23 November 2008

Followup Questions: Urban hermits and married hermits

[[Do your last two posts mean that you don't believe a person living in a city can live as a hermit? And why can't married people be hermits?]] (cf Married Diocesan Hermits and Nicolas of Flue)

Thanks for the questions. Let me see if I can clarify what I have written already. Regarding the first query, no, not at all. I have written about urban hermits in the past, about the unnatural solitudes of the cities Thomas Merton referred to and I believe very much that one can live as a hermit in such solitudes. (Of course I do that myself so it would be hard to believe it could not be possible.) In fact I believe it is important to do so so that people who have no choice BUT to live in such places and alone in all the ways cities and contemporary life imposes, can have a sense that such aloneness can be redeemed. That said, let me point out once again that some hermits DO believe that the term urban hermit is an oxymoron, and while I understand why they say so and agree that certain elements of the natural wilderness cannot be replicated here, I continue to disagree with their basic conclusion. My choice of setting in the stories I told in the other two posts was made simply to make it easier to illustrate a point. I could have used an urban setting, but it would have made the illustration more difficult.

Remember that I began discussing whether there could be part-time hermits. By that I did not mean someone who lives in solitude for a number of weeks or months and then travels to give retreats or something similar for a while, and who then returns to solitude. Neither did I mean hermits who may come together to pray Office, or celebrate Mass with others in their community during their day only again to return to their hermitage between times. These are both true expressions of eremitical life. What I was referring to by "part-time 'hermits'" were people who build a degree of solitude into their day, or week, but whose identity is not defined by that solitude, either because they are wives and mothers (or full-time teachers, etc), or because they merely go off to solitude "on holiday" at the end of the week or something similar --- and yes, I have heard both kinds of people describe themselves as hermits and insist they are right to do so.

What this discussion led to was a description of the difference between an experience of the desert and a true desert experience (there is a spectrum here, by the way). It also led to the assertion that a hermit is by definition a solitary, one who ultimately has only God to depend on and who chooses this identity because it is the way to human maturity and wholeness for her. Now, it may be that the urban hermit lives in a comfortable apartment, with books and stereo and maybe even a TV and computer. However, to the extent these are distractions or hinderances to her solitude, she will either forego or get rid of them. The urban solitary is always open to being called to greater poverty, greater reclusion, greater inner and outer solitude. She makes the renunciations required to be truly alone with and dependent upon God, and also to grow as profoundly as God wills and invites. But one must be a solitary. This is the sine qua non of hermit life, even life in a Laura or under the mentorship of an elder hermit. In contrast, it is not possible to renounce one's children or husband when one has a vocation to marriage and motherhood, nor to change the relationship to one of "just" two monks sharing their solitude, etc. Husband and Wife are one flesh, and the children are the fruit of that marriage; nothing changes that.

In pointing to married people becoming "one flesh" we have pointed out what defines them as people --- as "for others". By definition they are NOT solitaries. They give themselves totally to one another, body and soul out of love. They come to God together, and are called to bring one another to God. In all things they belong to one another, and are meant to. This is their God-given vocation and it is of immense significance and value. As noted, their children, if they have children, share in the dynamic of unity and themselves are brought to God in this way. The members of the family will certainly have desert experiences throughout their lives together, times of illness, dysfunction, bereavement, loss, but they are ALL in this together and that remains true even while one is off at work, or others are off at school. Thus, they will fall back on one another, and yes, on God, but they are not solitaries --- as lonely as they may feel from time to time. They live from, with, and for each other, and their relationship with God is a part of the way in which they are from and for one another. They share a family life and that remains true no matter if mom spends solitary prayer time during the day, dad spends solitary prayer time in the evening, or kids spend solitary time in their rooms or out in the driveway playing basketball.

As I suggested before, every person SHOULD build a certain degree of solitude (both inner and outer) into their days; that is only normal and good for personal and spiritual growth. Simply because a person does this does not make her a hermit, however. In the situation I am describing this person has wedded another, created new life with that person, and lives with and for her family. Even her time in solitude anticipates their return or includes them in ways that differ from people in the parish she may hold in her heart. The chores she does she does for and --- even if they are not physically present -- with them; the errands she runs she runs for and with them --- even if she is physically alone or prays and offers all this for various intentions. And of course, this is as it should be for this IS her vocation. Just as I have renounced certain things in order to truly be a hermit, so a woman who embraces marriage gives up certain other vocational possibilities as well: eremitical life is, by definition, one of these.

The hermit is in a very different position. Yes, she ordinarily has a parish community, and yes, they do indeed support her in her vocation. She may have relatively close friends in this parish (though no one she can actually hang out or spend extended time with), and the parish may certainly be "family" in the usual way we use that term of communities. But, when she leaves Mass, or the Cinco de Mayo parish dinner, or the Confirmation celebration, she returns to the hermitage where she is alone with God, and where she will sink further and further again into that special aloneness which constitutes the eremitical life. She continues to hold all the parish in her heart, and she replays and reflects on shared events in her mind to share with God, or she journals about them because they touched her and challenged her, but, apart from Christ, there is no spouse nor are there children to truly share her heart with in an ongoing way --- or in the way children natually occupy a Mother's heart. She has given up the right to these and this renunciation is part of her desert or solitary experience. If she is ill, she deals with this herself, if errands need running in the main she does the same again because this is who she is and who she has chosen to be. If it sounds lonely, in some ways it is, but it is never a malignant loneliness, never an anguishing to be with others, etc, for the truth is God is there, always and everywhere, and the hermit knows this and is consoled by it even when she does not experience God's presence.

Again, there are MANY MANY people in this world and in our church who live alone. Their spouses have died, their children have moved away, illness isolates them even further and claims more and more of their energy and time while as a result their lives seem to make little or no sense. These people have no choice about their solitariness. Nor is it a part-time or casual reality, but instead is something impacting them at every moment of the day and night --- even when they are visiting others. For these people the eremitical life might be really significant as a way to redeem their isolated solitariness (that is, with God's grace it can be a way of transforming this into a meaningful wholeness and communion). Solitude is not the same as isolated solitariness, although it might start there. But for this redemption to happen, we cannot allow the vocation to be co-opted and effectively emptied of meaning by those who are not even single, much less solitary --- those who still have a husband with whom they are raising a family, for instance. We cannot allow the term to be co-opted and thus emptied of meaning by those who are weekend-'hermits' in the same way there are "weekend-contemplatives," or "weekend parents" and thus empty the terms contemplative or parent of meaning.

I know I have repeated myself in this post, and perhaps it is simply redundant, but I don't know how to make the point clearer. Perhaps it would help if I described more what solitary existence is like and how it differs from marriage. Perhaps I need to go further into the theology of marriage vs the theology of solitary (eremitical) life --- especially in terms of eschatological significance. I suspect I really need to say more about contemplative life per se and too about how it is that the eremitical life culminates in a nuptial or spousal relationship with God that really does not allow for marriage to another. Finally, I have not really written at all about the dangers of using solitude to escape from the demands of community --- something hermits living in community recognize as a significant danger (as is using community to escape the demands of solitude --- something I have referred to already in recent posts); I suspect it is an even more acute danger in marriage. I will think about that. In the meantime, I hope this helps with your questions. Please get back to me if it does not help or raises more queries.