24 June 2012

Follow up: On Living Alone and Hermit Surveys

[[Dear Sister, thank you for answering my question on living alone and whether that makes one a hermit. How does "desert dwelling" relate to what you have said in the past about the difference between silence AND solitude and living the silence OF solitude? They are linked aren't they? I also have a different question. How would it impact your life to hear the results of a survey about "Who is the real hermit?" with answers to questions about what people think hermits are like, how they dress, eat, recreate, what they read, how they pray, what characteristics most mark them, etc? I read about two persons doing surveys. One was this type. The other seems to ask for responses from hermits themselves. Have you seen them? Why would a hermit participate in such surveys?]] (redacted)

You are most welcome regarding my answer to your question on the distinction between living alone and being a hermit. I think this particular question is really important today as Bishops and other chancery personnel try to discern whether someone in their diocese is called to be a hermit or not. One of the things I try always to stress is that at least before being admitted to temporary vows the persons they are evaluating must have made the transition from being a lone person to one who is a hermit in an essential sense and is therefore living the silence of solitude as the heart, context, and goal of their lives. Otherwise we have more or less pious folks perhaps living some degree of silence and solitude in various ways but who are not really hermits in any fundamental sense.

You are correct that this is very closely related to the distinction between simply living alone and living as a desert dweller. The common element in both distinctions is "the silence of solitude." This is one of the reasons I have tried to make it clear that the silence of solitude is the defining element of the eremitical life and its actual charism (gift quality) to the Church and rest of the world. In a sense I would be comfortable saying that "desert dweller" and "one who lives the silence OF solitude" are synonyms --- no matter where the latter happens. We can see this when we reflect on the fact that one who perhaps takes a brief trip into the desert and meets (some) silence and solitude there has not yet become a desert dweller nor one who lives (or has even truly experienced) the silence of solitude. I think it is even possible to say that a person who moves to the desert for an extended time but whose home is sealed against the desert conditions and who simply remain shut in that home themselves along with every modern convenience and distraction is not yet a "desert dweller" either.

Regarding your second question, how would such a survey affect me? In the first case, not at all. That is, it would not change how I dress, eat, live my life, style myself (Sister, etc) or behave. I am who I am and there is no need to pretend otherwise, nor to try to hide that from people. My life is an essentially hidden one, but it is also a public vocation with obligations and with a foundational requirement of transparency (not to be mistaken for infringement of privacy!!). If the concern of the first survey you mentioned is defeating stereotypes or correcting popular expectations, for instance, then letting people meet me and understand I AM a hermit is a better solution than anything I know. One does not deal effectively with stereotypes and inaccuracies with pretense. Instead one makes the truth known and thereby dispels common misconceptions. I might say that one affect of the survey could be to strengthen me in my resolve to make this vocation better known and understood. It could also give me some additional clues to what people think about hermits, but otherwise I would say it would not affect me or the living of my life at all.

In the second case which draws on the experience of hermits themselves, yes, I have seen the survey, and in fact was interviewed for a couple of hours by the author and researcher last year. He traveled here to CA and met with me here at the hermitage as well as visiting a couple of other eremitical houses in No CA. The experience was quite fine. It was good to be able to talk about this vocation with someone researching all kinds of experiences of solitude and the effect of several variables on the eremitical experience. That interview left me with questions I still ponder, or which come back to me from time to time in a way which is helpful.

It is always helpful to articulate one's experience --- if not for the person asking the questions, then certainly for oneself. Recently I did an interview for an article on eremitical life. It was interesting to read the draft version and see what presuppositions or assumptions I make in trying to explain this vocation -- especially if someone claims to have read my blog. My own unclarity or silence on several really fundamental issues were alarming because without these one is describing a parody of the diocesan eremitical life. Fortunately the author wanted accuracy and was very willing to allow me to contact him with anything I thought would be helpful. I have yet to see the finished draft, but I am hoping I was able to clarify my omissions! At least I know that I learned from doing this interview, just as I learn things whenever I write or answer questions about the eremitical life. And with regard to the second survey mentioned above, I look forward to reading the results because these involve conversations with people truly living solitude in conscious and reflective ways. These kinds of things are always helpful to me and have the potential to challenge me in the living of my vocation in ways popular expectations do not.

Thus, I do think surveys can be interesting and valuable sources of information --- especially if they are well done and accurately demonstrate what people believe to be true about hermits. Stereotypes are dangerous, particularly if they are held by people who are seeking to be hermits or those who participate in discerning eremitical vocations. The basic problem here is that hermits' lives are of tremendous value in a society which is intolerant of silence and touts individualism or narcissism rather than an individuality which is properly situated as a dimension of community. They are equally valuable for people who are trapped in situations which isolate or demean and require a way to redeem these because they suggest creative possibilities. But stereotypes --- which remain far too prevalent, do not serve in this way. Instead they tend to reinforce all of these elements: individualism, narcissism, isolation, etc. Surveys can help us be aware of and even understand such misconceptions; for chanceries or others dealing with eremitical vocations (or potential vocations) these may assist in recognizing when such things are driving an individual's desire to be a hermit or a diocese's admission to profession.