09 January 2010

Prisoners as Hermits: Another look at the Redemption of Unnatural Solitudes (#1)

[[Dear Sister, I am sorry to keep bothering you because of an article or two on the internet, but I also read there about the idea of "criminals" being hermits, and the suggestion that perhaps they were "better hermits" than the professed and consecrated ones. What do you think about this idea?]]

Hi again! As for whether convicts can live as hermits, I actually think this is a great idea, and very edifying in many ways. I have noted before a number of times that urban hermits live in what Thomas Merton called the unnatural solitudes of the city -- that is, in situations that really isolate, alienate, and fragment --- situations that militate against community and wholeness. The job of the urban hermit is to allow and witness to the redemption of these "unnatural solitudes." They are called to allow the grace of God to transform that which isolates and fragments into a place of genuine solitude where the individual grows to wholeness and holiness, and the crowd of the city is, in whatever mysterious way this can occur, drawn into or permeated by the reality of God's Reign.

Until now, I have written about bereavement, chronic illness, and isolated old age as possible instances of "unnatural solitudes" which lead people to discover eremitical calls, but there is no doubt that one of the most radical and intense solitudes that exists today --- and one of the most clearly unnatural --- is the world of the supermax prison. Prisoners in these prisons or in segregated cellblocks of less secure prisons spend 23 hours a day in their cells, often with little to distract or entertain them, much less enrich or challenge them to grow as human beings. Even recreation is a completely isolated activity. On the few programs I have seen about these institutions, the incidence of serious mental illness is terribly high, and all of it is exacerbated (when it is not caused) by the terrible toll this unnatural solitude takes.

I have read, fairly recently in fact, of some prisoners thinking of themselves (and living their lives) as part of a new monasticism. My sense is many could find themselves challenged and fulfilled if they were able to similarly approach each day as part of the eremitical life. Remember that there are distinct external similarities between life in prison and the routinized, often tedious horarium of monks and nuns. Further, they are all lives of hiddenness, and too, lives which society may discount as fruitless or non-productive. In many ways they are penitential and poor lives without access to luxuries, varieties of food which do more than simply nourish, and their cells are often much more austere than the cell of almost any monk or nun. On a more profound level, perhaps, hermits are called to live on the margins as countercultural realities and witnesses, and especially they are called to live a life of esential freedom in spite of limitations and constraints. This is the very nature of authentic Freedom, and certainly therefore, the nature of the freedom Christ brings. How clearly prisoner hermits would represent such a vocation both to their fellow prisoners and to the rest of society!

In considering this possibility it reminds me that Canon 603 binds a diocesan hermit to, "the silence of solitude" --- not as I once misread, "silence and solitude." It seems to me that while physical silence is an important aspect of eremitical life (and contemplative life in general), the reality of the "silence of solitude" is often quite different. This, though also quite rich and marked (in fact, defined) by communion with God and others, is the silence of loneliness (or at least of aloneness even in the midst of a crowd), the silence of the celibate who lives without community, the sometimes painful and difficult silence of life within and from one's own heart from which one seeks not to be distracted. It includes physical silence, yes, but it is more than this, and sometimes exists even without it. It is marked more by one's confrontation with oneself, and by the prayer which accompanies it and in which one brings all this before God. Prisoners often live in the midst of continuing noise, sometimes deafening, but in many (maybe all) prison situations, they can also still live in the silence of solitude. Usually in a prison environment this is clearly unaccompanied by external silence, and this is unfortunate because such silence is ordinarily so necessary, but the challenge of the reality remains (or could remain) as it does for any hermit.

Whether such men and women would be "better" hermits than those canonically professed and consecrated is a relatively meaningless question, I think. Certainly it does not advance the discussion in any subtantive or edifying way. It is true that the witness of these person's lives could speak to some better than other hermits might be able. The contrary is also true. Hermits come in all shapes and sizes and all forms of eremitical life (lay, religious, diocesan) are significant and should be esteemed. So long as each hermit lives the foundational elements of the life and in the particular shape s/he is called to, s/he is as good a hermit as any other. The roles each plays may differ but it does little good to suggest that the diocesan hermit is a "better" hermit than the lay hermit in the next state, or that the prisoner is a better hermit than one who is consecrated according to Canon 603. What IS true is that each hermit will challenge and support others to a truer living out of their individual call, no matter the state of life or the shape of the eremitism involved. Casting the whole matter in terms of better or worse tends to shortcircuit that whole far more healthy dynamic.

I think this whole notion of prisoner hermits needs to be explored in more depth. I also think that looking at what prisoners live daily can assist hermits in clarifying the meaning of the terms and foundational elements of their lives. For instance, looking at the question today has helped me move a little farther along an understanding of the term "silence of solitude" just as did a brief gesture by a married couple at the end of a desert day during my last retreat. The original casting of the idea in qualitative terms is not particularly helpful, but the idea that prisoners might, even temporarily, well be called to be hermits in the midst of one of the world's most difficult and radically unnatural solitudes is a terrific one. Thanks for posing the question!

Postscript. Recently a hermit friend noted that some are called to eremitical life, and others are "only" called to practice an eremitical spirituality. I have not thought enough about the distinction of these two; at times I think the distinction is completely valid and significant, and other times I just don't see it clearly. However, it would be good to see more reflection on the latter (eremitical spirituality) since prisoners in particular could be introduced to this without the onus of labels. At the same time, I think that some very few of those prisoners who are truly going to be in prison for the rest of their lives, for instance, might well represent instances of the hermit vocation which the church would eventually wish to recognize and even celebrate under Canon 603. The majority (however small a number this would be) would remain lay hermits (and still be cause for ecclesial celebration)! Again, hermits are made from the combination of the exigencies of life and the grace of God. A free choice, formation, and commitment would be required --- and I think very great care in discernment necessary, but prison does not exclude this any more than it excludes the grace of God.