15 November 2014

On the Commonality of Eremitical Experiences

[[Sister Laurel, I was reading about online hermits and I came upon the following comment. [[I yearn to read about the experiences of other hermits; but so much of what is written is about hermits not by hermits, or is so coated in Christian mythology that the experience itself is inaccessible to a non-believer (though i believe the experiences, as hermits, of hermits of all beliefs is approximately the same. ]] You have posted about anchorites from other traditions before so I know you consider them real hermits and see some commonality between yourself and them. Do you think the experience of hermits of all religions (or no religion) is about the same?]]

Well, this is a really interesting comment! Also your's is an interesting question and I am torn regarding the answer to it. On the one hand, it seems to me that while the external characteristics of hermits' lives tend to be similar, I don't believe the experience of a Christian Hermit can be divided up (compartmentalized) in terms of external and interior so easily as all that.

You see, they are Christian hermits and their experience is of Christ and Christianity --- though mediated by and within eremitical solitude and silence. It is true that the experience of the Christian hermit is probably somewhat inaccessible to someone who does not believe at all, but it is not true that this is because their experience is "coated" in Christian Mythology. (Never mind for the moment that if the author is using the term "Mythology" in the common rather than technical (theological) sense the characterization is rather offensive.) It is because the experience of Christian eremitical solitude is an integral one which is empowered by and focused on God in Christ. As I have said so many times here, eremitical solitude for the diocesan hermit (that is, the solitary Catholic hermit) is not simply a matter of being alone, but rather it is a matter of being alone with God (in Christ) for the sake of others. One cannot take away any of these elements and have the same reality nor be speaking of the same experience. They are not so much a bit of icing on the cake as they are like the egg or the oil in the batter. They cannot be teased apart.

People go off into solitude for many different reasons. When they do so their lives may look similar to one another, especially to the degree they embrace silence and stricter separation from the world (meaning here the world of activity, commerce, media, family, society, etc). There is physical isolation and silence, physical or manual labor, intellectual labor, recreation, other chores, etc. But these are not the heart of the eremitical vocation for the diocesan (that is, the solitary Catholic) hermit. The heart of the life for the diocesan hermit is "the silence of solitude" which is essentially an inner experience of communion with God sought in service of God and all those precious to God; it is largely the fruit of prayer (the conscious act of letting God be actively and effectively present within us) in all of its forms. A misanthrope might well do many of the things I do all day, but the motivation for her life would differ radically and so would the nature of her eremitical experience. So too the person who is agoraphobic, the introvert merely desiring time for herself apart from others, or the artist seeking a space and time to do her painting, composing, or writing, for instance. We might all be hermits but the eremitical experience is radically different (that is, it differs at the roots and so too at the "branches" and "tips") for each of us.

For me the "clothes" or "coating" of my life, at least to some extent, are the externals. The heart is precisely the Christianity I live through and within those. While I don't mean to suggest these externals are unimportant or peripheral (they are not!), it is the heart of my life which conditions and transforms the externals making them prayer and transforming them into mediators of the Good News. When I do chores it is with a mindfulness attentive to the gift of these things; it is intended to glorify God (that is to allow God to reveal Godself in and through my entire life), to express both the gift of my life and to celebrate the giver.

When I study, the same dynamic is at play -- though in a way dependent on my own curiosity, intellectual excitement, patience, and profound searching. At prayer I am aware of being at God's service, of waiting on and for him, allowing him to love me as he desires to, of delighting him, of being a part of the completion of God's will to be all in all and to love his world into wholeness. At meals I celebrate a God who nourishes us in unceasing, ordinary, everyday ways which are also, by their very nature, extraordinary. When I am ill or otherwise struggling and unable to do chores or sing psalms or concentrate on a page of theology or a bit of exegesis, I trust (and feel) that my weakness is transformed by the powerful Love of God into something of ineffable and inestimable worth. In sleep I celebrate a God who "gives to his beloved (in) sleep", who saves me from annihilation in death and pierces the darknesses of my life with his light. These experiences which each and all proclaim that God alone is sufficient for us are the very essence of my eremitical life, not trappings in which the life is "coated" or clothed. Again, I can no more tease the Christian apart from the eremitical than I can separate my body from my soul and remain a person.

On the Commonalities of all Hermit Lives:

On the other hand it must be clearly stated that God who is the ground, source, and goal of all meaningful existence goes by many names and that there are more partial experiences of God which are universally accessible, especially in solitude. We are all more and less human and yearn for that which fulfills, perfects, and completes us. We seek authenticity. We are in touch with our own weakness and smallness even as we sense the dignity we each possess or else, I suspect, we could not dwell in solitude without the supports and distractions of ordinary life. Discovering one's true self and personal integrity are high values for each of us, I think --- at least for hermits who are not using solitude as an escape.  Getting in touch with a higher or deeper reality which grounds us and the meaning of our existences I think is a common experience and even goal for hermits of all stripes  (this would include the artist, author, or composer, of course whose quest is also similar to the religious hermit's) --- with the exception, again, of those for whom solitude is escapist.  And yet, even when this is not a hermit's goal, I suspect that the horizon of life in solitude raises the question in a particularly acute way for each of us. (cf Anchoritism is not only Christian for an example of a Buddhist solitary whose quest and heart are similar to a Christian hermit's.) Similarly, I think most hermits find solitude healing; it is a way to let go of the various impersonations and insanities that we have assumed in our lives apart from solitude.

I speak of all of these things in Christian terms because Christianity reflects the  most acute form of these questions and their answers that I know. It allows me to plumb the depths of the question I am and the answer God is in the rarefied environment of solitude, and to do so with an ultimate assurance I think is necessary for such a radical exploration and quest. However I can, to some extent, also speak of these things in philosophical or non-religious terms, and perhaps this is what the person you cited was yearning for; perhaps it is the lack of this that she was bemoaning. For me it is a less adequate way to deal with my own eremitical experience; it is incomplete and to some extent, too abstract. Even so, while I assert that my Christian experience is the heart of my eremitical experience I believe that all authentic hermits who are not merely seeking to escape life and its questions and challenges experience a similar searching and finding as noted in the paragraph above.

By the way, I do agree with the person you quoted about so much stuff about hermits being written by non-hermits. Today it is often a word used to describe anyone who maintains an essential privacy or who is alienated in some significant way. It is also adopted by folks as a kind of "cool" description despite the fact that they know nothing of silence, solitude and most certainly "the silence of solitude." I regularly search the internet for blogs by and about hermits. Very few are written by real hermits -- of whatever stripe. Most are associated with wannabe's or those who think the reference is a kind of good joke on their readers. Many of the rest are by hermits of various religious and non-religious stripes who are still trying to validate isolation and a failure to love neighbor or even self and God. Only a handful are written by hermits for whom the silence of solitude is a divine call -- whether that issues in an explicitly religious eremitism or not.

Thanks again for the quote and for your question. They are things I will be thinking about for some time to come and this means they will be a source of life and nourishment for me in approaching this vocation of mine. I am very grateful.