28 February 2014

The Silence of Solitude: Goal and Charism of the Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sr Laurel, I am trying to build more silence and solitude into my life so that I can become a hermit. You and canon 603 speak of the silence OF solitude though. What is the difference? Does this have to do with what you mean when you refer to having become a hermit in some essential way before contacting my diocese?]]

Relatively speaking I have written a lot in this blog about the silence of solitude as context, means and goal of the eremitical life. I have tried to convey how and why the phrase "the silence of solitude" an originally Carthusian term means so much more than silence AND solitude, especially merely external silence and solitude. Your question helps me build on the blog article I wrote a little while back on why my vocation is not the personification of selfishness. (cf, Notes From Stillsong, A Vocation to Selfishness?) Especially it lets me add  to what I have already said about this defining element of canon 603 and the charism of the vocation. Thank you for that. As your question notes, the silence of solitude is indeed a key to understanding what I mean when I say that someone must become a hermit in some essential way before approaching their diocese with a request to be admitted to a process of discernment, much less to public profession of eremitical vows.

I have cited the following paragraph a couple of times here:  [[As a hermit I am not silent (or solitary) for instance, because woundedness and pain have rendered me mute and cut off from others, but because silence and solitude are the accompaniment and context for profound speech and articulateness. Silence is part of the music of being loved completely by God; it is a piece of allowing the separate notes of one's life to sound fully, but also to be connected to one another so that noise is transformed into a composition worthy of being heard and powerful and true enough to be inspiring to others. It is an empowered silence and solitude, the silence of solitude, which finds its source in God's love and reflects relatedness to God and others at its very core. Something similar could be said of all of the elements which comprise the life described in Canon 603. The eremitical life, especially in its freedom, is one of relatedness and love in all of its dimensions.]]

The silence of solitude is what results when we are loved profoundly by God and are healed sufficiently to love ourselves, God, and all who are precious to God as well. When this is the case an individual stands silently alone with God, at peace, herself, free of  bondage or destructive enmeshment. She is herself but that self is a covenantal or dialogical Event with God as ground and counterpart because that is the very nature of the human self.

To understand this I think we might start by reflecting on the fact that eremitical solitude is a torment for the person who cannot love herself and therefore cannot trust or must continually contend with the inescapable love of God. Unfortunately, this is such a prevalent affliction, that the early Desert Fathers and Mothers battled demons --- usually the demons of their own hearts --- in a way which made doing so emblematic of desert spirituality. Every hermit I have ever read or spoken to knows that the torment of the hermitage stems from our own inability to love ourselves or exorcise the resultant demons of our own hearts. Whether we are speaking of the need for distractions, the inability to pray, actual violations of our vows, deviations from our Rule or excesses in penitential practices, bitterness and misanthropy, or even narcissism, the source is some form of discomfort with ourselves which, often, is a form of self-hatred. In such instances we are isolated or solitary, but the silence of solitude is far far from us.

On the other hand, every hermit I know, have read, or have spoken to, every hermit who is "the real deal" also knows in the depths of their souls that to the extent these battles have been won and their demons exorcised by the grace of God (that is, by the powerful presence of God in their lives), the silence of solitude is the result. One image of this reality comes back to me again and again. It was a picture I cut out during initial formation of two young girls sitting side by side on a curb. They were quiet, sitting in the sun, simply enjoying the brilliant day and each other and there was an aura of quiet joy about the picture; they were also sharing a Popsicle and one was handing it over to the other for her turn. For me this typifies "the silence of solitude" as well as does an image, say, of a person reading quietly or sitting silently and gratefully at a hermitage window while taking their noontime meal. In the hermit's case, however, the second young girl is God and more occasionally anyone who is precious to God.

When I speak of being a hermit in some essential sense then, I mean that one is a person who has, to some real extent, come to this quies or peace of heart marked by compassion, generosity, and relative selflessness. Further, they have been brought there by living a life of physical silence and solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, poverty and chastity, all geared to hearkening to the Word of God and they feel called to continue living in this way for the glory (revelation) of God and the salvation of others. Silence and solitude are elements contributing to a person's coming to and living out the silence OF solitude but it is the silence OF solitude which is especially characteristic of the eremitical life; it is the charism or gift hermits in particular bring to the Church and world. One may build  all kinds of silence and solitude in the physical and external senses into one's life, but it is the silence of solitude rooted in communion with God for the sake of others which is the goal and defining characteristic of the genuine hermit.