning.
I have shared the major features of my dream. Now let me share the blocks that stand in front of me:
Occasionally, a house will come up for rent in a modest but relatively safe neighborhood near a Byzantine Catholic Church that is close to where my supportive Catholic friends live, but I cannot afford the rents. I cannot afford to buy the houses that come up for sale. A lifetime of battling illness and working at jobs that gradually paid less and less over the years, has left me completely destitute, and struggling to live on an income that is the same as the income on which I was starving 30 years ago.
The primary mission of the Christian ashram I envision is a life lived in common but alone...a life of contemplative prayer for the purification of the Catholic Church and its reunion with the Orthodox churches. My inability to take care of myself properly is a terrible distraction from that mission. Somehow, a miracle has to occur so the dream may be realized, if it is God's will that it be so.
In addition to praying, I am calling out to all of my faithful Catholic brothers and sisters for help in realizing this holy dream. I need housing, I need special foods, supplements, over-the-counter medicines, medical equipment and a host of other necessities. I do not have the resources for any of it.
The housing seems to be the most impossible situation at the moment. Government housing is all located in dangerous neighborhoods and consists of noisy apartments on large main streets, especially when it comes to single people for whom the subsidies are very limited. Single people do not qualify for houses, even small ones.
Currently, I live on the main street that cuts through the middle of town. It is part of the old Route 66 that traversed the United States prior to the freeway systems taking its place. Car horns, yelling people, barking dogs, broken mufflers, booming rap music, screaming people, and the harsh sound of bad mufflers on raunchy old motorcycles pepper the air that is already thick with rubber that the road rubs from the tires. Soon, these sounds will be supplemented by the noise and vibration of jackhammers and other tools as the median is removed from the middle of the road and a system of rail buses is installed down the length of it.
Getting into my apartment complex will be terribly restricted, as those traveling west will have to go to the end of the block, make a u-turn, and THEN travel back the other way to make a right into our driveway. This will be a permanent inconvenience, since one cannot make a left turn over the rails. NONE of this is conducive to a quiet life of prayer.
Most of all, I seek Catholic community in which the First Commandment is recognized as the most important: that we love God above all else.
Ask yourself why you make certain choices. Do you move into a neighborhood because it has the best, most faithful Catholic Church in town, or do you move close to work for your convenience? Do you make friends first within the Catholic community so that you can be sure of having friends that share your love of God and your values, or do you choose those who are most entertaining or those who have the most money or the coolest clothes?
It used to be that Catholics were anxious to have people in the world who were dedicated to praying for them and for the woes of the world. The Church itself was more supportive of the mystics among us, more cognizant of the value of prayer in peaceful, reverent atomospheres. That certainly doesn't describe most parishes I've seen, where people dress like they are about to take a walk on the beach, the pastor's homilies never mention God, heaven or hell, and where people are holding hands or clapping and hooting like they're at some pop concert instead of offering worship to the Lord of the universe!
I want to help change this, but I can only do it through prayer. I am too banged up to do anything else. I hope you will join me in my efforts by praying with me for a change in these aspects of Catholic life as well.
I ask you to consider getting behind this movement to create Catholic community that is real and concrete, instead of the imaginary "communities" that gather at church once a week for an hour. That is not community. That's just a break from the rest of your life.
Please pray for the healing of our church and each other. Please pray for me, as I pray for you, and especially, please pray for the renaissance of Catholic life that is itching just beneath the surface of our chaotic world, itching to get out and spread God's vision of what it means to be human.
God bless us all!
Silver "Rose" Parnell
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