22 November 2008

Followup Questions, Experience of the desert vs desert experience

[[Hi Sister. You have written that hermit life is flexible, but at the same time you seem to want to rule out part-time hermits. You also distinguish between desert experiences and experiences in the desert. I sort of get what you are saying here but I am not sure I see the importance.]]

Yes, eremitical life is flexible, that is each individual hermit needs to work out her own needs for sacraments, work, prayer, study, rest and recreation. She also needs to work out when and where community can be part of her days, what kind, and how it is she compensates for or balances this. Further, hermits who are "night persons" may use a somewhat different horarium than a hermit who is not a night person, and this is true even if one lives in a Laura of hermits. However, there remain certain elements in each hermit's life which are non-negotiable: stricter separation from the world, a LIFE of silence and solitude (and more, the silence OF solitude), assiduous prayer and penance. While she is not a recluse (usually at least), she IS a SOLITARY (something which BY DEFINITION conflicts with the notion of being married, by the way).

The significance of the distinction between an experience of the desert and a desert experience might be clearer, so let me try to make that so. Suppose a person goes into the desert with all her camping equipment, her RV, cell phone, TV, Stereo, etc. She drives into the desert and noticing the beginnings of a rise in temperature, cranks up the AC immediately; when she arrives at her destination she finds a suitable campground with amenities, and plugs in the RV. She sets out her chair and begins to sense the vastness of the place, the feeling of the air, the hugeness of the horizon, and her own insignificance in all of this. She takes a walk and for a while these impressions continue to speak to her in some way, but it is an uncomfortable experience. So, she takes out her iPod and turns it on to a favorite tune, one she listens to all the time at home. Immediately, the desert fades somewhat, the memories of home and all that is familiar resurface. She is still alone, but She has opted out of the desert experience, at least for the time being. Later, when she has eaten and the cold has set in and the fire died down, she spends a little more time looking at stars she never sees at home, but before long this too becomes a bit overwhelming and she feels somewhat uneasy, though she cannot put her finger on why that is. Besides, she thinks, there are animals preying about now, and bugs everywhere, so she goes into the RV shuts the door on her surroundings, takes a shower, climbs into a warm and comfy bed, turns on the TV set and forgets about all the desert itself. Soon she is asleep. Once again, she has opted out of the desert experience (and to some extent even out of an experience of the desert).

Note that despite the fact that she is alone and God is all around as well as within in no way is she really alone with God. While she begins to experience the awesomeness of the desert and also what calls to her there (the feelings of uneasiness or discomfort), she refuses to listen to these and distracts herself in various ways. She insulates herself from the desert experience, distances herself from her feelings and does not listen to God either within her heart or without. SO, there is physical solitude (there is no other living person around), but it is hardly an experience of solitude, much less eremitical solitude.

Imagine instead though that she arrives in a small car with cooking gear, sleeping bag, hiking gear and sturdy clothes, a journal, lantern, a book of psalms, and a New Testament. She sets up camp, sits quietly until the awesomeness of the setting touches her, and meditatively reads an account of Jesus in the desert while being sure to stay in touch with the sense of the awesomeness of her surroundings, and also her own solitude with God as she does so. Feeling a bit uneasy and restless, she puts on a jacket, gets a canteen, a compass and a bit to eat for later and sets out on a hike during which she drinks in her surroundings and continues to let the feelings that began to arise in camp intensify and speak to her. When she returns to camp, she chants a psalm, sits quietly meditating and attending to all that happens; then she pulls out her journal and begins to write. Later she prays again, lights a fire and cooks some dinner. She cleans up, watches the stars with God, considers the animals that are out there just beyond the light and warmth of the fire, prays in thanksgiving, but also with a sense of her insignificance and in supplication, slowly rereads the text on Jesus in the desert, commits herself into God's hands and climbs into her tent and sleeping bag to sleep. The next day will look very much the same except that the silence and solitude will continue to work on her heart and uncover darkness, fears, insecurities, difficult memories, and some joys she has lost touch with. She will deal with them in just the same way, and go to sleep to prepare for another day which will also look very much the same as those preceding it. There is nothing here to distract her from all of this. As her supplies dwindle she will use them even more sparingly and she will plan for a trip to a store to replenish what she needs. When she returns, she will settle in once again, and continue as before.

In the first situation I described, what I tried to show was the difference between a greatly moderated or mitigated experience of the desert (for it could have been vastly richer and more intense) and a desert experience itself . In the second the accent was on a desert experience per se, though clearly the woman involved also experienced the desert itself in a greatly less-mitigated and more intense way than in the first scenario. (Note that this experience was also mitigated, however. The woman had sufficient clothes, shelter, food, water, etc, so as not to feel completely at the mercy of the elements and God's mercy.) Despite the necessary overlap there can be a vast difference between the two, and between the types of solitude experienced. In the first scenario the woman was physically alone but hardly experiencing an inner solitude. Instead she resisted this and distracted herself from it at every turn. In the second there is both physical and inner solitude. It is a desert experience, an experience where she really does have to deal with the loneliness, the dangers, the inner demons and insecurities with nothing but herself and God. Her other life is far away; she has not brought it with her, and except for her car, her journal, books, and few clothes there is little to remind her of it. When she is reminded, it is with a keenness that affirms for her just how much she has left behind, how alone she is with God, how little resources OTHERWISE she really has at hand, and she deals with this in prayer/journaling.

The differences between the two pictures are important because one is eremitical and the other is not; one is an example of desert spirituality and in this case, solitary desert spirituality, while the other is not --- despite the fact that the person is alone. I hope this helps in drawing out the distinction and also pointing up its significance. If it does not help enough, or raises more questions please get back to me.