Last Monday's gospel lection was, I believe, one of the pivotal texts which explain and ground the hermit's esteem for and paradoxical sense of having a call to both solitude and hospitality. It also serves as an illustration of every Christian's need to ground ministry in prayer including solitary prayer and to allow prayer to overflow in active ministry which is a gift of self to all. The text was Matthew's story where Jesus, upon hearing of the death of John the Baptist, retires to the desert to be alone with God. He is pursued by hungry crowds --- hungry on so many levels; he is moved by pity for their needs and ministers to them. Eventually his disciples approach, remind him of the coming darkness and ask Jesus to "dismiss" the crowds so they may return to the village to obtain food for supper. Jesus says there is no need to dismiss them and asks his disciples to bring the scant provisions they have on hand to him. What follows is a Eucharistic meal. Christ feeds the crowds with bread and fishes he multiplies, but he also very clearly feeds them with himself --- abundantly; he pours himself out in this way and gives the gift of himself and the fruits of his relationship with God even when his own need for solitude (time with his Abba) may have been primary.
While Jesus' grief may have been a significant part of his turn to solitude (the texts don't actually indicate this) the evangelist clearly wants us to see this time as another instance in which Jesus' own call to minister --- to be emptied of self, to be broken open and to pour himself out for others as an expression of his unique relationship with his Father --- is discerned and acted out in the world without hesitation. For hermits for whom the demands of solitude and hospitality are inextricably wed, this lection is both encouraging and quite challenging; though they must both be observed and cannot easily be teased apart, in this lection hospitality (or active ministry) assumes apparent priority over solitude. What I think we must see, however, is that Jesus' solitary suffering (grief, loneliness) and relationship with his Father (prayer) together bring him to a compassion which is the basis of his entire ministry. It is the foundation of his complete gift of self to and for the world given without conditions or limits while it also defines the very character of this ministry. Matthew says Jesus is moved by pity for the needs of these others. At the heart of everything Jesus is and does is a compassionate, other-centered drive to mercy -- a mercy which is from and of God.
Solitude Empowers Our Paradoxical Gift of Self::
Authentic solitude empowers a kind of presence, an openness to others and their needs which our own needs do not impede much less dictate. In other words it empowers an other-centeredness which welcomes on their own terms those who come to us seeking "a word". Eremitical solitude is the context for listening and thus welcoming with one's heart. It empowers this and, at least for a time, allows one to set one's own needs and concerns aside in order to listen carefully to the mind and heart of the other who has sought us out. It is only when one has really heard these others that one can respond in a way which is truly inspired. More, really hearing the other IS the inspired response. In the literature of the Desert Fathers and Mothers hermits visited their elders in search of "a Word". What they were in search of though is not some abstract bit of eremitical wisdom, not necessarily what is most important to the elder, for instance, or the insight or principle s/he most treasures or is known for; instead they seek an answer to the questions or yearnings of their own hearts and the elder draws on his or her own experience to provide just the right "Word". "The Word" is a symbol of the seeker being truly heard.
But here is where is gets a little tricky too. Solitude prepares one to give oneself in an openness which is capable of embracing and holding the needs and even the very self of the other --- and quite often this embracing or holding (as noted with hearing above) IS the very thing the person seeking one out really needs. It is incredibly paradoxical that a hermit's solitude (time alone with God for the sake of others) prepares and even calls for hospitality --- especially such a radical hospitality --- but that is the truth which hermits have seen from the very first moment they sought God in the wilderness. When, for instance, we spend time in quiet prayer we open ourselves to God in a way which allows him free reign (and free rein!). In my own prayer I empty myself of discrete expectations, specific desires, wishes, and even hopes, and simply give over my heart and mind to God to dwell in (to know!) and to touch in whatever way God wills. This means he will plumb the depths of every thought, desire, wish, yearning, impulse, and hope I have, every potentiality, every fear and defense, every openness to life or obstacle to it. I pour out my mind and heart to God by emptying myself of these as things I ordinarily grasp so that God himself can explore and embrace them even more exhaustively with his love and mercy. I let go of these individual realities so that God may grasp and transform me. And so it is with hospitality.
When someone seeks me out they are rarely really looking for the "diocesan hermit" or the "theologian" or even the "spiritual director" --- though all of these dimensions of myself may be of help in one way and another and may also be the ostensible reason someone comes to me. Most fundamentally though they are looking for the person who may also BE these things. What I also mean in saying this is that they are not primarily seeking me out for MY sake --- so that I may BE a diocesan hermit or theologian or spiritual director, etc. They are seeking me out so that THEY may BE themselves. They are seeking a place, a sacred space created not only by the hermitage's silence but more especially by a heart and mind that are open to them and to all they need, yearn and hope for. They are seeking me out in the hope that I can truly set myself aside for the time being and make them "at home." And some hermits or directors or other ministers may forget this; it is a tragic error when they do.
Monday's Gospel Text Again:
So Jesus went apart to spend time with his Abba and people sought him out; Jesus, moved with pity, ministered to them. These two impulses, to solitude and to hospitality are inextricably related in Jesus' life and in the life of contemporary hermits --- just as they are in the great commandment. Are there dangers to be avoided, confusions and misunderstandings which are common and must be corrected or avoided? Yes, absolutely --- and it is important for hermits to live disciplined lives while reflecting on and sometimes even writing about these. But solitude and hospitality are two sides of the same coin and we never have one without the other. Nor can one hand another person only one side of a coin. It is the whole coin or it is nothing at all. Recently I read a blog post which said essentially: [[ If the folks who turn to me, even those who are concerned with how I myself am doing, don't want to hear a message from a hermit about Christianity or the spiritual insights I have gleaned from my mystical experiences, then let them leave me alone!]]
But the truth is if we are truly hermits (or contemplatives or Christians of whatever stripe or role) then, relatively rare though these encounters may be, it is in meeting us as persons healed and enlivened by a love which makes us truly open and vulnerable that another will meet and hear God in us, not in lectures, or "edifying accounts of mystical experiences" or a litany of spiritual principles and lessons gleaned in a selfish solitude. We meet God in the silence of solitude so that others may meet God in and through us. Even more, we meet God in the silence of solitude so that we may ALSO clearly recognize and reveal God in the other who needs us to do this. It is not the easy way; it is personally costly and thus it is neither bloodless nor without risk, but it is the way of Jesus, and the way of both monastic and eremitical solitude and hospitality.