15 April 2013

On Family Visits and Visits with Friends

[[Dear Sister,
      When you visit your family or stay with friends do you keep the same horarium you do in the hermitage? Do you only talk about spiritual things? I am trying to live as a hermit but I am finding it very difficult to keep my mind on God when I go out with friends or visit my family. I think maybe I should cut off relationships as part of separating myself from the world or when I am with friends I should either be silent or only talk about spiritual things. What do you think? What would you do?. . .(Some questions held for later)]]

Thanks for your questions. (I have held the questions about the frequency of home visits or visits with friends until later.) That said, I am not sure where to begin really. Probably many of the things I have written about in the past years are indirect answers to your questions so I would urge you to look through the list of labels and see what strikes you as related. Meanwhile, the first answer that comes to mind is, "You must be yourself." Wherever you are and with whomever, you MUST be yourself, not someone playing hermit, but whoever you are with whatever spirituality is central to your life without affectation or pretense. You must be genuinely loving, truly available,  and attuned to the needs, desires, and boundaries of those you are with. Let me try to explain what I mean.

When I visit with my family I am a hermit visiting with her family. I am there so we have (an unfortunately rare) time with each other and really quality time as much as that is possible. My family (and most friends for that matter) do not know what being a hermit means in day to day terms and of course, if there are questions, curiosity, concerns, we will talk about these. But I am there as Laurel, not as Sister Laurel (though my sister, who is not Catholic, affectionately calls me "Sis") and though we will talk about work and daily life (my sister's AND my own for instance) I do not impose my own religious practices on the visit. However, that does not mean the visit is not profoundly spiritual in significant ways. It does not mean I cease (as best I can) to pray the visit or that the time we spend together is not holy time. It is all of these things no matter what we do together. Meals are special (for instance, my sister --- who, unlike myself, is a good cook --- tends to cook the things she remembers me loving growing up as well as things she loves herself and loves to make). We talk about the past and the present because of these things and the sharing can be wide-ranging.

I think of Eucharist a lot when I visit my Sister and the words eucharistein (thanks-giving, gratitude) and anamnesis (recalling to living presence) predominate for me. Do we talk about God? Not by name usually, but we talk about life and love and wholeness and brokenness and hope and disappointment and a host of other things which are part of life in and in search of God. The wisdom of Benedictinism is, in part, that it focuses us on seeking God, and doing so in ordinary life. One does not have to use the word God to be dealing with spirituality and the Divine. In fact, it is often more revealing of the authenticity of one's spirituality if one does not need to.

Regarding my horarium, I generally count the strict obligation to that suspended, but of course I tend to wake at the same time I usually do (even when I have gone to bed late!) and will often pray in the early morning hours, journal, etc. At the same time, if I sleep in, that is fine too. Again, I am there visiting my family and for that reason I do what serves my well-being and that of my family. When I visit with friends all of this holds true there too. With some we talk about theology and God more explicitly. With some we regularly say grace or attend Mass together or pray evening prayer, for instance. With others we do not do any of these things. If I have a need for some time alone whether for rest or some prayer I take that (and so do they!). The same is true when I visit my sister, for instance.

Bearing in mind what I said about Benedict-inism and also calling to mind the sacra-mentality of all of creation, I should note that my family and friends are not "the world" and I do not cut myself off from them because of a requirement of "stricter separation from the world." I limit contacts with others because I am called to the silence of solitude. Dimensions of their lives and hearts are worldly just as dimensions of my own are also more or less "worldly," but more generally they reveal God to me --- if only I have eyes to see!

Here is where drawing a black and white line between hermitage and "world" can also be particularly damaging. What would be worldly in the situations you have asked about however are selfishness or rigidity or inaccessibility or affectation for instance. Insisting we only talk about God or "spiritual things" would, paradoxically, be "worldly" and destructive (or at least disedifying) as would any inability to discern God's presence in the genuinely human relationships and interactions we are called to as family. Remaining silent and letting others talk as a general principle simply because "one is a hermit" seems to me to be particularly pretentious and self-centered --- particularly "worldly" and to be eschewed. Assuming these people are genuinely friends who care about us as much as we do about them, refusing to go out to dinner when it is something our friends love to do (and something we would truly enjoy as well), not allowing them to show us the world they love and delight in (and failing to take appropriate delight in it too), spending hours apart in prayer (unless this was time everyone desired) and generally refusing to really enter into and contribute to a special time together --- all because one is "a hermit" --- could be particularly unloving and ungracious.

At the same time I am not suggesting one be dishonest about one's faith --- merely that one be low key about it unless others are clearly comfortable relating in the same terms and "language". In other words, be yourself and use the "language" folks are comfortable speaking. If they want this kind of "language lesson" no problem. But don't insist on speaking "Religious" in such a situation if the language the others are comfortable with is "Secular."  God talk "translates" very well into meaning and beauty and struggle and love and life, etc; if we are not comfortable with this, we may find we are not truly comfortable with the self-emptying, incarnate God of Jesus Christ. I think this notion that the real God can be spoken of in many different ways which are still truly Christocentric is the idea behind Paul speaking of being all things to all persons. It is certainly part of the reason St Francis said to "proclaim the Gospel; use words if necessary".

For me the bottom line is that we be ourselves and the things which really make a hermit who she is as a person are always with her motivating, enlivening, and empowering her. I would encourage you to let, or better, trust that those things which make us who we are do that even if it is in a different language or a different key than you usually "sing" yourself in. Your family and friends should not be seeing, much less have to be relating to someone playing a role but instead to the PERSON you are. One hopes that is a loving, patient, warm person with a good sense of humor and some of the deep wisdom that comes from faith and a contemplative life, but whoever it is with whatever gifts or foibles, that is who you are being called to be WITH and FOR them.

I hope this is helpful.