10 September 2015

"Stay Quiet All Day, Say a Couple Prayers . . ."

[[[[ Otherwise, I think it could become a very self-indulgent life style (i.e. Stay quiet all day, say a couple prayers, meditate, do a little gardening or something...sounds nice...nothing wrong with it...but certainly not that big of a deal)]]]]


I cut this from an earlier post for special attention because it so irritated me. That was because it was the description of an eremitical life by a person who is seeking to become a hermit and one day, even a consecrated hermit. It was a bit surprising to hear the description of the externals of a life in cell as "nice,. . .nothing wrong with it. . .but certainly not that big of a deal" unless one were to add certain "heroic elements" or mortifications! Though I wrote recently about folks not understanding and sometimes misunderstanding the eremitical life I did not mention this prevalent source of misunderstanding, namely that the hermit life is merely one of leisure, saying a few prayers, doing a little work around the place, some gardening, etc. unless one adds in extra mortifications and prayers to make the vocation more "heroic" and to distinguish it from the life of the devout lay person.

I suppose it is easy for outsiders to see monastic or eremitical life in these terms. It is also easy to find would-be hermits who are about this kind of thing but are not fully committed to allowing God to be God in all of their life's moments and moods. (I suspect this distortion of the life may have been part of the reason the poster described the life in these terms.) Once we forget the deeper God-centered commitment involved in eremitical life our days DO become self-indulgent. And of course it is not only hermits who might do such forgetting; it is those who look on the life from the outside sometimes including Bishops and their curia. The solution, I believe, has often been the piling on of prayers or forms of mortification so the hermit has something to point to, something which can be seen or imitated, something which transforms the vocation from one of being prayer to one of an incessant saying of prayers. Unfortunately, the heart of the vocation is also missed by  insiders as well as outsiders.

The Silence of Solitude:

Because this is so, the way the sentence was phrased and contextualized really rankled. For instance, to reduce "the silence of solitude" to staying quiet all day" was especially difficult for me personally. A couple of Friday's ago I did a Communion service for about 24 people. Before we began I asked if we could sit in silence for a few minutes. The chapel got very quiet, then silent, then (more or less) reached a point of truly shared silence followed by a moment where silence itself was inviting us to allow it to take over the hearts and minds of the group even more fully. There was a weight to the silence as we moved through quiet to silence to shared silence. It pressed against us, and there was a pretty universal sense that everyone had joined in this and had let go of their anxiety.  I stopped to begin the service at that point. It is a rare experience, I think, to find people experiencing shared silence in a parish setting not dedicated to centering prayer or something similar, for instance. In any case, this deeper silence where Silence itself surrounds and penetrates one's heart and mind, where it takes hold of us from some deep place, where God and oneself meet in this hesychasm or quies is the characteristic depth dimension of the silence of solitude spoken of by canon 603. It is as far removed from simply "staying quiet all day" as grape Koolade is to fine wine.

Now, not every moment in a hermitage evidences this intensity of silence (or more intense ones!), but neither are these merely occasional experiences for the hermit. They are common in and characteristic of the first few hours of the day (hours of vigil), common in night watches and quiet prayer, common (though less profound) even in meals taken slowly as one watches the birds or squirrels or deer, and they carry over into and empower the other daily activities. The point is, however, that this Silence requires a submission of self, a giving over of oneself to the God who is the silent ground of reality and desires to grasp us completely and take us into "himself". There was a point during Friday's brief silence that could easily have been broken by someone's anxiety, coughing, shifting in their place, sighing, or other signs that this intensity of silence is unsettling, unfamiliar, or even frightening and is being resisted.That is because people are unfamiliar with this degree of silence, yes, but I think it is also because they sense it is something huge and alive, and far beyond their control, something (or someone!) living that they must give themselves over to or move away from. On this morning in our chapel everyone surrendered to this Silence for a brief time and the result was a shared silence whose first step only was "keeping quiet".

What folks began to experience as they gave themselves over to the silence was what Father Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam, refers to as the meeting of two freedoms, that of the human person and that of God. The deeper the silence the greater the degree of or capacity for freedom. It is what I have often referred to as the charism of canon 603 life: the silence of solitude. This is not only the general environment of the hermitage, it is the goal of the eremitical life and the gift hermits bring to a world of noise, isolation, chaos and estrangement from self, from God, and from others. This communion of two freedoms is the very essence of authentic humanity but opening ourselves to it takes a lot of work as well as self-emptying and the trust we know as faith. The silence it requires from us is not simply the silence of external or physical quiet but the stilling of the voices within us which cry out in insecurity, fear, or self-assertion and even in a hungry grasping for power, prestige, success, and so forth. It is the silence of submission to the sovereignty, mercy, and love of God when we simply rest in "him"; similarly it is the silence of humility we come to know when the gaze of God reveals and communicates a dignity we scarcely imagined we possessed or were called to.

Say a Couple Prayers, Meditate, do a little gardening or something:

The difference between a life of prayer and a series of days where we, "say a couple of prayers" is as great as the difference between "staying quiet all day" and the silence of solitude. No true hermit understands her life as being merely about the saying of prayers. No authentic canon 603 hermit thinks of the requirement of "assiduous prayer and penance" as meaning "merely saying some (or a lot of!) prayers and doing forms of penance". Instead the combination of these two terms signifies a profoundly ordered life focused at every point on allowing God to work in her and take her into himself. As already noted this means doing penance and saying prayers, but even more it means ordering our activities, our choices, our relationships in the ways necessary so that we might become God's own prayer in our world. The difference between a life of prayer, a life where we are made prayer, and a life where each day we "say a couple of prayers" is immense. It might be compared to the difference between a five year old molding clay and a Michelangelo freeing David from the marble.

The primary forms of penance for the hermit are silence, solitude,  and custody of the cell. Custody of the cell includes sitting and waiting on/for God as well as all of the disciplines associated with living well in this place. That means physical and intellectual work, rest, recreation, meals, and so forth all given over to God and lived in a way which allows God to pervade them with his life and love. It is an intense life but, yes, as I said a couple of times in my earlier post, that absolutely also means leisure, namely that which monks and nuns refer to as "holy leisure."  What a life that is lived for the service of God in prayer, silence, solitude --- and the penance associated with these --- actually looks like may well appear to outsiders as one of a few prayer periods, a little meditation, and a bit of gardening or other manual labor. This is especially true given the frantic busyness and unbalanced workaholism which characterizes so much of life in the world outside the hermitage or monastery. But to mistake the nature of the life and to characterize it this way is a serious misreading. It forgets that the heart of the eremitical life is truly "hidden from the eyes of men", that it occurs in the hiddenness of the individual's heart, in the hiddenness of the cell, in the hiddenness of a life wrapped in the Silent heart of God.

It is a bit like describing the work of healing an injured heart as something the surgeon does with his active intervention while the patient's own body does nothing at all. The interventions of the surgeon may repair valves and injuries, but they also wound and tear down as they produce the necessary conditions needed for healing to take over. Real healing happens in  times of leisure. It happens when one rests, eats well (and simply), and generally takes good care of oneself.  Similarly, seeds grow in the night and darkness while the farmer sleeps. Orderly, regular work and attention is necessary for the planting of the seeds, but leisure is also necessary; otherwise the seeds will never germinate or the plants grow to maturity. Again, eremitical life is more fundamentally about being and becoming than it is about doing. And this, in turn, is about allowing God the space and time to love us into wholeness when we can do relatively little to achieve such wholeness on our own. To some extent we provide the conditions necessary for receiving this love, for entertaining it and being nourished and transfigured by it. If the relative leisure and balance of such a life looks little like the muscular and sadly aggressive asceticism of some past times or the similarly driven lives of those who can simply never be still, silent, or marked by a patient receptiveness and waiting, then so be it!

Nothing Wrong With That:

But of course, if an eremitical life does look like this poster described in the sentence provided, then either it is what God calls one to or it is not. If it is what God calls one to then why would we want to add "heroic" mortifications and entirely change the character of the life? If it is not what God calls one to, then how can we say, "Nothing wrong with that"? The point of the original sentence was a comparison: "That's okay for a devout lay person but not for a hermit!"  I am convinced such comparisons are specious. More importantly, they are measuring reality in the wrong terms, namely, in terms of what can be seen and quantified. But in terms of a life lived in communion with God often the only thing we might see as meaningful here is the person's growth in wholeness and holiness: are they more truly human, more compassionate, more generous and loving, more joyful and at peace or are they not?  While these things are recognizable they are not really measurable or quantifiable.

Again, there are fraudulent hermits out there. If we look at the externals of their lives they may look very like those of authentic hermits. (In fact, despite outward appearances, they may simply be laying about all day or they may even be all about harsh penances, overburdening physical labor, a focus on nonstop suffering, and endless prayers where God is never given a moment's time or space to break into or expand his presence in the person's heart and life; thus these latter persons might end up looking like they are some kind of Über-hermit or something!) Such lives, both those of  layabouts and those of  Über-hermits  are indeed self-indulgent and the original poster is rightly concerned! This is one of the reasons discernment is sometimes difficult and takes time.

Assuming we are not speaking about someone who is simply not praying, not working at all, not maintaining silence or living in solitude, the fruit of the life is measured, not merely or even mainly in terms of externals (of course fidelity to one's Rule is essential), but in terms of personal growth, growth in compassion, in the capacity to love others, as well as growth in patience and openness to the presence of God who comes to us in the most ordinary things. Again, assuming one's Rule is built around c 603's central elements and one is faithful to that Rule, only in the presence of these latter "fruit" can the person living as a hermit claim to be doing as God wills --- and that, of course, is the bottom line in gauging the quality of any eremitical life.

P.S., I wanted to thank the author of the post cited here. He asks great questions and I count on him adding something to this blog on a pretty regular basis. He wrote to apologize for irritating me and hoped he had not really offended me. I reassured him in response and do so here as well that the irritation is/was my problem not his. Also if I did not respect and trust him and his questions I would have needed to pull more punches than I did with this answer. Meanwhile this questioner uncovered a really significant misunderstanding of monastic and eremitical life I had not mentioned earlier. Again, he has my thanks!