Silence and solitude. Sometimes we experience these together. Other times, we have one without the other. At the New Camaldoli Hermitage I experienced silence in community, worshipping four times a day with the brothers. Kayaking in the San Juan Islands I experienced silence in solitude.
On a Tuesday in early August, my wife Alice delivered me to a public access beach in Anacortes. From there I launched on a four-day solo trip into the San Juan Islands. This was meant to be a pilgrimage of sorts. I set out to continue the silence of the monastery in a different setting, to spend time in nature and in solitude.
My itinerary would take me to Cypress Point and Pelican Beach on Cypress Island, then to Clark Island, and finally to the Lummi Ferry landing north of Bellingham. All of these destinations and the passages to reach them are very familiar to me, having paddled these routes many times over the past 20 years, but this was the first time I have done a trip like this alone.
Silence is different in nature than in a monastic setting. There is no door or window between you and the elements. On my first night at Cypress Head the sound of the current rushing past was intense. There were ships passing, birds calling, wind rustling through the trees, and the constant sound of the water. After setting up camp I spent some time doing Centering Prayer. It was a challenge just to sit with my eyes closed in that environment, let alone to find a peaceful center, and yet, I felt the presence of the sacred all around me.
My second day I broke camp and paddled to Pelican Beach at the north end of Cypress Island. After securing the last available campsite (there were two large guided groups of kayakers with at least a dozen people in each group already at the camp when I arrived) I hiked the mile and a half trail up to Eagle Peak. The hike through the woods was a beautiful, meditative experience of solitude and the views from the top were spectacular.
I spent half an hour alone on Eagle Peak. There is a good reason that we so often speak of experiencing the sacred in nature. Sitting in silence with the San Juan Islands laid out all around me, I was grateful and humbled.
The third day of the trip I made the largest passage, going to Orcas Island and then on to Clark Island. As I was approaching Orcas Island, I found myself in a strong current that was creating aggressive waves. I have intentionally paddled into these currents many times to play in the turbulent water, but this time I was alone, and it felt different. I was swept into the waves by the wind and current as I was approaching Orcas Island and I found myself bracing with the paddle to avoid tipping. Quickly I realized that I would need to change course to get out of the disturbed waters and within a few minutes the excitement was over. I was confident in my skills as a paddler, but I was also keenly aware that if something went wrong, I was on my own. I made it to the beach with no trouble and enjoyed a nice snack before pressing on to Clark Island.
Clark Island is a beautiful little island north of Orcas and west of Lummi. I had the island mostly to myself and was able to enjoy the company of seals and the beauty of the marine environment.
Solitude is an interesting experience. I was grateful for the time in nature, for the intentional silences, and for the adventure of this trip. I was also aware that even a minor challenge could turn into a serious problem because I was alone. Solitude and silence can be a blessing, but they are best experienced with the support of community.
This is a good metaphor for our life as followers of Christ. We need the loving support of our church community. Spiritual growth and Christian discipleship can include silence and solitude, but they are best pursued in loving, supportive relationship. It is good to be back with you all here at St. Dunstan’s Church.
Yours in Christ,