22 November 2008

Part-time Hermits? Objections?

[[Dear Sister, you have objections to "part-time" hermits. You also are emphatic that the word hermit should not be used for just anyone. Can you please say more about your objections?]]

I am not sure how much more I can say about this topic, but yes, I will be happy to explain what I have written up until now. First, the use of the term hermit for just anyone: apparently there is something intriguing to people about the idea of being a hermit but what is focused on is the physical solitude, and not the underlying motivations for the life, the community or ecclesial aspect, nor that this is a contemplative life rooted in a relationship with God and all that he cherishes. What the hermit says with her life is that God alone is sufficient for us, and I mean that in two senses: 1) we are made for communion with and in him and all else (including all other relationships) is a piece of this, and 2) if we live with and for God alone, as hermits do, then that provides all we need for authentic human maturity and psychological well-being. Thus, hermits in their solitude affirm the first statement with their lives: God alone is sufficient for us, and they witness to others that the same is true for them. Of course others may also witness to this and be very far from being hermits. Every Christian, in fact, is called to make this statement with their lives, no matter their state of life. But hermits really accent the second statement, and no one else does so in the same way. It is what makes their lives eremitical: they live with and for God alone in a more literal sense (others are a significant piece of this because the hermit cherishes what/whomever is cherished by God), and that is sufficient for them and their achievement of human maturity and psychological well-being.

While the first aspect mentioned is critical to the quality of the eremitical life, it is this latter aspect of the eremitical vocation which makes it truly eremitical. The hermit vocation is the vocation of a SOLITARY, not merely an introvert or loner (indeed, the hermit may be neither of these), not someone who has a bit of physical solitude on the weekends or when the spouse and children leave the house for a few hours, but a true solitary --- one who has given her life, body and soul to God and witnesses to what life with God alone can be. Hermits are those persons who live with, in, and from God alone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. While their love for God, and his for them will spill over and touch and include others, there should be no doubt that the primary environment of their lives is both the physical and inner solitude peculiar to the hermit. There should be no doubt that their inner and outer lives consciously reflect an accepted identity as a hermit.

So, why is all this important? Why can't a mother who prays while others are out of the house call herself a hermit, and why shouldn't she? Why can't a person who goes off to solitude on the weekends call himself a hermit, and why shouldn't he? I may have used the term "truth in advertizing" before somewhere in these blog posts, but let me use it again. The first reason these persons cannot call themselves hermits has to do with truth in advertizing. They ought not call themselves hermits because they simply are NOT living contemplative lives in solitude (each word in this phrase is important to the definition of a hermit). The second reason is related and has to do with witness. Hermits are the ones in the Church who say with their lives that it is possible to live ALONE with God for the whole of their lives and that their lives are meaningful, and in fact, that one may come to human wholeness and holiness in this way. They say that while this is a rare vocation, the person who finds herself in physical solitude and cut off from others for whatever reason: illness, bereavement, etc, has a life which is still infinitely precious and significant, and can continue to grow or develop into greater and greater fruitfulness --- an almost unimaginable fruitfulness in fact. The hermit witnesses to this truth even if the person can no longer work, has lost friends whose lives move at a different speed and rhythm, or struggles with illness which seems to dehumanize and cut off all human possibilities for growth or life, because these things are merely one side of the equation; God's grace is the other, and the hermit witnesses to what is possible when human weakness and limitations are joined by the grace of God.

The hermit's life therefore speaks in a special way to these people, people who will not have a husband (wife) and children returning at the end of the day, people who cannot spend their days cleaning FOR husband and children or planning outings, or shopping for them, people who have no one to comfort them in their pain and no breaks in the continuing solitude of their situation. The numbers of persons who live like this today are phenomenal, and someone calling themselves a hermit when they no more live a solitary life without respite is insulting and insensitive not only to authentic hermits who do live healthy and truly solitary lives, but to those living in the unnatural solitudes of illness, bereavement, old age, abandonment, etc, without choice or options otherwise.

These reasons all have to do with the witness value of the eremitical life, but we need to look at the reasons which have simply to do with the nature and quality of the hermit life itself even apart from witness value --- and again, it is a matter of truth in advertizing. By definition eremitical life is solitary life, that is, life lived in, with, for and from God ALONE. Solitude (inner and outer) does its work over time, it develops, grows, changes the human heart only over time and in physical solitude. Consistency is necessary, and consistency here means long term ongoing physical solitude. This is not necessarily the same as complete reclusion, but to call oneself a hermit when one simply spends a few hours a day alone, but waits for the return of husband and children, or when one works with others all week (even if one never speaks to them), and then goes camping or fishing alone on the weekend is analogous to someone calling herself a mother because she baby sits several days a week a few hours in the morning and afternoon. I suspect any mothers reading this would merely laugh at how ridiculous such an idea is. The same is true when hermits hear of people who build a little solitude into their lives calling themselves hermits. We both know "these people don't have a clue" --- not about real motherhood and its unceasing demands and concerns, or about giving one's life (one's whole life) for these others, nor about solitude or what it means to live as a solitary, and certainly not about what it means to be thrust back on God as the sole source of strength and meaning in one's life --- the essence of Christian eremitism.

A few days of solitude is usually welcome for most people: time to rest, read, pray, reflect, and even then the first 24-48 hours might be very difficult as silence challenges them initially. A few hours of solitude a day can also be quite welcome, and can be used fruitfully for prayer, rest, chores, etc, but in each case the solitude is temporary and one does not need to deal with the dark parts of the human heart, with the demons which inhabit our personal worlds. These things can be put off, and may not even appear because after all, the solitude is only partial. As noted above, one is not completely thrust back upon God alone to make sense of one's life, one is not faced with ALL OF ONE'S SELF AND LIFE in an environment where it MUST be faced. Distractions one has left behind (TV, work, relationships, etc) may not fill the hours of solitude themselves, but they wait in the wings moderating the solitude, either because someone is coming home at the end of the day, or because one can return to one's REAL world if one just guts this relatively brief period of solitude out. One's life makes sense APART from solitude: marriage, children, work, etc, and solitude itself may be the real distraction (even prayer can be a distraction!).

The point here is that such part-time solitude is relative, and also that it is neither as deep nor as intense nor as all-claiming and challenging as is genuine eremitical solitude. A trip to the desert is simply not truly a desert experience if one arrives in one's RV and drives away at the end of the day or week, even if one hikes out for a few hours each day. One may experience the desert to some extent in this way, but it is not truly a desert experience. (That could be had if one hiked out a few miles and then realized one had forgotten one's compass, lunch and canteen and would need to spend the night out alone without food or shelter, for instance. THEN one begins to sense the difference between an experience of the desert and a desert experience.) You see the distinction I think. Similarly then, one may experience solitude without ever coming close to solitary experience, without ever being a solitary.

But this is not true of the hermit. Her life makes sense within solitude, as a solitary because her life says that these things are an essential function of her relationship to God and living with and for God alone. Her experience of solitude is a desert experience. It is in solitude that she comes to grapple with the darknesses of her own heart, with the demons that do indeed inhabit this desert in which she lives. Yes, there can be occasional distractions (a direction client, Mass (I use the term distraction here only to the extent this is not a solitary experience), an orchestra rehearsal, an occasional dinner with friends), but unlike the person whose "solitude" is merely part time, whose children return to tell about their days, whose husband comes home to eat together and share the same bed, the hermit's solitude always beckons, at meals, at bedtime, while one does laundry or cooks for oneself alone. Every activity, and even the distractions merely point to her solitary existence. She knows she cannot justify that existence with motherhood or marriage, or even with productive work. Prayer cannot be just an important aspect of her life, much less a pleasant distraction from her usual activities. It must be THE work of her life (the work of God in her), her very lifeblood which sustains her without question. Either her life makes ultimate sense in and through her solitude because God has called her to this WITH and in HIM, or it is the greatest and most tragic absurdity a person can devise. This is the risk the hermit takes in faith and the desert is the place this is lived out.

I think there is still a great deal to say here (especially since I have not spoken of semi-eremitism), and I had not expected that, but hopefully I have begun to answer your questions. We ought not allow just anyone to call themselves hermits because doing so empties the term of meaning. It strips away the boundaries which definitions set up. Definitions are drawn on the basis of experience, they are not arbitrary. There are many many people who live lives with some degree of time alone to pray. Every person actually fits (or should fit) this picture in one way or another. Do we call all these people hermits? Of course not, no more than we call teenagers who babysit regularly Mothers. These people have time for solitude and should take it, but they do not live solitary lives with all that means. On the other hand there are many people in our world living true desert experiences already who could find the word hermit gives meaning to lives that otherwise seem to have none in worldly terms, but that cannot happen if the word hermit is emptied of meaning by dilettantes.