If I weren’t happily married . . .

If I weren’t joyfully a mother . . .

If I didn’t thrive performing on the stage . .

If I didn’t love writing and thereby connecting with people. . .

If I weren’t an incurable nomad who’s drawn to what this weighted world can offer. . .

In other words, if I’d lived a whole other life altogether. . .

I would definitely be a hermit.

The Abbaye de St. Roman is a troglodytic sanctuary carved by hand into the mountaintops overlooking the Rhône Valley of central Provence.

Here is a special aerial view:,90.00,110.0

For well over 1000 years, this one-of-a-kind abbey (there is none other like it in Western Europe; you have to go to Egypt or Cappadocia to find anything even similar) kept pilgrims and monks, hermits and the otherwise ultra-ascetic apart from this world.

To such disciples of self-discipline, their stony refuge kept them focused, pure, unsullied, liberated high above the heaviness of this realm of flesh.  They lived in near silence.  They prayed.  For hours and hours.  And hours.

They wrote.  They ate very little. And very simply.  They sang.  And chanted. And hummed. And breathed deeply.

They moved quietly. Or they sat all alone. For, oh let’s see, a lifetime or thereabouts.

In their tiny cells.





(Now is when you check to see if you still have a pulse.)

Luc in the chapel

Dalton standing in what looked a lot like a baptismal font

Three ascending thrones

The abbey’s stark chalky walls of limestone have intermittent splotches of outdoor light –- primitive windows — carved out with one-by-one chiselmarks made by pilgrims who, many of them, had crawled to the abbey entrance on their hands and knees. Seeking God.

Here, they lived for months or years. Or until the end of all their earthly days, when released by death from a world they did not simply reject as vulgar, but from a normal life which they considered a distraction from the divine.

Some spiritual recluses (the Desert Fathers and their less-known but fascinating Desert Mothers) felt energized — or at least divinized — by living in cells so small, they could hardly turn around in them, let alone get comfy enough to spread out their elbows and enjoy their daily heel of bread.  Let alone stretch out to sleep when they needed.  Let alone do anything but be let alone.

Sound nuts?

Oh, but lemme tell you: I so get hermits.

More than the mere aversion to this material world, the yearning for the divine — theosis — can drive one out.  Out of the city.  Out of human contact.  Out of whatever a given culture or time calls “normalcy.”

Out of one’s mind, some would argue.

Out, at least, to regions far apart, to solitude and its wondrously soundproofed spaces, to deep retreat, retreat so unspeakable, its compressed depths squeeze one toward extreme — but sometimes elevating — behaviors.

All this to reach outside of this clunky, awkward phase called mortality.  To try with all one’s might at consecration. Sanctification.

(My pulse is quickening. Yours?)

As I hiked up to and around and through St. Roman, though, I took myself — wife, mother, performer, writer, nomad, lover of people, lover of God — to task on these issues.  I contemplated.  (Okay, okay, while walking freely, that’s true, and while humming my very favorite Earth, Wind and Fire tunes, I admit it, and while munching on a granola bar.) I contemplated what it means for me to live inside — and outside of — this world.

What is the challenge?, I asked myself. Standing outside of the world?  Or standing in it while withstanding it?

How can one give to the world, I asked myself, if one gives up on it?

Where can one find sanctuary?  Apart from? Then apart from what?

Or within? Then within what?

What is the path to “sanctification”?

Carving out of mountain stone a place where I can dwell? Apart from the world? And therefore closer to God?

Or carving out of my stony soul a place where God Himself might dwell?

A part — the most consuming part — of me?

The words of a Desert Mother, Amma Syncletica:

 “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town; they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd; and it is possible for those who are solitaries to live in the crowd of their own thoughts.”

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.