05 May 2013

Essential Hiddenness and the Vocation to Extraordinary Ordinariness (Reprise)

Image from Saturday Evening Post article
In the current (May/June 2013) issue of The Saturday Evening Post there is an article on "The New Urban Hermits" for which Jack El-Hai interviewed Karen Fredette (former hermit and, with her husband Paul, editor of Raven's Bread), Roger Cunningham (former Buddhist hermit), and myself. There are a couple of factual inaccuracies which make me sound like a vowed Camaldolese rather than a vowed diocesan hermit and Camaldolese Oblate but generally I think the article is really well done and that Jack El-Hai got his head and heart around something few people really understand. He deserves real credit for that.

One of the fine points Karen Fredette  makes is that hermits are about doing ordinary things with an extraordinary motivation.  I made a similar point used later in the article which, when taken with Karen's comment, suggests hermits experience this as the sustaining "glue" and heart of a vocation to contemplative life including eremitical solitude. It is certainly fundamental to Benedictinism and Camaldolese Benedictinism. I can't post the article here (I don't have a copy to do that with anyway) but I can reprise a post I put up here five years ago on living "an extraordinary ordinariness." Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Essential Hiddenness and the Vocation to Extraordinary Ordinariness (05. June.2008) Too often people think of hermits or their essential hiddenness as abnormal. This blog post spoke to these things; for those who are coming to this blog because of the SEP article, Welcome! I think you will find this post is a good introduction to the heart of eremitical faitfulness.

On Essential Hiddenness and the Vocation to Extraordinary Ordinariness

[[Thank you for answering my questions about the hiddenness of the hermit life. What you write about its "essential hiddenness" sounds like the same "hiddenness" which is true of the lives of many people living in the world. You and other hermits seem to make a virtue of this, but isn't it pretty ordinary?]]

Yes, it is very ordinary, and in fact, that is precisely its virtue. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the hermit is meant to witness to those whose lives are ordinary in ways which may cause them to question the meaning and value or significance of  those lives. I have written about those in unusual circumstances (chronic illness, disability, etc) who are called upon to witness to the Gospel in vivid and poignant ways, but I have not really said much about those who work day in and day out at menial jobs and who see their lives as essentially meaningless or unimportant. I think the hermit can remind us each that every life, no matter how apparently unproductive or ordinary, is really (or is certainly meant to be!) part of a profound dynamic where the Kingdom of God comes to be realized more and more fully in our world. That happens, for the most part and for most persons, in the perseverance and day by day faithfulnesses exercised in ordinary life.

There is nothing spectacular or even very remarkable about the hermit's life in the ordinary sense of those words. It is very much a life of day to day faithfulness to the call of God and that call summons the hermit to prayer, work, study, and (sometimes) even some degree of outreach or evangelization every day in a way which repeats again and again. No one much recognizes what happens here in the hermitage as special, and from one perspective, there is nothing special about it. It is completely ordinary whether one is writing an article, doing the laundry or cleaning the bathroom, praying Office, doing personal work, studying, or meeting with occasional direction clients. Even contemplative or quiet prayer is pretty ordinary stuff from one perspective. From another perspective, of course, it is all very special, because it is all done in and with God, and in order to foster the coming of his Kingdom. When the ordinary is undertaken with and in the grace or presence of God it always becomes extraordinary, and yet, no one is likely to see that really. When I wrote in my earlier response that even my telling you what I do during the day would leave the essential mystery of the life intact, that is what I meant.

The challenge to each of us is to undertake the ordinary in a way which is attentive and sensitive to the presence of God. It is the challenge to undertake these things with a care and even love which, through the grace of God, transforms them into something extraordinary. This is basic spirituality and it is this which the hermit's day to day life accepts and affirms as infinitely valuable. I can say without question that although I do not know how it happens, I know without a doubt that my life in this hermitage, my daily perseverance in cell, my faithfulness to prayer, work, study, and the ordinariness of life, allows for God's Kingdom to be more fully realized right here and right now. I know without question that Stillsong Hermitage is a small bit of leaven in the loaf that is my community and the world, and that it contributes to the transformation of that whole even though I may never really understand that or see it realized in my lifetime.

Personally, I believe that every person is challenged to embrace his or her life in this way, especially in its ordinariness. God transforms everything he is allowed to touch with his hallowing love, and our job is to let that happen in all the ways day to day living puts before us. If we can do that, and to the extent we do it, again, the ordinary will be transformed into something extraordinary because each task and moment becomes the occasion where God's grace is allowed to enter in and to triumph. That is the very essence of affirming the goodness and sacramental nature of all reality. So, in each and everything we undertake, we strive to be attentive, aware, care-full, loving, and (describing all of these together) truly present. Nothing in this life is really ordinary unless we allow it to remain that by foreclosing it to our own conscious presence and the effect of God's grace. On the other hand, the really extraordinary in our daily lives is likely to remain hidden from most people for the whole of our lives.

I am thinking of the husband or wife who cares for his or her sick spouse day in and day out for weeks, months, or years, for instance. The most mundane act is transformed when carried out with loving awareness, attentiveness, and openness to God's grace, and yet no one sees this or thinks much to remark on it. It is unspectacular in many ways, but clearly extraordinary at the same time. And yet it is essentially hidden from the eyes of the world. So much of our lives really is hidden in this way.

It takes the eyes of faith to see as the hermit  or other contemplative sees! I think the hermit witnesses not only to this essential hiddenness, but to the humility and faithfulness that is so necessary in a world where everyone seems to need to make a name for him or herself --- even if the only name they can claim is that of victim --- a thriving category of dubious "achievement" in the contemporary world! At the same time though, she witnesses to how truly extraordinary is the life of "ordinary" faithfulness, "ordinary" perseverance, ordinary "heroism," and "ordinary" love undertaken in God. She witnesses to how infinitely meaningful is the life our contemporary world dismisses as trivial and insignificant, if it is lived in and through the grace of God.

Addendum, July 2013: The article is now available on the Saturday Evening Post website:  May/June 2013 | The Saturday Evening Post