20 April 2013

Visiting Family and Friends: Followup Question

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, thank you for your piece on visiting family and friends. One online hermit writes of a home visit that was very difficult because she had to stifle spiritual conversation, skip Mass for two days, which "took its toll" and generally communicate with people that had been "acclimated to the world." She missed the life of the hermitage with its silence and stillness and was anxious and unable to relax. But she also spoke of needing her family to accept her and being unable to fit in or be the person her family wanted her to be. By the end of the trip she sort of had an emotional meltdown. Is this typical for hermits? ]]

Perhaps these things are typical for her because of unique circumstances. They are not typical for me or for other hermits I know --- though families may very well neither understand nor accept a hermit's life. More about this below because this set of questions raises serious issues and difficulties for those responding to this rare and oft-misunderstood vocation --- though to be honest I don't think they are any more serious than many religious face with their own families.  We don't only discuss spiritual matters anyway --- at least not explicitly, and such discussions with family are actually pretty rare I think. That can certainly be bittersweet and even cause serious pain on some levels but by itself it should not prevent profound sharing or cause excessive anxiety.

Of course, leaving the hermitage for any extended period of time causes some stress. I personally miss my hermitage, my own prayer space, prayer bench (sometimes I bring this along!), and the horarium I follow; I also miss Mass to some extent, but I don't attend Mass daily anyway and sometimes may not get to the parish Church or chapel for a couple of weeks at a time --- particularly if I am unwell. Spending time with others in another place over the course of several days is demanding for me, not only because I am a hermit and happy in solitude, but because I am an introvert and not really comfortable with much small talk. However,  none of this changes anything I wrote in the previous post. Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Family Visits.

Not my blood family but. . .
During those visits I am generally with people I love, doing things I also enjoy doing (and often getting to do or see things I have always wanted to do or see), talking about things I enjoy talking (and hearing!) about --- and sometimes, talking and hearing about things I do not enjoy at all. God is present in all of this and certainly in these people. Grace is present therefore along with a whole host of challenging, consoling, and nurturing experiences. I have certainly had difficult visits with my family in the past but to be anxious, unable to relax or to have an emotional meltdown because of a few days away from the hermitage seems pretty extreme to me.  As noted, I also reject the unnuanced or dichotomous thinking that says "they are the world" and I am not or, in this case, "they are acclimated to the world" and "I am not so acclimated".  As much as I might like to think my hermitage is not an outpost of "the world" (and it is true that it is less this than it might easily be) and despite the fact that I have lived as a hermit for a number of years (@28) I find this kind of dichotomous characterization to be untrue and destructive.

I think a lot of unnecessary tension can result from such a perspective. One tends to see oneself as constantly assaulted by "the world" and must stand in a resistant and defensive mode. Now, it is true too that a hermit will not always participate in every activity some families choose to engage in. Some conversations will not be edifying to anyone and a hermit might well decide she cannot support them, much less participate. Other times she merely needs to shift the perspective or refocus things a bit. But generally one will be able to participate in the visit and benefit from it while others do as well. However, if one is about "playing a role" this too is a source of unnecessary and destructive tension. You see, if one truly IS a hermit without pretense and remains a hermit in ANY situation, that is if one is simply oneself in this way, the stress level is much lower. One is oneself and while one may need to avoid certain situations or conversations, one is not in a defensive mode nor is one constantly needing to calculate "what would a hermit do?" One might well ask oneself, "What am I to do in this situation?" or "Does my Rule help me in any way in this situation?" but these questions are not asked about some abstract entity called "hermits" and do not involve merely playing a role.

One other element might well be important here and that is the distinction between "fitting in" and belonging. I would be wary of "trying to fit in" and rest in one's belonging. This is, I think, a variation on "being oneself." What I mean is that one is part of a family; one belongs to this family in ways that might be wholly unconscious as well as the ways one can readily articulate. Belonging to a family is a deep and ineradicable reality even when  not everyone wants or is able to admit it; fitting in is, in some ways, more superficial and based on similarities, acts of accommodation which may not be rooted in love, etc. It may even involve compromising one's integrity. Meanwhile, we can see from other situations that one may work "to fit in" while one will never really "belong". On the other hand, one who truly belongs and rests in that may subsequently be able to fit in a bit better without straining to do so; they will be able to relax more than if they are struggling to fit in. In any case, when one is secure in the fact that one belongs one can communicate with the group to which one truly belongs; one can be truly present to them and love them even if one is also very different in significant ways.

But what happens when a family does not understand or accept one's vocation? What happens when there is actual antipathy for the vocation, one's faith, or even for oneself? First of all this is usually a good reason not to insist on keeping one's horarium on a home visit, referring to oneself as a hermit, playing a role (including that of non-hermit), etc but, as implied above, it may well be that simply being oneself is not enough to disarm antipathy and difficulties on a home visit. In such cases, a hermit can certainly decide to forego home visits, limit them significantly in length, visit with individual family members as seems to work out best, etc. One is not required to make home visits if they are really destructive for everyone involved.