26 September 2010

More on The Silence of Solitude (#3)

[[Sister, what is the difference between "silence and solitude" and the "silence of solitude"? You don't say diocesan hermits are called to silence and solitude, but "the silence of solitude." Is there really a difference here or are you just splitting imaginary theological hairs and playing intellectual games?]]

Thanks for your question. There are two other posts on this topic, so please check the labels at the bottom of this post for those. Some of my answer here may repeat parts of what those include, though I will try not to.

Yes, there is a very great difference between "silence and solitude" and "the silence of solitude", I think. The main thing to notice is that "silence and solitude" treats these realities as separate and mainly physical (or external), and therefore as things which may be included in greater or lesser degrees in any life either together or apart from one another. Thus, someone wanting to be a hermit might think that the goal of his or her life is to exclude noise, and to be merely alone. S/he might go about entering into this life mainly by building in more and more time to be alone, and by excluding anything that makes noise. If noise creeps in s/he might think she has failed with regard to silence but not with regard to solitude, for instance. If people need to come see her/him or call with an emergency she may feel that she has failed in both silence and solitude. If she needs to go out of the hermitage she may refuse to talk to people or only speak about "spiritual topics" and feel that in this way she lessens any fault against either silence or solitude.

And so her life goes on: a little tinkering with silence here, a little fiddling with alone time there, a little addition of prayer or other "hermit things" here, a little allowance of time outside the "hermitage" (or "worldly things") there. When these two realities are treated as something separate, the temptation is to search for just the right combination or just the right "amount" which, when combined then makes one a hermit. In this way of thinking or approaching the life, a little less of either and one becomes a semi-eremite or no eremite at all! But this approach is wrong-headed. Even if one lived alone in complete silence this would not make one a hermit, nor would it mean one was achieving the goal of Canon 603 or that one was living the essential element "the silence of solitude" with fidelity or integrity. In fact, one might not be living it at all. Instead one might be a misanthrope merely seeking to validate her isolation and her anti-social bent and lack of capacity to love others. There is lots of silence and (physical) solitude in the misanthrope's life (or in death of any sort), for instance (or in that of the artist, writer, composer, etc --- just to demonstrate there are positive ways of living these things which are not eremitical), but this is not what the Canon is talking about. (By the way, one need not be a misanthrope to use Canon 603 in an attempt to validate one's isolation. Valid vocations may BEGIN this way for those who are chronically ill, etc, but for there to be an authentic call to eremitical life there must be not only validation but actual redemption of one's isolation. In this too the term "the silence of solitude" is important and different than just silence and solitariness.)

But compare this approach to that outlined by Fr Jean Beyer in his commentary on Canon 603: [[ "It [the silence of solitude] unites these values. . . referring not merely to the external [physical] silence of the desert but to a profound inner solitude found in communion with God, who is the fullness of life and of love. It implies a lifetime striving towards union with God, a state which causes the one who becomes silent in this divine solitude to be alone with God alone. Such silence of solitude requires other silences --- of place, of surroundings, of action --- all that furthers the solitude and distances one from anything which could disturb it, from all which does not enhance the solitary mode of life." (Beyer, The Law of Consecrated Life: Commentary on the Canons 573-606)

In this paragraph "the silence of solitude" is integrally linked to communion with God. Yes, this will entail some preliminary (or subsequent!) clearing of the decks so the one seeking God can do so with minimal distraction, that is, one will certainly begin (and follow up) by building in some external silence and alone time, but the essential element of the Canon goes much further than this. It actually refers to the silence of one's communion with God. The silence and solitude (a communal or dialogical term) which result from one's prayer and life with God, from one's fundamental "custody of the cell" is what Canon 603 is referring to when it speaks of "the silence of solitude." In this phrase then, one is not merely alone and physical solitude which is about being separated from others is not primarily in view (though it will be included). Instead solitude refers to a state of communion in which one is alone WITH God and in God. This solitude approaches what psychologists refer to in the term individuation, or what we might call holiness or the life of authentic humanity --- only lived with God alone. Readers familiar with Eastern Christian contemplative thought will recognize in this term the hesychia or quiet and stillness of hesychasm. Thus, while "the silence of solitude" is identified as a Carthusian term, Carthusians writing about solitude note that it is a synonym for hesychia and hesychasm.

The silence which stems from this involves (and calls for) external silence, but it is also more primarily about the absence of inner distractions, superfluities, the inner voices we carry within us that are part of that theater of inner life (sometimes referred to by the term "object relations") which indicate division from ourselves and thus deflect from (or summon us to) our authentic humanity. The "silence of solitude" is the full and singing silence of the whole person, made one in and by the Word of God. It is the song of the "pure in heart," and is both something the hermit practices daily and a goal she strives for.

One part of the "silence of solitude" I have written about before is the corresponding distancing that occurs on some levels from other people, activities, etc. Thus I suggested that Jesus lived the silence of solitude because of his communion with God, and that that caused SOME distancing from others and perhaps an inability to share with them on some levels. Note that I do not mean Jesus was estranged from them, but he WAS marginalized even while he was deeply united in other ways. Canon 603 describes a solitary life which is similarly marginalized, not from essential estrangement or alienation but because of communion with God which both separates and unites on deeper levels or in differing ways than is normal in society generally. Because of this "the silence of solitude" is a bittersweet reality in some ways. What is most profoundly true for the hermit often cannot be shared directly with others. (Though thank God for the good spiritual director, or friend whose prayer life and/or vowed commitments allows her to understand!!) The reason one lives physical silence and solitariness cannot really be easily explained, and even less so can the deeper reality of "the silence of solitude." The true hermit accepts this marginalization as part of her commitment to, and living out of, communion with God, just as she accepts her call to love others as part of it. For more on this bittersweet quality, please see the other posts!

I hope this helps. It seems to me the difference between the realities you asked about is profound and I hope I have clarified some of the distinctions and overlaps here. If not though, please let me know!