09 May 2013

Hermits, Blogs, Publicity, and the Dynamic of the Camaldolese "Triplex Bonum"

[[Dear Sister, it still seems to me to be a conflict for a hermit to have a blog. I appreciate that you have reconciled this in your own mind and I understand your diocese is comfortable with it, but isn't this 21st C development out of sync with the history of eremitical life in the Church? Now you are featured in an article in the Saturday Evening Post and it is clear from that article that others have the same questions I do. Not all of them are asking these because they are victims of [believing] stereotypes, are they?]]

Many thanks for these questions. They are significant and point directly at the tension or dynamic that is at the heart of my own life, the life of Camaldolese monks, nuns, and oblates, and I suspect, the life of any truly healthy hermit with a strong sense of the Gospel and their own place in the heart of the Church. I am going to answer all of your questions by referring to the Camaldolese charism and also to the history of Camaldolese life in the Church with special reference to both SS Romuald and Peter Damian. My own sense, and something I have written here and spoken about before on A Nun's Life (In Good Faith podcast), is that this specific charism is profoundly ancient and equally contemporary. It reprises the dynamic which is present for anyone exploring the nature of  --- much less justifying --- a life of "the silence of solitude," and which I personally find especially appropriate and empowering for the life of the diocesan hermit.

First, is this dynamic of an eremitical solitude which also reaches out to others to proclaim the Gospel of God in Christ and the redemptive nature of solitude (because that is what I am concerned with in this blog) out of sync with the history of eremitical life? My answer is no. I can point to three significant historical instances or paradigms of eremitical life here to justify that response: 1) the desert Fathers and Mothers, 2) the anchorites and especially the "urbani" of the medieval period, and 3) the Camaldolese (in particular the Benedictine Camaldolese) and their founders, especially SS Romuald, Peter Damian, and Paul Giustiniani (a Saint at least to the "Order"!). Each of these had a significant degree of interaction with the world around them and for each of them the notion of witness (sometimes called evangelization or martyrdom) was central.

Sister Donald Corcoran, OSB and Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam
The desert Fathers and Mothers left a too-worldly expression of Church to live Gospel lives in nearby deserts. They were committed to a form of witness now called "white martyrdom" to replace the red martyrdom associated with the persecutions of early Christians. They lived lives of solitude rooted in Gospel values but did so on the margins of society. They modeled agrarian practices for their neighbors, bought and sold (mainly sold!) goods in local markets and are famous for the hospitality they embraced as a central value.  Anyone showing up on their doorstep was welcomed as Christ. They were fed, questions were answered, what we would today call spiritual direction was given, so that in example, word, and deed the Gospel was thus proclaimed and Church was lived out. Did they also live a significant solitude? Of course, but at the heart of their lives was their own negotiation of the very dynamic or tension my own life, for instance, attempts to negotiate and embody.

The medieval anchorites, also called "urbani" because they lived eremitical lives in the midst of towns, villages, and cities, mirror the same dynamic in a different way. Anchorites practice a stricter physical stability because they remained in a single small dwelling and were sometimes even walled into or locked within an anchorhold. However, such anchorholds which were adjacent to a church generally had a window opening onto the altar, another opening onto the main square of the village or city, and a third entrance or window through which food and other necessities could be passed back and forth by those who served the anchorite. Townspeople often stopped to talk with the anchorite; it was the medieval equivalent of a counselling or spiritual direction center. There was danger of abuse and distortion of the life in this, of course, and some Camaldolese writers and others wrote scathing pieces on those who abused the practice of converse with others. Still, the dynamic and the tension were present as an integral part of the life.

Finally there is the Benedictine Camaldolese model of eremitical life and the example of its founders. The Camaldolese live the charism referred to as "triplex bonum" or "the triple good", namely, solitude, communion, and evangelization or martyrdom (witness!). Thus, their lives include each of these in a dynamic tension and they have both monasteries and hermitages as a result. Further, there is a strong component of hospitality involved here while monks will travel and sometimes live apart from the monastery/hermitage in order to accomplish a particular ministry. It is not only that some monks live in monasteries and some live in hermitages. Rather what is true in the Camaldolese life is that, again, each monk or nun lives the dynamic of a solitude rooted in community and issuing in ministry or witness in various ways. (The Monte Corona Camaldolese differ in that they only have hermitages, but I would suggest the same dynamic is present.)

Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam, assuming role as Prior
Saint Romuald is known for his extensive travels in order to reform monasticism, extend the Rule of Benedict to free-lance hermits, and proclaim the Gospel. His own eremitical identity is sometimes questioned as a result, but the Church does NOT question it, nor do the centuries of monks, nuns, and hermits who followed him as Camaldolese. It is significant that the single piece of writing we have from him is his "Brief Rule" which is probably the most paradigmatic Rule ever written for the eremitical life. In it two elements are especially prevalent: 1) the need to sit silently and patiently in one's cell waiting only on the Lord, and 2) the place of Scripture, especially as source of and impetus for the assiduous prayer of the solitary life. Again, the combination is a form of witness to the Gospel because the life (and ANY Christian life) demands it.

St Peter Damian's life was also not stereotypically or even typically eremitical. He was engaged throughout his life with the reform of the Church and religious life. He was a Cardinal, papal legate, theologian, spiritual director, hermit, writer, etc. He carried on an extensive correspondence with many people to address the needs of his day and there is hardly a pressing topic he did not address with astuteness and flexibility. (His view of the laity, by the way, is also startlingly contemporary for he believed profoundly in the spiritual equality of all, eschewed notions of a spiritual elite, and would have rejoiced at Vatican II's proclamation of "the universal call to holiness" or the council's affirmation of the laity's right and even obligation to criticize the hierarchy [cf Letter 10 to Emperor Henry III].) He struggled with the question of vocation: "Should I be a hermit or a preacher?" His "starting point" regarding either vocation was the Scriptural imperative of extending Christ's salvation to others. Damian was particularly critical of a solitude focused only on saving oneself.

This led directly to the dynamic tension every Christian and certainly every Camaldolese and every diocesan hermit knows well: how do I honor my call to solitude and also carry out my Baptismal commission to proclaim the Gospel of Christ? As a symptom of this tension and much as Thomas Merton anguished nine centuries later, Peter Damian struggled with his vocation as a writer which, because it was so profoundly engaged with the Church and  World on so many issues and levels seemed to threaten his life as hermit-monk; he once said (in a letter to the current Pope), "I would rather weep than write," and he was well aware that his own hermit and monastic life was not the norm. Even so, in the end we regard Peter Damian profoundly and sincerely as a hermit-monk for whom all else was an extension of that call.

So, to return more directly to your own questions, no I do not believe it is a conflict for me to also have a blog. I believe it reflects a well-established dynamic and imperative in the history of eremitical life, namely the dynamic of solitude-community-witness, and the imperative that one proclaims the Gospel so that others might be saved by God in Christ. I do try to make sure that I maintain what is called "custody of the cell" (where cell is both my hermitage, a life of essential solitude, and my own hermit heart). There would be no witness, indeed, no capacity for witness without this; further, it itself IS a witness to the Gospel!! But to be very honest, like Peter Damian, I believe that if eremitical life is not generally constituted or profoundly informed by this dynamic in some substantial way (and this is true even for the complete recluse!), it ceases to be Christian. Remember that before I  had read much about eremitical life, much less before I ever considered becoming a hermit, I thought that at best it was a selfish and wasteful way of life. I certainly could not regard it as truly Christian. It took some reading by hermits (not least, Thomas Merton) and of work on Camaldolese life to convince me otherwise. My reading (and living!!) has continued and I am more convinced than ever that authentic eremitical life involves the dynamic/tension mentioned above and embodied by the Camadolese as the charism or gift-quality defining their lives.