28 April 2013

Feedback on Hermits and Vacations or Home Visits

Many thanks for those persons who responded to my request for feedback on the issue of hermits and vacations or home visits. I received a number of replies from both hermits and non-hermits. They pushed my thought in directions it had not gone with fresh insights and I am very grateful.

The questions I asked in Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Hermits and Vacations were "What images comes to you when you hear "a hermit takes five days away from hermitage" or some combination of the words "hermit" and "vacation" or hermit and "home visit"? Why is it such an oxymoron or such a passion-stirring thing do you think?"

Introduction to the Comments:

All of the responses I received referred in some sense to treating hermits (or Religious more generally) as different than the rest of humanity. (Stereotypes are part of this as is the notion of "higher" and lower vocations.) This difference has (as reflected in these comments) two general effects: 1) it causes people to think of Religious as living a higher life, and therefore paying a higher price for it (home visits or time with a friend is part of the price), and 2) it allows those who are not called to Religious or eremitical life to feel exempted from making the WHOLE of their own lives one of prayer and holiness. If we can compartmentalize God's calls and say that some are higher than others, we can also compartmentalize God's call in our own lives and leave some parts of those lives untouched by the demands of prayer and holiness. To put it another way, if we can put hermits and religious up on pedestals, then we (who do not live on pedestals) can live free of the higher demands associated with that life ourselves.

Thus, when a hermit says she takes vacation time or time away from the hermitage with a friend, the "boundaries" between the hermit life and normal everyday life "are breached" some. Folks used to compartmentalizing their spirituality from the rest of their lives are challenged at a very profound level; if we have to admit that the hermit needs time for some relaxation and that this too is called to be part of a life given over entirely to God in prayer, then we also will have to admit that perhaps we are more like them and we too are called to a LIFE which is prayerful or a life which is prayed no matter where or who we are. In other words we are invested in hermits being completely different than we are and when this proves untrue the demands on us for integrated lives seeking true holiness are less easy to avoid or categorize as belonging to "others."

One set of comments spoke beautifully of the difficulty human beings have in harmonizing work and relaxation and noted that many no longer see relaxation as necessary to living a fully human life. His comments drew on the Benedictine monastic life and the balance built into Benedictine lives. Another person (a lay hermit) spoke of the difficulty of lay folks relaxing or taking full vacations themselves today which can lead to resentment, etc. Two people spoke of jealousy and resentment (which again related to "having a higher vocation"), and one person spoke of hermits "having their cake and eating it too."  Here are some of those comments which have been cut because of length:

Some of the Comments Submitted

(From a hermit-monk in France) [[Firstly, some of these reactions may be explained, I think, by the incredibly "romantic" conception many people have - at least in my experience - of hermits. One of my confrères, who is also a hermit and who leads an extremely austere existence in the south of France, was more or less rebuked once by a visitor for living in a house of stone, instead of a cave! Well, at least *he* has a long beard, which I do not - thus causing disappointment to more than one person who comes to see me... It is obvious that a relaxing hermit is completely incompatible with these people's mental images of the eremitical life.

 Secondly, and more profoundly, these reactions may reflect modern man's inability to relax, to incorporate rest and recreation harmoniously into one's life. I don't know if I express myself clearly, but it seems to me that many people live their vacation periods as temporary interruptions of "ordinary" life, as a necessary concession to their weakness, perhaps, which, alas, does not permit them to be "active" and "productive" all the time. I guess not a few persons may actually feel a little guilty during a prolonged break, unable really to enjoy themselves. On the contrary, one of the things monastic life has taught me is not to separate "otium" and "negotium", but to live both as means of giving glory to God and to grow in humanity. Perhaps part of the nasty remarks you received can be explained by some people unconsciously projecting their own feelings of culpability on you? In any case, I am convinced that monastic life and eremitical life, besides being a school of the Lord's service, are also a school of genuine humanity, including the art of relaxation.  ]] 

Interestingly, both this monk and I were given similar instructions at some point in our eremitical lives by hermits or former hermits. As I was getting ready to submit my Rule to the Diocese for approval a Camaldolese monk read and commented on it first. One of the pieces of advice he gave me was to be sure to build in sufficient time for relaxation and recreation. It remains one of the best pieces of advice I was given. Fr B was told by the nun who helped him in his discernment of a call to solitude (she herself had lived a year in complete solitude) urged him to take one day "off" each week. He writes: [[ At the time I thought that was slightly exaggerated, and I could not imagine the need for such a regular break in solitary life. . .Now I know she was absolutely right! The constant effort to maintain the vigilance of heart, as well as trying to be really available to persons who come for confession and spiritual aid, is very energy consuming.]]

Aspiring Episcopalian Solitary (Hermit) United States: 

[[My guess is that [known hermits serve as icons]. Do you suppose St. Peter ever just up and went home to spend some time with his wife, go fishing to keep the family from starving, and act like a normal human being? Of course he did, but he was SAINT PETER! Imagine St. Paul's visits home! He had never married, no children, turned on the values of his parents (one assumes. It is never told whether they were among his converts!), gave up a promising career in Phariseeism, and probably brought intense shame upon his folks. Who ever thinks about SAINT PAUL as a family member?

Do the stars get tired of shining? Flowers decide not to bloom? Well, flowers sometimes take a little time off, as a matter of fact, and many fruit trees take a year off now and then, or even alternate years, and while their owners might be filled with dismay, that's just the way life is.]]

Catholic Married Woman (United States):

[[I think that people resent your having any "normal comforts" because they see you as having a "higher place" than they and thus you should have to "pay" for it. They like to think of themselves as owing less and thus being more independent and "safe" from God's demands. They don't like the idea that "all is grace." They resent their radical poverty and want to deny it. So, what they see as a higher place must cost more. They resent the generosity of God. It takes away the feeling of control and safety. They can obscure this by believing that we are in a position to negotiate with God and set boundaries and prices. If your life somehow seeps into the same arena as theirs, the safe boundaries are breached.]]

Lay Hermit (United States):

[[I think people have in mind Hollywood versions of the lives of the saints and monks in European Abbeys of the Middle Ages where the inhabitants were miserable folks doing horrible penances and did not enjoy life at all and tried desperately not to. That at least is my take on it and I could be wrong.

The perception of religious life in general is one that makes [people uneasy] because their lives [the lives of religious] are perceived to be so different and so austere that to even see a religious wearing a habit makes them [most people] nervous by calling their own state in life into question. Then too, they [non-religious] may feel as if they will be condemned when they die for having sinned so grievously as they think they have. They don't see religious as anyone who has a right to vacations or any of the pleasures that they take for granted, and that religious are supposed to be super-humans.

. . . There should be nothing strange about a religious having a vacation. But from my reading, Americans will forego a full vacation for fear of losing their jobs or displeasing the corporation they work for, and they probably think that a religious or a hermit in particular are not in the same category and are not entitled to or allowed a vacation or family visit.]]


Again, my thanks to those who contributed their thoughts on this. I was totally unaware that some are afraid to take vacations for fear of losing their jobs, but the inability to actually relax or to live the balanced life of a monastic is something our workaholic world reflects all the time (as does a world where the poor cannot take time for vacations and lack the money to do so; too many of the working poor have several jobs and have neither time nor money for adequate relaxation on a daily or weekly basis).

One of the real benefits of contem-plative life, one of the values it models, as Fr B made very clear, is the balance of recreation or relaxation (leisure --- often called holy leisure) and work. We need both to be completely human and the balance of these is a sign of authentically human life. I suspect that many of the times Jesus went apart to be with his Father or partied with others were exactly these kinds of times. We don't reflect often enough that Jesus' life showed a dynamic balance between ministry, prayer, friendships, and recreation (or that his own prayer was recreative in a more immediate sense than our own sometimes is) but my sense is it did manifest this as a piece of what it means to be authentically human in communion with God.

By the way, this helps clarify for me why some folks believe hermits taking a vacation is a kind of oxymoron. Fr B above spoke of it as being seen as a temporary interruption of "ordinary" life. If that is the way folks see vacations, rather than as a normal part of ordinary life, and if they have the sense that contemplative life is, by its very nature, a balanced life of work and leisure, then time off and away from the regular horarium, etc might well seems like adding leisure to leisure. One solution is to point to the intensity of the contemplative life as well as to the tedium of aspects of the monastic or eremitical horarium , etc, and I have referred to things in this way in the past. Another, however, is to point to the need for time away, time for new and recreative relationships and activities in every life (including prayer in new contexts and forms), whether contemplative or apostolic/active, cenobitical or eremitical. I have done this in the past in writing about the need for friendships in the eremitical life but the comments others sent in have underscored this for me as has renewed reflection on the multi-faceted nature of Jesus' own life.