04 May 2016

Developing the Heart of a Hermit


[[Hi Sister, when you write about having the heart of a hermit and moving from isolation to solitude do you mean that someone comes to this through some form of trauma or serious personal wounding and alienation? Is this necessary? Can a person who has never been hurt or broken develop the "heart of a hermit"?]]

Hi and thanks for your questions. When I think of someone with the heart of a hermit I am thinking of someone who has entered a desert, been emptied in all the ways a desert does, and learned to depend upon God for her very life as well as for the meaning of that life. When I speak of God I mean what the Christian creeds mean, what the NT means and who Jesus reveals, but I also mean being dependent on the One Tillich called the "Ground of Being and Meaning", namely a transcendent ground which both surpasses and comprehends our own emptiness and incapacities and is the source and guarantor of life and meaning.

When I speak of a desert I mean the literal wilder-nesses we know as deserts (the Thebaid, Scetes, Mojave, Sonoran, Sahara, etc), but I also mean any extended situation which demands  or forces a person to plumb the depths of their own personal resources --- courage, intelligence, creativity, sense of security, personal  gifts and talents, sense of self, faith, hope, love, etc --- all the things we need to negotiate the world fruitfully and independently. In such a situation, which may certainly include childhood traumatic situations, a person brings all they have and know to the situation and over time are emptied or reach the limit of these resources. At the same time one can, and hopefully will, experience a sense of empowerment one knows comes from beyond themselves, sometimes radically so. When this happens such a person continues to live with a fresh courage and sense of meaning and hope. They embrace their own weakness honestly as they humbly and gratefully accept the life which is received as complete gift in such situations.

All kinds of situations result in "desert experiences." Chronic illness, bereavement, negligent and abusive family life, bullying, losses of employment and residence, abandonment, divorce, war, imprisonment, insecure identity (orphans, etc), serious poverty, and many others may be classified this way. Typically such experiences distance, separate, and even alienate us from others (e.g., ties with civil society, our normal circle of friends and the rhythms of life we are so used to are disrupted and sometimes lost entirely); too they throw us back upon other resources, and eventually require experiences of transcendence --- the discovery of or tapping into new and greater resources which bring us beyond the place of radical emptiness and  helplessness to one of consolation and communion. The ultimate (and only ultimately sufficient) source of transcendence is God and it is the experience of this originating and sustaining One who is Love in Act that transforms our isolation into the communion we know as solitude.

Thus, my tendency is to answer your question about the possibility of devel-oping the heart of a hermit without experiences of loss, trauma, or brokenness in the negative. These experiences open us to the Transcendent and, in some unique ways, are necessary for this. Remember that sinfulness itself is an experience of estrangement and brokenness so this too would qualify if one underwent a period of formation where one met one's own sinfulness in a sufficiently radical way. Remember too that the hermit vocation is generally seen as a "second half of life" vocation; the need that one experiences this crucial combination of radical brokenness and similar transcendence and healing is very likely part of the reason behind this bit of common wisdom.

In any case, the heart of a hermit is created when a person living a desert experience also learns to open themselves to God and to live in dependence on God in a more or less solitary context. One need not become a hermit to have the heart of a hermit and not all those with such hearts become hermits in a formal, much less a canonical way. In the book Journeys into Emptiness (cf.,illustration above), the Zen Buddhist Master Dogen, Roman Catholic Monk Thomas Merton, and Depth Psychologist Carl Jung all developed such hearts. Only one lived as a hermit --- though both Dogen and Merton were monks.

As I understand and use the term these are the hearts of persons irrevocably marked by the experience and threat of emptiness as well as by the healing (or relative wholeness) achieved in solitary experiences of transcendence and who are now not only loving individuals but are persons who are comfortable and  (often immensely) creative in solitude. They are persons who have experienced in a radical way and even can be said to have "become" the question of meaning and found in the Transcendent the only Answer which truly completes and transforms them. In a Farewell to Arms, Hemingway said it this way, [[The World breaks everyone and then some become strong in the broken places.]] The Apostle Paul said it this way (when applied to human beings generally), "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is perfected in weakness."

Hermit hearts are created when, in a radical experience of weakness, need, yearning, and even profound doubt that will mark her for the rest of her life,  she is also transfigured by an experience of God's abiding presence. A recognition of the nature of the hermit's heart is what drives my insistence that the Silence of Solitude is the goal and gift (charism) of eremitical life; it is also the basis for the claim that there must be an experience of redemption at the heart of the discernment, profession, and consecration of any canonical hermit. While she in no way denies the importance of others who can and do mediate this same presence in our world, the hermit gives herself to the One who alone can make her whole and holy. She seeks and seeks to witness to the One who has already "found" her in the wilderness and found her in a way that reveals the truth that "God alone is enough" for us.