09 July 2015

On Keeping Things Neat and Tidy

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I am wondering if in the tradition of hermit life, their is an emphasis in keeping one's cell or hermitage neat, uncluttered and tidy? Thanks for any info.]]

Hi there,

Yes, there is for several reasons. 1) it reflects the contemplative attentiveness and care of the life itself, 2) it reflects the hermit's commitment to poverty, both material poverty and poverty of spirit, 3) it allows for and encourages the sense that it is God and the hermit alone, the relationship between them, that is the real center of things here; there is meant to be little that distracts from this. 4) Moreover, God is present in the ordinary things of life so attentiveness to the ordinary things is also a way of embracing their sacramentality with care and reverence. And 5) the hermit lives "the silence of solitude"; part of the noise she distances herself from is the noise of messiness and clutter and the inner realities which drive us to these.

Another reason I should add is 6) hospitality; the hermitage is a place where guests are freely welcomed as Christ and that means it is a sacred space which should be geared to the comfort of someone arriving unexpectedly. If the place is a cluttered mess that becomes much more difficult to do. In a sense this part of tidiness is meant to honor the guest and to provide an environment of quiet and rest she may need badly. Reason 7) has to do with beauty. The hermitage or cell needs to be a place of rest and beauty. It will tend to be a spare beauty as the picture of the Camaldolese chapel above. After all God who is Beauty itself is also supremely simple.

I find that clutter and messiness indicate a kind of unfreedom or even "bondage" within myself. It's always a symptom of falling away from the center somehow. It may mean I am doing too much of one thing (writing, direction) and not enough of another (prayer, cleaning, just relaxing) during a given day, for instance or that my horarium is not really working. It may mean something is bothering me I need to work through. It may mean I am feeling sub par. Clutter tends, in my own life, to indicate a lack of balance and a kind of physical and emotional noisiness or lack of recollectedness. (Of course, when I am really ill things kind of accumulate around the hermitage because I may not have the energy to stay on top of everything so I am not really speaking of those times -- though I guess those are quintessentially times when my life is off balance.)

Most of the time hermitages are pretty spare and free of unnecessary stuff --- unnecessary noise. While a workspace can be messy or cluttered for a given space of time, in general the hermitage really is a place where everything has a definite place with (ideally speaking!) nothing extraneous. It is also a matter of having the time one needs for everything, including taking care of one's environment. Again, a life of prayer is an incredibly orderly life and for most of us clutter occurs when our lives are somehow slackening in terms of prayer, attentiveness, and even a diminishing of peace. In her book, Tools Matter, Meg Funk, OSB speaks of the prayer space or cell as a place where what is not of God can be imaged back to us. In my own life there are some kinds of  limited disorder or clutter that mirror creativity and others that are far less edifying, but in general there is no doubt the hermitage or cell is meant to be place which speaks of prayer, rest, peace, and abundant life.

I should note that solitary hermits tend to own more stuff than hermits living in monasteries or lauras simply because we are responsible for our own libraries, prayer spaces, computers (if one uses one), work area, supplies of all sorts, cooking, pantry, etc. Even so, the goal is to have one's living space reflect the eremitical vocation as a contemplative desert vocation centered on God. I should also note that further reading on this can be found in monastic literature under the headings, 'custody of the cell' or 'discipline of the cell.' Thomas Merton has written about this. There is also a good section in Cummings' (OCSO) work, Monastic Practices, and, as noted above, Sister Meg Funk, whose thoughts were influenced by Thomas Merton, has a section on 'the cell' in her book, Tools Matter.