19 August 2015

Hermits: On Being Lonely and Misunderstood

[[Hi Sister Laurel, does it ever bother you that people don't understand your vocation? Some hermits write about this as though they are misunderstood by everyone including their own families and that it is very painful but understandable. These others live in the world and may not even be Catholic and the hermit is completely separate from all that. Still, I wonder if this doesn't bother you. Isn't it lonely to live this way where no one understands you?]]

On the distinction between not being understood and being misunderstood:

Thanks for the question. I think I have said myself a few times here in the past 8 years that folks don't really understand my vocation or that they see me as a contemplative nun but don't know what to do with the hermit part of things. That, I think, is a little different than misunderstanding it. It is true that a lot of folks do not understand my vocation, but that is completely understandable; no one has explained it to them and we live in a world where its central characteristics and values are increasingly alien. I am thinking here of silence and especially the silence of solitude lived for the praise of God and the salvation of others which is so contrary to the individualism and isolation that infects so much of what we know today as "contemporary culture".

Moreover, I am growing in my own understanding of this vocation. For instance, the writing I did recently on hiddenness and on its linkage to kenosis and the hidden activity of God was a new connection for me. The pieces have been there for a long time; not only is this described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (par 921, cf below ***), but I have written about all of them. Still, the direct connection was something I saw clearly (or perhaps, experienced as my own truth) only just recently. Its place in my own life is profoundly rooted in my own lived experience but I could not have explained that in the same way before last month. My point is that the very hiddenness of the life is a deep mystery and if it takes time for the hermit herself to understand and imperfectly articulate, how can she (I) be surprised when people who have never met another hermit nor spoken to me about the deep realities of my life do not understand it? That is particularly true when the external or observable elements of the eremitical life are so easily misunderstood to reflect or at least support selfishness, isolation, and misanthropy.

However, for those who actually know me one thing that becomes very important is that they understand me and see the good that has come from my life of the silence of solitude. Of that I have no doubt and it is gratifying. I never get the sense, for instance, that people find me bizarre or eccentric even when they do think being a hermit is these things. Nor do I have the sense that people find my choices or the constraints of my life strange. They may not choose such things for themselves nor may they understand what motivates me to make the choices I have made and make daily, but they know me and regard me; for that reason my experience is rarely one of being misunderstood simply because I am a hermit. That only tends to occur with people who do not know me at all; in those cases it is often the effect of biases and stereotypes being applied. Since I know I am no stereotype (!) it becomes a pastoral task to introduce myself to these folks --- to let them see me and not to simply play a role! When I fail at that it is THEN I may feel misunderstood --- and at those times --- though I have also known a handful of times when people have willfully misunderstood me --- it may well be my fault for "playing hermit" rather than being myself -- the one who is a hermit!

What most bothers me personally, what IS a cause of pain besides those uncommon times folks have willfully misun-derstood me, is the rarity of being able to explain and even more importantly, being unable to share with others what is at the heart of my life. That creates an ongoing loneliness which I accept as an integral dimension of this vocation. The ability to share the silence of solitude with others who also know what it means to live this reality daily happens relatively infrequently in my life and it is especially valuable to me --- something I both need and consider precious. Time away with a friend where we work silently on our own projects (e.g., reading,  my writing and her lesson plans and math problems), or time shared in quiet prayer, meals, etc, with Sisters who live substantial silence and solitude all the time (time at Whitethorn, for instance) become tremendously important to me and to my ability to be faithful to my own Rule. These times involve an experience of  the silence of solitude which nourishes me and which I carry with me at all other times. These rare but privileged times in shared solitude mean that my loneliness never becomes a malignant loneliness from which I must seek distraction or for which some sort of "therapy" or special direction is needed. They mean that my solitude is really a shared reality, with God, of course, but also with others. These times allow me to feel deeply understood, deeply known --- even when these particular kinds of times with others are rare.

A life of Being instead of Doing is Counter Cultural:

Otherwise though, living as a hermit in a suburban setting can be difficult. We are all used to explaining our lives to others in terms of what we do. That is important, but it is also a real problem that exacerbates our tendency to validate ourselves in terms of what we do rather than who we are in light of God's love. Even hermits fall into this trap; we are seen as (and sometimes accept the label) "prayer warriors" whose lives are explained in terms of intercessory prayer or some great  "talent" for contemplative prayer or mysticism; too often we collude with these explanations of our vocations despite knowing full well that prayer is always God's gratuitous work within us to which we can only bring our emptiness and incapacity. In my own life one of the most difficult and perennial temptations I face is to shape and even more, to explain my life in terms of active ministry.

Partly I do this because folks can easily understand this dimension of my life, partly it is because what happens in prayer is literally inexplicable and mainly too intimate to talk about in any case. Partly I do it because it is a way of connecting with others, fitting in, being less eccentric in the literal ("out of the center") sense of that term so that others may be comfortable. Partly it is the normal way of answering a friend's question, "What have you been up to?" In other words it is a way of relating to others, establishing common ground --- certainly a good thing of itself. Unfortunately, this can also represent a kind of distortion of my life and it tends to underscore the human tendency to see and justify ourselves (and judge others) in terms of what we do rather than who we are made by God to be --- the very thing hermits do NOT want to do.

So you see, I do understand the pain the hermits you refer to speak of. It is always difficult when we cannot talk about the things which are most important to us, the things from and for which we live, the things which make our lives truly meaningful, the relationship we would most like to share with others and invite them to share in as well. It is especially difficult when those others are our family or those who have no interest in God or what we identify as spirituality. But I also have to take responsibility for some of the continuing mystery (here meant in the sense of obscurity) and lack of understanding of this vocation. I can't simply bemoan that lack, much less blame others; to do that is more likely to be a matter of self pity (that is, a way of saying look how this vocation God has called me to makes me suffer),  or self-aggrandizement (look how special, unique, rare MY vocation is) than it is anything else.

Hermits must know we are the same as others:

Another source of difficulties stems from the related tendency of some hermits and would be hermits to treat everything outside the hermitage door as "the world" and to believe the folks who represent this part of God's creation cannot understand our lives, have nothing in common with us, are simply not spiritual enough, and neither understand the mystical nor the things of God more generally. This form of elitism and denigration is especially to be despised by the hermit. As I have written here a number of times "the world" the hermit is called to stricter separation or withdrawal from is defined as "that which is resistant to Christ". I would add that it is anything which promises fulfillment apart from Christ. Canon 603 requires stricter separation from the physical and social world outside the hermitage more generally, but even more significantly it demands stricter separation from the things which are resistant to Christ (whether or not the term Christ is ever explicitly involved).

This understanding of "the world" monastics or eremites "flee" is critical because if we see it otherwise we at least implicitly deny the deep commonalities shared by every human being, especially the very real and dynamic relationship with God which grounds and makes all authentic human existence a reality. We deny the pervasive spiritual or sacred dimension of all reality and the activity of God appreciated (even anonymously) in transcendent realities like beauty, depth, meaning, truth, love, freedom, etc. Hermits are engaged in the profoundly human and solitary search for meaning and the Source and ground of both being and meaning.

We do that in a focused and relatively stark way. But we do what every person does in the ways they know how. More, we are the search for meaning every person is most fundamentally. To embrace a kind of elitism which divides reality into those who seek God and those who do not falsifies reality --- hardly something a hermit should be guilty of! To sharpen this dichotomous approach by asserting 'they are not even Catholic' is especially shortsighted. It is spiritually shortsighted as well as theologically and humanly naïve. One of the ways Catholicism is a real gift is its sacramental view of all reality. Another is its insistence that every person is profoundly related to God, that God is actively present summoning each person to him/herself, and that these things are true whether or not the word God is ever used.

On the other hand, the hermit is not completely separated from "the world" in another way. "The world" is a reality the hermit carries within her heart; doing so thoughtlessly can make the hermitage itself an outpost of the world rather than of the Kingdom of God. This is especially true if the hermit tries to deny this fact by naïvely labeling everything outside the hermitage door "the world" as though she has simply closed the door on it. I have written about this before so I encourage you to look at those posts. What I may not have noted is that our tendencies to create dualisms like this may stem from our discomfort with the fact that our vocation is a lonely one, almost by definition. A hermit's job, it seems to me is in part to bear witness to the existential solitude we share with every human being. If it becomes a source of self pity, then perhaps we are not called to eremitical solitude. If we regularly find ways to distract ourselves or try to escape it then the conclusion may be the same. If we blame others, label them "the world" in a theologically unnuanced way, subscribe to elitisms that really mean we are generally failing to love everything and everyone in God or see them as God sees them then perhaps we are more at home with isolation than with eremitical solitude.

Trying to Summarize:

How can I bring this all together for you? Some people say hermits never feel lonely. My experience says that a hermit who really loves God and others will feel lonely simply because love cries out to be shared and poured out for and to others. Moreover hermits need community; this does not change because she is called to solitude --- though in my experience the form this community takes is usually one which stresses shared solitude. I have said in the past that loneliness is part of the penitential dimension of eremitical life. I will say now that it is part of the emptiness a hermit is called to embrace for God's own sake. As we bear witness to the completion and fullness of life that is ours in union with God, so too do we bear witness to the fundamental loneliness of the human person this side of eternity. However, in my experience, this has relatively little to do with being misunderstood. On the other hand it can certainly be sharpened by not being or not feeling understood . Misunderstanding, which is something else again, can occur and is often the result of stereotypes being misapplied.

It seems to me that  hermits can minimize such problems by letting folks (fellow parishioners, neighbors of all sorts, etc) know us for who we are. To insist, as some wannabe hermits do, that on those rare occasions when we dine or stay with friends or family for instance, we can only speak of "spiritual things," that we must eat dry bread and boiled lentils (or their stereotypical equivalent) while we don a mask of barely-contained suffering or grim forbearance, is pretense and unChristian pretense at that. To refuse to simply enjoy or delight in the other and listen to them in whatever terms they choose to share themselves, may well be more about playing hermit than being the hermit one truly is (assuming, of course, one really is a hermit in the first place!). In such cases it is the hermit him/herself who is guilty of assuring the vocation will be misunderstood and dismissed as eccentric and irrelevant at best! We may not be able to share the silence of solitude with these people we love nor the deepest and most truly mysterious parts of our lives rooted in that specific silence, but we can show them lives which are essentially loving, joyful, and full. That is, after all, the essential witness we are called to give and the the only thing which will correct any misunderstanding.

***Catechism of the Catholic Church par # 921: "[Hermits] manifest to everyone the interior aspect of the mystery of the Church, that is, personal intimacy with Christ. Hidden from the eyes of men, the life of the hermit is the silent preaching of the Lord, to whom (she) has surrendered (her) life simply because [the Lord] is everything to (her). Her's is the particular call to find in the desert, in the thick of spiritual battle, the glory of the Crucified One."