An old Vermont family cemetery a short walk from our property. Another place to come and die...
By Mark Kutolowski
“Wow – it’s so peaceful here. I just feel the stillness as soon as I arrive. It must be amazing to live here all the time – no cares, no worries, just rest and prayer and peace.” The middle-aged man sitting next to me at table concluded his thoughts, “Honestly, I’m a bit jealous that you get to live like this for so long.” The year was 2002, and I was six months into a year-long stay at Lebh Shomea House of Prayer, a little community modeled on the spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Lebh Shomea had three resident hermits, who had all been there for more than 25 years. They welcomed long-term guests like me – there were usually between two and four of us in residence during the course of my stay. Lebh Shomea also welcomed short-term guests, who often stayed between two nights and a week. My conversation partner was one of these short-term guests, and we were at Sunday lunch, the only time of the week where there was free conversation on the 1,000 acre grounds of Lebh Shomea.
I didn’t have the courage to share with him how prayer had been incredibly painful for me in the past month. Guided by one of the hermits, I was on a strict daily discipline of four to five hours of silent prayer, coupled with three hours of scripture study and four hours of manual labor (watering trees, turning compost and cleaning bathrooms). Lately, the scripture study had felt the most rewarding, and I had come to prefer scrubbing toilets to spending time in silent prayer. When I went to pray, my dominant felt experience in that season was the rising of afflictive emotions – fear, sadness, anger, anxiety – coupled with a seemingly endless replaying of the pop music I listened to in high school. It was hard to feel the point of prayer when the vast majority of time between my opening and closing spoken prayer was spent ‘trying’ to listen to God while instead hearing an hour-long replay of AC/DC’s and MC Hammer’s greatest hits clanging around within my head. Then, there would be nights where I would wake at 2 AM, filled with tension in my body and fear in my heart, with nowhere to turn but prayer – I’d rise and spend another hour in prayer, repeating ‘Oh God, come to my assistance’ or ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ while I rode the waves of affliction until enough quiet returned until I could lay back in bed. ‘No cares, no worries, just rest and prayer and peace.’ Indeed. I didn’t know how to respond to my lunch conversation partner. At the time, I think I shared with him my appreciation for the beauty of the wild landscape around the property, and then asked him about his life.
What was going on for me during my stay at Lebh Shomea? Why was my experience so different from the experience of the short-term guest?
During my year at Lebh Shomea, I observed a series of similar phenomena – most people who came for a few days felt tremendously refreshed and renewed by their stay. Many people came who planned to stay for longer, but about half of them would leave early, after a week or ten days. Those who stayed on for months invariably faced substantial spiritual struggles, similar to what I was experiencing at the time of my conversation with the short-term guest. In my twice-weekly spiritual direction and tutorial sessions with the hermit Fr. Kelly, I would share with him my struggles. Each time, he would respond with some version of ‘That’s perfectly normal. Keep praying.’ My prayer life at Lebh Shomea wasn’t a constant struggle, either. There were times of immense joy and awareness of God interspersed with the times of aridity and struggle. Over the course of the year, and with Fr. Kelly’s guidance, I came to understand that this was a normal part of a life of prayer, and that the uncomfortable times were to be expected, especially in the early stages of a disciplined spiritual life. His word for these experiences, and the word used in much of the Christian contemplative tradition, is ‘purgation’. It’s an intense word – one of its older meanings is ‘to use a laxative to clear out the bowels.’ Father Kelly assured me that my struggles were not only normal, but that there were a necessary part of my walk with Christ. They were, he taught, actually an effect of my seeking God and giving myself to Christ, and the Holy Spirit at work within my soul. God longs to abide with me even more than I long to abide with God, he told me, but to bring this about God initiates the stripping away of all within me that is unable to rest in God. Thus, the journey of purgation.
Metanoia and Purgation
We call our ministry ‘Metanoia of Vermont’, emphasizing Jesus’ call to renewal or transformation of heart. This is the meaning of the Koine Greek work metanoia, which Jesus uttered at the onset of his public ministry (Mark 1:14-15, Matthew 4:17). Most of the time, I think of metanoia in tremendously positive terms – it’s a turning towards God, an opening of the eyes of the heart to encounter the Kingdom of God which is already at hand. If there’s one word I could share with every human being on the planet, it would be ‘metanoia!’ ‘Transform the eyes of your heart – see that the Kingdom of God is here! Awaken to this beautiful reality of life in God!’
Yet, I know from my own life journey, from the teachings of the saints, and from observing and supporting many others on the way, that when we do make a definitive turn towards a life of prayer, love, and service of God, purgation will follow. There’s often a sort of ‘springtime’ of the spiritual life where bliss and peace abound for a season of life. Inevitably, a time of interior struggle follows. As Father Kelly taught me, this is normal, natural, and probably inevitable. It is not an obstacle to growth in faith, hope, and love of God, but a consequence of growth in faith, hope, and love of God. When we open to that which is entirely good, pure, beautiful, and true (God), all that is small, self-centered, ugly, and rooted in falsehood begins to be softened, loosened, and gradually expelled from our soul. This gradual unloading of all that is unholy within us is the essence of spiritual purgation. It is initiated by God, and we do not have to control or direct it. We do, however, have to keep casting ourselves back into the fire of divine love, and allow ourselves to be remade into our true nature, as bearers of God’s image and likeness. God’s love is a transforming fire. When we resist it, it feels like hell. When we have both an openness to God and parts within us (often unconscious) still in resistance, it feels like purification or purgation (purgatory). When we are fully open and clear, God’s transforming love is experienced as the unending light and glory of heaven.
The point of all this is to emphasize that there is simply no way to grow in God without times of purgation. I live in the United States, amidst a national culture that is driven by the idea of quick fixes, fast success, and ‘hacks’. Culturally, we tend to assume that if something is difficult, I must be doing it wrong. In the retreats I facilitate and the people I council, I often hear this kind of thinking applied to the spiritual life. If prayer is difficult, we Americans often think ‘I must be doing something wrong. What new technique can I learn to fix it?’ I’ve become convinced that there is no other way than to embrace purgation, and to take up our cross as we follow the Crucified One. The fastest way to God is the way of total surrender, and to allow God to both comfort us and remake us. The deeper our consent, the faster the progress. I’ve never met someone who is able to give God their total surrender all at once. So we return, again and again, to prayer. We allow God to be God, and to accept whatever comes in prayer, knowing that it is God who guides, sustains, and transforms us in the crucible of silent prayer.
A Place to Come and Die
When we began welcoming guests at our Metanoia homestead in 2017, we didn’t intentionally set up a place for people to experience purgation. Yet, over the years, every single person who has stayed here for more than ten days has experienced some form of purgation or purification. Many people who have come for shorter stays have shared with us their experiences of purgation as well, especially those who had already leaned into the purification process before arriving, and were leaning into prayer and solitude during their stay.
While we didn’t intentionally set up a place of spiritual purgation, in retrospect it’s easy to see why this is such a common experience. Anyone who comes here and shares in the common life spends between one and two hours a day in prayer. They also lose 24-7 access to the internet, which is one of the most common addictions of 21st century American life. They are more exposed to reality in the form of the natural world, the Word of God in scripture, and the lives and teachings of the saints. These are enough to give God space to start ‘cleaning up’ aspects of our souls through the process of purgation.
In an ongoing conversation, Lisa and one long term guest began referring to Metanoia Homestead as ‘a place to come and die.’ We’ve started joking about how this could become the unofficial motto of our ministry. It would be an honest warning to those who come and lean into the life of prayer here. It might also be helpful in discouraging visitors who might not want to experience purgation during a spiritual retreat.
The ‘come and die’ motto is useful in that it highlights the vast difference between the path of genuine Christian transformation and the many false simulacrums that are frighteningly common in the contemporary spiritual landscape. The Way of Christ is not about the therapeutic rehabilitation of the psyche – it is about the purgation of all identification with the psyche in order to find our true identity as sons and daughters of the Most High. It is not about stress reduction or self-improvement, but inner death and resurrection. It is not about being affirmed by God in our over-identification with aspects of our bodies, emotions, and thoughts, but about releasing attachment to all that is passing to find true rest in the One who is eternal.
This is the heart of Lent. Lent is a season of letting go, and of giving over to God all that remains in us that is too small for our true calling as Christ-bearers. Lent is not about self-improvement. Lent is about self-surrender, and confident trust in the Divine Physician who purifies and heals us when we give ourselves into the arms of Christ. God longs to make us whole, but God requires our consent in the work of purgation. It’s end is not death, but true life in the Risen Christ. God is generous with divine grace – let us be generous with surrendering ourselves to God’s purifying love in return.
Saint Benedict taught that the life of a monk ought to be a perpetual Lent. That used to sound harsh and negative to me. Now, I see that he was teaching his monks that they should be continuously open to God’s purifying love. The disciplines of Lent, like our basic disciplines at Metanoia, are designed to keep our hearts open, and to allow God to purge, purify, and heal us. This is not meant to be harsh or burdensome. It is intended as a remedy, to bring us to the fullness of life in Christ. Let us return to our hearts this Lent, and begin again as we give ourselves over to the gentle yoke of Christ.
‘Lebh Shomea’ means ‘Listening Heart’ in Hebrew.
 Of course, this also includes Lisa and myself.
 From the Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 49
 The classic disciplines of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
This is beautiful, Mark. In the world, and working full-time, I found that when I practiced silent prayer I often had to take breaks. It was very difficult to go through the unavoidable purgation and at the same time pretend like everything was normal with me at work. I had to take breaks from it to let it work its way through me.
Obviously this is the benefit of a lay contemplative community. It isn't any less of a challenge--maybe it is more of one--but rather that the process is part of the lived rhythm of one's life. The spiral of death and resurrection becomes oddly natural. Being in nature allows us to see that as dying and rebirth as we ourselves undergo it.
A place to come to die...and fully alive.
Thank you for this post. -Jack