30 November 2013

Eremitism: A Life of Constant Vigil (Reprised)

Perhaps it is the focus of Advent with its emphasis on preparation and waiting, but I came today to see my life specifically and eremitical life more generally as one of vigil --- and continuous vigil. Whether the time in cell is obviously fruitful or marked by darkness and seeming emptiness, whether one turns to prayer with joy and enthusiasm or with resistance and depression, one waits on the Lord. One spends one's time in vigil.

Now this is ironic in some ways because despite loving prayer at night the Office of Readings which is also called "Vigils" has never been my favorite hour and this last two years I have substituted another way of spending the time before dawn which has been very fruitful for me (and, I hope, that means fruitful in terms of what God wills!). The time from 4:00am to 8:00am has been one of vigil but it consists of quiet prayer, Lauds, and writing with some lectio. A Camaldolese nun mentioned her own monastery (and the one I am affiliated with as an Oblate) treating these same hours as a time of vigil and I very much liked the idea. I did not know that it would define both my day and my life, however.

There is something amazing about living in a way which is not "just" obedient (open and responsive) to the Lord, but which is actively awaiting him at every moment.(Yes, these are intimately related, but not always practiced that way.) The heart of Benedictine spirituality is the search for God. When candidates for Benedictine monastic life arrive at the monastery, the goal they are expected to affirm is the search for God. This is the defining characteristic of the authentic monastic life and a significant point of discerning a vocation. We can hear that phrase as emphasizing an active, even desperate attempt to find something that is missing from our lives, or we can hear it as a process of preparing ourselves to find the God who is immanent in our lives and world at every point. In the latter case our lives become a vigil to the extent they are transformed into something capable of perceiving and welcoming this immanent God.

Another central Benedictine value is hospitality, and there is no doubt it plays a very significant part in this perspective. While we ordinarily think of hospitality as offering a place for guests who come to the monastery or hermitage in search of something, we should extend the notion to God. All of our prayer is a way of offering hospitality to God; it is a way, that is, of giving him a personal place to stand in our lives and world. While God is omnipresent and the ground of the truly personal, he does NOT automatically have a personal place in our lives. Like someone whose name we do not know, he may impinge on our space, but until we call upon him by name and give him a place he cannot assume on his own, he will remain only impersonally there. And so, in prayer we call upon him by name ("Abba, Father"), we carve out space and time for him, we give him permission to enter our lives and hearts and to take up more and more extensive residence there. We offer him friendship, hospitality, and we structure our lives around his presence. We continually ready ourselves and look for him just as we look for a best friend we expect any time and thus our lives become a vigil.

For hermits, whose whole lives are given over to God in a focused and solitary way, vigil is simply another description of the environment, goal, and gift (charism) of eremitical life we refer to as "the silence of solitude." Those four hours before Mass or Communion in my daily horarium define the characteristic dynamic of the whole of my life --- at least when it is lived well! It is a vigil which requires the silence of solitude (i.e., external and internal silence and solitude), leads to the silence of solitude (i.e.,communion with God), and gifts the world with it and all it implies. During Advent especially I think the call to make something similar of our own lives is extended to every one of us in a special way.