Contemplation in the Arctic desert

The soon-to-be saint Charles de Foucauld, who left behind a rich aristocratic life to live among desert-dwellers in Algeria, wrote to a friend, “to receive the grace of God you must go to a desert place and stay awhile…so that God can build his hermitage within…” But the irony of desert places is that they’re not really deserted. In fact, the more God built his hermitage within Charles, the more Charles was frequented by friends and neighbors in a sand-swept place called Beni Abbes.

But what difference does it make really if the desert is sand-swept or snow-swept? If it’s brown or white? When the Little Sisters of Jesus, who follow in the footsteps of Charles de Foucauld, first came to Alaska in the 1950s, it was because they were in search not just of desert places, but of desert dwellers, to share the life of those living in some of the most remote areas of the world. In the underknown people of the Arctic, the Little Sisters discovered friends who would help them connect with and rejoice in what was essential, a foundation for any contemplative life. For years this meant putting down roots in the wind-driven tundra of Nome.

I am much younger than the other sisters, and when I arrived on the scene, it was in the heart of the COVID pandemic. I came to live in our remaining community here in Anchorage, Alaska. But the roped-off pews in churches and empty parish halls made it hard to meet each other. Like many people, I questioned what relevance my presence might have. The pandemic had opened in the world an existential desert that somehow seemed harder to live in than any real one.

Besides that, I moved here from Milan, Italy, where there had been an undeniable wealth of spiritual resources at our fingertips—from monasteries and convents that would welcome us for days of prayer, to pilgrimages and shrines within biking distance. Moving to Alaska was a total game-changer. Like my sisters must have felt struggling to cross the windy, flat expanses of Nome, I didn’t know how to walk in this new spiritual desert.

Since part of our charism is to work manual labor jobs, I got a job as a housekeeper in a local hospital where little by little, the days became populated by those who were crossing deserts of their own. At first, I had longed for the “glory days” of our congregation when the sisters joined in the subsistence living of the Native people…sewing seal skins, for example. And yet, hospital rooms became the “new” setting for meeting those who continue to courageously live off of the reality given them at any given moment.

I enter the room with nothing to give per se. No goods or vital services. I come to share a space that belongs to another. Sometimes that space fills with light and healing conversations. Other times it is permeated by a prayerful silence. As I swoop my mop under the bed, I am aware of the patient’s benevolent gaze–that they see something humble and lovely in me that I almost can’t believe.

Thomas Merton once said he felt greater peace when he wasn’t “trying to be contemplative,” but simply orientating his life fully toward whatever was required of him. The first time I read that, it felt dry and dutiful. Perhaps because I hadn’t yet faced my fear that a contemplative calling might cool, due to the desert places I inhabited. It’s the same old fear Nathaniel voices when hearing about Jesus! “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?!”

When people ask me, “So what made you want to become a sister?” I cringe because the more accurate and important question for any vocation is, “So… what makes you stay?” Not “what brought you to this place?” But instead, “What makes you stay here?” That answer is simple—because this life of dwelling in desert places, the greatest of which is ordinary life, enlarges my heart.

Little Sister Emily is a young professed in the congregation of the Little Sisters of Jesus. She works as a housekeeper and enjoys poetry. She lives with her sisters in Anchorage, Alaska.


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