28 August 2007

True and False Solitude/Solitaries

Recently a neighbor asked me some questions about the significance of my perpetual profession. She wondered what it meant, what would be different, what does it do? I started with the most basic ideas. Did she know what a hermit was? She responded, "Yes, it is someone who hides. . ." and then her statement sort of broke off, as if she realized how unflattering to me that definition must be!

And yet isn't my neighbor's idea pretty common? Isn't it true that even among hermits or those wanting to become religious hermits, there are strange ideas of what constitutes genuine solitude? Isn't there a sense sometimes that hermits embrace silence and solitude because they cannot and do not relate well to others? Isn't there a strong popular sense that hermits do not have close friends? That affirming that God alone is sufficient for us means we can dispense with the demands of social interaction, and beyond that, of deep friendship? Now let me be clear, reclusion is a unique vocation, and I am not referring to it here (though ordinarily authentic reclusion involves profound relationships and deep friendships too). I am talking about the genuine solitude of most hermits, a solitude whose heart is communion with God, and therefore, a solitude which spills over and finds another whole dimension of itself in relationships with others, and beyond that with the whole of God's creation.

Thomas Merton wrote about true versus false solitude and solitaries. For instance, he noted: [[“[the false solitary’s] solitude is imaginary … the false solitary is one who is able to imagine himself without companions while in reality he remains just as dependent on society as before – if not more dependent. He needs society as a ventriloquist needs a dummy. He projects his own voice and it comes back to him admiring, approving, opposing or at least adverting to his own separateness.”. . . “The true solitary does not renounce anything that is basic and human about his relationship to other men. He is deeply united to them – all the more deeply because he is no longer entranced by marginal concerns.”

One of the things that has become clearer and clearer to me as I live in solitude is just how much LIKE others I really am, and above all, how deeply related to them. This is true whether I am speaking about members of my parish, members of the orchestra I play violin in, clients, family, friends, etc. My vocation is unique but I am not. My circumstances are pretty common: a life marked and marred by illness, ordinary successes, some spectacular failures (some I am still coming to terms with and still feel embarrassment over), dreams yearning for fulfillment, a strong need to share what I have been given, etc. I spend a lot of time in silence and solitude, in contemplative prayer and study, and there is no doubt that I enjoy it and am sometimes tempted to use it as a way to withdraw defensively. But most of the time, so long as my life is profoundly prayerful, I do it because it allows me to be truly related in healthy ways with others, not to hide from those relationships. The hermit dwells in the heart of God, and the heart of God is a pretty populated place!!

[[The true solitary is not called to an illusion, to the contemplation of himself as a solitary. He is called to the nakedness and hunger of a more primitive and honest condition.”]]

Many things drive us to solitude and the notion of "hermitage", not all of them, or even most of them, necessarily positive. The immediate tendency when in physical solitude is to focus on self. One may be enamored of the IDEA of being a hermit, or even of the ROLE one is trying to assume instead of the person one actually is (not to mention the God who resides in one's heart). If one writes about eremitic life (or tries to do so!) this writing may simply be a not-so-veiled exercise in navel gazing and either self pity or self-aggrandizement. One could, conceiveably, justify many failures on many levels by considering oneself a hermit: social failures, emotional immaturity and the failure to achieve individuation, etc. Such a person might say to themselves, "Hermits don't have deep friendships!" "Hermits don't have to interact with the business/academic/ecclesial or other worlds; a hermit afterall, is 'dead to the world'", or again, "It is fine to rest in my suffering or to refuse to care appropriately for one's physical state, etc, because this is a form of 'mortification' in which I as victim participate in the redeeming suffering of Christ!", "God wills such suffering in my life," etc. Nevermind that such spiritualities are inherently dangerous and often the refuge of the deluded, or that their underlying theology is often bankrupt and a serious distortion of Christian theology.

But in an authentically DIVINE vocation to eremitic life, one will not indulge such pretense. If one has been brought to the desert by circumstances which are traumatic or negative and result in defense mechanisms which are destructive, in a genuine vocation, these will gradually be transfigured and transmuted into something far more positive and healthy. Religious language can be used to cover a plethora of sins: the inability to relate to others or reality can become a prohibition on particular friendships and allusions to dying to the world; a sense of victimization which casts the rest of the world in the role of perpetrators, can be recast and apparently (but not really) legitimized through the pious language of "victim souls" and "reparative suffering", one's own inner demons and need for either good spiritual direction or psychological assistance and personal work can be avoided, externalized, and superficially legitimated by calling our emotional states and defenses "attacks by the devil which God wills"

The hermitage is part sanctuary, part crucible, part battle ground, and part therapy space. No one comes to the desert for completely pure motives. We are all ambivalent. We are all complex and ambiguous mixtures of worthy and unworthy motives because at bottom we remain imago dei who are also sinners. At some point, in the authentic eremitic vocation though, the unworthy motives are worked through and discarded, while the worthy ones are purified and enhanced. If, once upon a time, our solitude, to whatever extent, was an escape and prison, it will become the doorway to engagement or communion and real freedom. If the subject of our meditations was ourselves AS SOLITARIES, our meditations will change and become those of a profoundly related solitary interested in and compassionate for others, and committed to God and God's OWN world of people --- with their problems AND possibilities.

Merton once pointed out that the person who went off into solitude also held a mirror up to themselves, and they would come away from that encounter either completely self-centered and insane, or other-centered and whole/holy (I admit this is a bad paraphrase, but it has been a number of years since I read this, and I would need to look up the exact statement to reprise it better; apologies to Merton). Either the things that pursued us into the desert will, with the grace of God, be met and transformed and transcended, or they will continue to define us, no matter what religious jargon we use to try to hide or "describe" the fact. Discernment of an eremitic vocation is not always easy, and when there are elements of a true vocation mixed with so much that is false, the job is always to move from inauthentic to authentic vocation, from false solitude to true solitude, from isolation and self-centeredness to a profound and compassionate relatedness established in the heart of God and spilling over into the rest of one's more tangible world.