Monk in the World Guest Post: Cindy Steffen

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Cindy Steffen’s reflection, “Instead, a Monk.”

As I reluctantly walked toward the massive wooden doors of the stone church, every exhausted cell in my body shouted, “I don’t want to be here! I don’t want to do this! I don’t want this life!”

It had been just over two months since my husband, Craig, suddenly died of a pulmonary embolism. A month after his passing, we were scheduled to leave on a long-awaited Peregrination; a road trip sabbatical with hopes to discover new callings for the second half of life. He was incredibly excited.

Now, I was utterly lost.

Once inside the Widows Group, I quickly found a chair and turned to hang my coat on the back. What I heard behind me I believe changed the course of my healing journey.

“So, how are you doing, Jane?

“Oh, you know, just trying to keep busy.”

Upon hearing this, a huge lump formed in my throat and inside I screamed, “I am NOT doing it like that! I am not going to just keep busy, so I can forget the pain of losing my true companion!” Instinctively, I knew the “busy path” was not the right direction toward whatever new wholeness lie ahead. So, what did I do?

I became a monk, instead.

When the bottom drops out because of loss or tragedy, and we feel we are free-falling, it is best to hold on to the basics. So, as the desert father, Abba Moses, exhorted, I sat in my “cell” – a blue leather recliner in the family room and “let it teach me.” I yelled, I sobbed, I cursed, I wished I could just dissolve, I prayed, and stared at the walls, either remembering or trying to listen, desperate for my lost connection.

Like St. Francis with his creatures, I surrounded myself with books to discover the wisdom of those who had also experienced great loss, both contemporary and ancient. I read and I read. If it didn’t resonate with me, I put it down and picked up another. Through much reading, my instincts were validated; to embrace the pain of grief, to hold it close, is to heal from it.

I am still learning this.

One of the hardest realities of loss is truly understanding that your life will never be the same. In her book, An Alter in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Reverence stands in awe of something – something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits.” I felt beyond dwarfed. I became utterly limited. Somewhere in my soul, I knew I had to treat my grief with reverence and stand in awe of what this other side of love can do to a heart and soul.

So, on my first, “first” – my 60th birthday, one month after Craig’s passing, I called my anam caras together to “sit Shiva” with me . . . or my version of the practice. I asked them to come sit on our/my bed, as I wailed and wrestled with God, repeatedly sobbing that I wanted him back and wasn’t sure I could go on. When they weren’t mourning with me, I asked them to make various soups in my kitchen and freeze them for the upcoming winter.

Sacred basics . . .  soul friends and soup.

Journaling was also an essential and voracious practice I engaged in. Early writings revealed how much my world had drastically shrunk; I wrote that I didn’t want to go anywhere, didn’t want to be invited anywhere, wanted human interaction only on my terms, often didn’t even answer the phone. So, I created a secret Facebook page for friends and titled it, My Journey of Grief, Small Days, and Hope. The theme of life became those “small days” and I surrendered to them; days when there was nothing to do but cry, or when all I could do was unload the dishwasher, then go watch a movie. When my chest felt like it was filling up with concrete, I grabbed the journal or computer and expressed the Job-like truths in my soul – dark, raw, and questioning as they were. But the tears that flowed from that writing cleansed the pain for at least one more hour; one more day. And looking back, I realize the wisdom I needed, which showed up on the pages between the pleading and the cursing, was Divine.

The last spiritual practice, and maybe the most important, was the daily walks I took with my dog. I call them my “weeping walks” because that is what I did. In winter, bike paths are empty, so lots of ugly crying and conversation took place between a new holy trinity . . . God, Craig and Myself. The beauty I would allow myself to see did its subtle and gracious work of slowly mending my broken heart. My morning ritual was a walk to the creek, leaning on a jutting branch of an old box elder, and telling Craig how much I loved and missed him. It’s where I buried my head in my gloves that first winter and trusted that the prayer I could not speak was being uttered by groanings of the Spirit. It’s where the realization took root that now my husband was also a spirit and our relationship would, indeed, be different.

It was not the life I wanted.

But it is a life I am growing into . . . quiet, intentional, transformational . . . rather like a monk.


Cindy Steffen lives in SE Ohio, where she facilitates retreats for writers, seekers, and now widows through her business, Heart by Nature Retreats. She is the author of Sightings – Twenty-one Poems Observed. An avid birdwatcher, interpretive naturalist, and writer, Cindy is slowly finding her new normal. Visit her at CindyKSteffen.com and www.facebook.com/heartbynatureretreats.

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