06 July 2014

Followup on the Prayer Lives of Hermits

Dear Sister Laurel, I wanted to thank you for what you wrote about the prayer lives of hermits. As someone trying to become a lay hermit and write my own Rule I found your recent post on this very helpful. I have also been led to look at what you have written about "stricter separation from the world" by your comments on using pious practices to cover over what is really worldliness: 

[[One journals and talks with her director to see if she might be using one form of prayer to avoid something else --- that profound listening that requires one be in touch with her deepest heart, for instance, or monastic leisure and letting go of the need to "produce" or do rather than be. These latter difficulties are or can be reflections of the worldliness that follows us into the hermitage so we must not simply slap a pious practice over it and think we have "left the world" or begun to truly pray as a hermit in so doing. (It is the case that even certain practices in prayer, certain affectations or attachments may be more worldly than not.)]]

I have always thought that any prayer is a way of combating worldliness but I guess in the contemplative life that really may not be so. Can you please say more about this? Thank you.]]

Yes, when I wrote that I was thinking of, several things. First, and most incidentally or tangentially, there was a phrase I personally hate, namely that of "prayer warrior." So let me dispense with this piece of things before moving on to my more central concerns. Often I have seen the all-too-human desires for control, power, or fear translated into prayer-as-weapon. The idea of storming heaven with our prayers causes me to cringe because when you scratch the pious veneer off of the practice there is an idea of controlling God, getting God to take notice, a desire to recruit God to "our" side of some belligerence, etc. This is all very far removed from the contemplative prayer of hermits or a love that makes whole, for instance, and while I believe we all ought to lend our hearts and minds in support of the concerns and needs of our brothers and sisters (which is what intercessory prayer allows), I don't think any genuine prayer can be about getting God's attention (which does not mean we should not pour out our profound sense of need!!), attempting to control God, convincing God with our needs, bargaining, etc. I do think that this tendency in our prayer can be considered a form of worldliness and needs to be relinquished or otherwise outgrown.

The same is true of the second issue I had in mind, namely, treating prayer as a busy-making, productive activity in a world which is all about doing, making, producing and never enough about truly being, much less being truly ourselves and resting in God! If prayer is conceived of as a pious undertaking of our own doing, even if it involves pleading on behalf of others, we may well simply be perpetuating a very worldly pattern of self-assertion and the inability or even outright refusal to listen. I think it is essential to pour out our hearts to God, that is, to open every concern to Him and allow him to touch, hallow, and make that same heart one. Likewise I believe that in pouring out our hearts we mediate God's love to those we carry in those same hearts. Even so, we can do this in silence trusting that God will find his way into all of the nooks and crannies of our hearts, that he will move us to pour ourselves out to him, and that generally all we can provide (which we still do by God's grace) is our permission in what is really God's own work and movement. To treat prayer otherwise may be to perpetuate a worldliness that resists such utter dependence, is allergic to silence, and seeks to make prayer a work we succeed (or at least attempt to succeed) at ourselves.

A third thing I was thinking of when I made that comment was the tendency I sometimes see in those who would be hermits. Too often isolation and eccentricity are "baptized" by these folks with the title "hermit." Instead of working on the personal changes that need to be made so that one may overcome continuing occasions of alienation and rejection, these are "consecrated" with the notion that God desires these things or even that he causes or accomplishes them in one's life. But individualism, avoidance of conversion, and self-justification are pretty worldly attitudes and behaviors and to affirm that God desires (or even causes) their exacerbation rather than their healing and redemption in the name of mysticism, eremitism, or a "victim soul spirituality" is to slap a pious label on something which is worldly in the most destructive way. Self-described hermits may really be more about this kind of worldliness than they are about eremitical solitude --- which is being alone with God for the sake of others. It is ironic that the eremitical life as the Church understands it is NOT a good solution (much less vocation!) for those who refuse to be related to others. Because eremitical solitude is partly about loving others IN God (it is first of all about dwelling in God for God's own sake), isolation and a failure to love in concrete ways are actually antithetical to eremitical solitude.

Finally, I was thinking of those who pretend to be mystics or contemplatives. This can happen for many reasons but whether it occurs because this is thought to be a "higher" form of prayer, or because it allows them to opt out of the demanding commission given to every Christian to help build the Kingdom and participate in some integral way in the Body of Christ, it is worldly. If it occurs because it saves them from the everyday toil of maturing spiritually (humanly) or  learning to pray and to allow God to work in and with one, or because pseudo-mystical experiences are distracting from the pain of loss, rejection, alienation, illness, etc, or simply because they make the person feel special and loved (which, when authentic, of course these can and do, but in a way which produces incredible  fruit for others) --- these (inauthentic experiences) too are simply entirely worldly ways of living over which pious labels or activities have been plastered. Especially in contemplative life (and particularly when this is marked by mystical prayer) one must learn to really pray, learn to genuinely and wholly give oneself over to God in true humility. During this process one will experience tedium, boredom, a sense that one is getting nowhere in prayer, etc. In such instances to go back to an earlier form of prayer which was exciting or fulfilling in an attempt to avoid the difficulties of the present stage of growth is another version of a worldliness which eschews dependence on God, powerlessness, darkness or a lack of understanding and control, and certainly boredom or tedium of any sort.

It is simply all-too-easy to carry over attitudes and ways of approaching reality which are indeed worldly into our prayer -- and to do so in ways which are meant to protect these. Attempts to impress, to show only our best selves, to stand on our own merits, to succeed, to speak eloquently (when we ought to listen) or not at all (when we are called to speak up!), to create a prayer-as-achievement or settle for prayer experiences rather than to be a prayer, to be distracted from pain or to embrace an irresponsible quietism, to justify a refusal to be well (or to work toward wellness) by choosing isolation in the name of victimhood  or eremitical life, to mask anger and bitterness (especially at God!) under a layer of the language and thought of pseudo mystical misery and a distorted theology of suffering --- all of these and many more can be ways of what I described as trying to [[slap a pious practice over [something which is really worldly] and think we have "left the world" or begun to truly pray as a hermit in so doing.]] 

As I have written before, one of the really critical mistakes beginning hermits make is to believe they leave "the world" simply by shutting the door of their hermitage on everything outside it.  That simply makes of the hermitage a particularly dishonest (or deluded) outpost of the world one is seeking to redeem. But to really leave "the world" behind means to leave those attitudes and behaviors which are so much a part of the way we have been acculturated to think, perceive, and judge while we allow our hearts and minds to be entirely remade by God. When this happens, the hermitage becomes what one friend reminded me it should be, namely, a place where the cries and anguish of the world are truly heard --- and, I would add, where they are taken up into the very heart of God through the hermit's heart at prayer.

As a kind of postscript, please remember a couple of the things Merton says about "the world" and the danger of hypostasizing it. I have cited these before: "The way to find the real 'world' is not merely to measure and observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self.. . . This 'ground', this 'world' where I am mysteriously present at once to my own self and to the freedoms of all other men, is not a visible, objective and determined structure with fixed laws and demands. It is a living and self-creating mystery of which I am myself a part, to which I am myself my own unique door. When I find the world in my own ground, it is impossible for me to be alienated by it. . ." (The Inner Ground of Love)

"There remains a profound wisdom in the traditional Christian approach to the world as an object of choice. But we have to admit that the mechanical and habitual compulsions of a certain limited type of Christian thought have falsified the true value-perspective in which the world can be discovered and chosen as it is. To treat the world merely as an agglomeration of material goods and objects outside ourselves, and to reject these goods and objects in order to seek others which are "interior" or "spiritual" is in fact to miss the whole point of the challenging confrontation of the world and Christ. Do we really choose between the world and Christ as between two conflicting realities absolutely opposed? Or do we choose Christ by choosing the world as it really is in him, that is to say, redeemed by him, and encountered in the ground of our own personal freedom and love?" (The Inner Ground of Love, Emphasis added)