22 May 2008

Keeping on Track?!?!

As part of a pres-entation on the eremitic vocation yesterday for the WINGS group at St Raymond Parish in Dublin, CA, I answered questions on my life and the life of the hermit generally. One question was particularly good because it asked how I "stayed on track" or "how do you know you are staying on track"? That is, the questioner explained, how is it you keep from being distracted by having to go out of the hermitage on errands, or because of participation in the life of the parish, etc? I thought the question was good not only because it applies particularly well to an urban hermit, but to anyone who must travel out to shop, or go to doctor's appointments, not to mention carpooling, kids' soccer matches, piano lessons, and the like, and finds the whole experience difficult, overly frenetic, or distracting and even anxiety producing.

Behind the question was an assumption, I think, that what is inside the hermitage is good and of God: a life of silence, solitude, prayer and penance, and that what is outside the hermitage can only detract or distract from life within it. It is the assumption which draws a line in the sand between sacred and profane and locates the hermitage on one side, and the "world" on the other. To a certain extent one can say this is true of the hermitage itself (that is, what is inside is good and of God), but what one cannot say is that what is outside the hermitage will necessarily detract or distract from life within it. (I make this statement with caveats which I will spell out below; I do not mean one can leave the hermitage at any time without jeopardy to one's own solitude!) So, back to the question itself, "how does one keep on track (or know that one is doing so)?"

The first part of the answer is that when I return to the hermitage I am able to settle back into the silence and solitude of the place without difficulty, and that I am careful to do so immediately. If this proves difficult then I need to do some work on whatever has distracted me, and I certainly need to reevaluate the wisdom of the errands or event involved. Related to this of course is the caveat that the errands or events attended are necessary and relatively infrequent. If they are completely optional (and some are), then I need to be very clear why I am making the choice I am, and how it is it benefits my life of silence and solitude: is it a prayerful choice rooted in love of God, self, and others, or is it simply self-indulgent and contrary to my own privileged path of loving others?

The second part of the answer has to do with the cultivation of an inner solitude which one must do whether in the hermitage or out. The times I have found myself "distracted" and returning and settling at home somewhat problematical tend to be the times I left the hermitage ALREADY DISTRACTED and thinking, "I wish I didn't have to do this or that," or, "I bet it will be noisy (or overly secular, or whatever prejudicial or divisive label comes to mind)! The simple fact is, if I fail to be fully present to the situation at hand, and instead am wishing I was back in the hermitage, it is not the fault of the situation --- or at least not usually. It is my own failure in attitude and heart that is to blame!

The rules of all contemplative (and in fact all Christian) living come into play here: be aware, be attentive, be loving, patient, and grateful. Look for God in this place (for there is no doubt he is here!). Listen to your own heart (both you and God reside there!), and be sure and take delight in whatever is at hand, the people, the noise (life!), the surroundings. ABOVE ALL BE PRESENT, and accept everything, as far as possible, as a gift of God for your own edification, challenge, nourishment, and inspiration. I have found that when I manage to do this, distraction from solitude and silence is minimized, and my life in the hermitage is enriched. It is more as if the boundaries of the hermitage have been enlarged because, in fact, the boundaries of my own heart have been.

Now, sometimes returning to the hermitage is difficult in the sense that I am not quiet within, not feeling either patient or grateful --- not to mention feeling frustrated, angry, disappointed, or resentful! At those times I have work to do in cell! That may mean writing, certain forms of personal analysis and introspection, a close look at my own failures and attitudes, etc. It will surely involve prayer. If adjustments need to be made they will be; this is true whether those adjustments are internal or external. Perhaps I will need to ask someone else to run some of my errands some of the time; perhaps I just need to reschedule them, or even omit them altogether. But perhaps I am simply failing to love adequately, or to be sufficiently present to the situation at hand! Both inner and outer worlds must be attended to, and in all things God truly sought!

When I think about how it is I "know" I am staying on track, I have to say that at those times I am able to be present, quiet, peace-filled, and comfortable wherever I am (meaning comfortable with myself and that I am in this place where God wills me to be even if it is a personally "challenging" or "dysphoric" experience). The transition between hermitage and world outside it becomes relatively seamless when I am on track eventhough the difference is also palpable. The hermitage is not the place where the world outside is "shut out" precisely, but instead the place where it is carried within to be especially celebrated and loved from a new perspective. Still, the hermitage is my desert place, and as such --- like all desert spaces -- it does distance me from a good deal. I am always happy to get back to it, sometimes with relief, but as much to celebrate with special intimacy what the time outside was like, and to express gratitude for all that is of and from God! I suspect every person's home is meant to function like this. I pray they really can!