Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Christine Valters Paintner on Seeking Silence and Solitude

The Celtic monks were profoundly influenced by the desert tradition, and while they were not able to go to the literal desert, they sought out the wild edges and lush places of wilderness. There are many sacred places in Ireland with the word “dysert” or “disert” in the name. This is the Irish word for desert and refers to a place of solitude and silence, a retreat for those who longed for a more intimate encounter with God and where attention could be cultivated with fewer distractions.

Across the landscapes of Wales and in Ireland we can find over five hundred places named dysert, a place to reclaim the desert of the heart.  The Irish knew that the physical desert landscape could not be found in the lush terrain of their island, but the spirit of the inner desert, the cave of the heart, the cell was found within. They felt deeply called to cultivate this interior threshold space.

David Adam in his book Border Lands describes them this way:
The disert place of retreat was set up to discover the edge of glory, to experience the beyond that is in our midst. 'Diserts' are set up not to run away from what is going on, but to experience in greater depth the reality that is about them.

On many of the Irish high crosses you see at the great monastic sites, carved into one of the panels you see the two old hermits, St. Antony of Egypt and St. Paul of Thebes, in the Egyptian desert. They are depicted with a raven overhead because the story about them says that a raven brought half a loaf of bread every day for St Paul to eat, but when St. Anthony was to visit him, he brought a whole loaf. The bread is often depicted in a circular shape, making connections to Eucharist.

Solitude is not a practice just for ourselves, but to cultivate within each of us a greater capacity for living in communion with the world. In solitude we are able to listen more intimately for the whispers of the divine alive in each moment. We also have the space needed to wrestle with our own internal voices and become clearer about which ones we want to respond to.

Is there a “dysert” place in your own life? Where do you go for a time of retreat? It might be a place in your own home, a retreat center nearby, a beautiful landscape where you go to restore, or a faraway place that has touched your heart with its capacity to reveal the holy.

Make a commitment to find a day sometime during the next weeks to go away for a time of silence and solitude to simply listen. You can even practice dysert at home for ten minutes each day if that is all that is available to you. Turn off any notifications from your phone or computer, tell others in your house not to disturb you, and give yourself time to sit and listen. You may not hear anything at first, or you may hear the birds outside, the whir of car engines going by, the rustle of a neighbor on their way out the door. Instead of fighting these as distractions, bring the art of blessing to each of these sounds. Bless the birds, the people in their cars wherever they are headed, the neighbor whose story you may or may not know.

**This is an excerpt from The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred by Christine Valters Paintner (forthcoming from Ave Maria Press)

Christine Valters Paintner, PhD is a Benedictine oblate living in Ireland for the last six years where she leads pilgrimages and retreats with her husband John. She is a poet and the author of eleven books on contemplative practice and creative expression including her forthcoming The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred. Christine also founded the online monastery Abbey of the Arts and she offers a free 8-week online retreat on becoming a monk in the world when you subscribe to the newsletter.

Take some time to reflect upon and respond to the author's questions: Is there a “dysert” place in your own life? Where do you go for a time of retreat?

In what ways might you be more diligent about creating "dysert" time and space in your own life?

Please share your reflections with us here.

To view or make comments you must be logged in to Monasteries of the Heart. If you are not yet a member, you can create a free membership account at now. A real person authenticates each new member account to avoid spam accounts so you will not have immediate access. As soon as your account is verified you will receive an email with further instructions.