22 March 2017

"His Closest Companion may Have Been a Mushroom"

[[His closest companion may have been a mushroom.]] No, this is not about drugs or someone who depends on 'shrooms'! Last week while in Tahoe a friend (Brother Rex Norris, another diocesan hermit but of the Diocese of Portland, ME) sent me a link to an interview with Michael Finkel, author of The Stranger in the Woods, a book about the hermit who lived in the woods in Maine for almost three decades and who survived by stealing what he needed to eat, stay warm and clad, etc. Bro Rex and I have talked  a bit about this "hermit" before (when he was arrested), but he's particularly neuralgic for Rex who is one of several solitary Catholic Hermits in Maine and who, therefore, is responsible not only for living this vocation in the name of the Church, but for countering stereotypes and misconceptions with his own life --- something Christopher Knight and Michael Finkel have made profoundly more difficult in that locale and now more broadly.

After listening to the interview I decided to download the book to my Kindle and spent whatever free time I had reading it. Finkel contends that Christopher Knight is "the last true hermit," a bit of hyperbole that sets my teeth on edge like a lot else in this book. Finkel even makes this part of the book's subtitle. Of course it is impossible not to measure my life or that defined by c 603 against that of Knight's but this morning before Sister Sue and I packed up and returned home to the Bay Area, I read the sentence which may summarize all of the vast differences between my life as a solitary Catholic Hermit and the eremitical life of Christopher Knight; it is perhaps the most pathetic sentence I have ever read, namely, [[His closest companion may have been a mushroom.]]

I had been reflecting on why Knight lived as he had. I considered what my own life would be like without the profound sense of purpose and mission the Church has bestowed or confirmed with profession and consecration, or why I struggle to understand, embody, and even write about the values codified in canon law like "stricter separation from the world" or "the silence of solitude", or in the CCC when it speaks of the hiddenness of this vocation. What would it be like to have no intimate relationship with God, no sense that God and I are engaged in a marvelous project identified with the coming of (his) Kingdom, no actual sense of the dignity of my life as a proclamation of the Gospel of God's unceasing, entirely gracious love, and no ecclesial rights or obligations which both challenge, awe, and delight me?

What would it be like to have no commitment to fullness of life and be driven merely by a need to survive, to have no director or delegate who challenged me to be and become myself or who help me work towards wholeness or holiness, no parish community to serve or to hold and to hold me in prayer even in my solitude, no Sisters (even when I rarely see them!) to share vows and values with? What would it be like if the hiddenness of my life was a matter of running and ducking and studiously avoiding contact or engagement with others rather than a matter of being motivated by love; what if it was about treating others as threats rather than about doing things in and through God and living as a Sister to all --- one who embraces eremitical solitude on behalf of others? In short, what would it be like to be completely alone, rootless, escapist, and entirely self-centered rather than living a purposeful solitude that is a unique expression of redemption and ecclesial community? To be frank, I guess it might well be like Christopher Knight's life in the woods of Maine where "his closest companion may have been a mushroom."

When Michael Finkel begins looking into Christopher Knight's move to physical solitude he looked at Knight's family and noted that they are, in Knight's own words, "obsessed with privacy". He then writes, [[One's desire to be alone, biologists have found,  is partially genetic and to some degree measurable. If you have low levels of the pituitary peptide oxytocin --- sometimes called the master chemical of sociability --- and high concentrations of the hormone vassopressin, which may suppress your need for affection, you tend to require fewer interpersonal relationships.]] Finkel follows this by citing a fairly classic contemporary work on loneliness by John Cacioppo, [[Each of us inherits from our parents a certain level of need  for social inclusion.]] Then, after citing Cacioppo's observation that everuone naturally possesses a [[genetic thermostat for connection]] Finkel notes that Christopher Knight's must be set near absolute zero. Everything about Knight's' schooling, family life, etc supports this conclusion. Because the answer to the question, "Why?" --- why did Christopher Knight leave everything and everyone behind and seek to isolate himself as completely as possible, even to the point of stealing routinely to support his isolation and never even informing those who loved him that he was alive --- this question is one Finkel never really answers (or can answer) except in these terms: a genetic and chemical basis.

I do not intend this post as a review of the book itself nor do I have time to look at it in detail right now; this is a start and I will return to it and post about it from time to time because of its subject matter. Not least I will do that because although over the period of a year or so Finkel read or read from many of the standard books on solitude, aloneness, anchoritism, the history and writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, eremitism, etc., and claims to have extensively perused "Hermitary" --- the most comprehensive online source of information on eremitical life and hermits  (though Finkel was never allowed to join the online group which is reserved for actual hermits --- something which seems to have stung a little) he continues to hang onto stereotypical notions of the hermit life and sees Knight as the paradigm of true and "fervent"  eremitical life.

More unfortunately, Finkel also characterizes what he calls the "pilgrim" category of hermit as those "living beholden to a higher power" and sees anchorites as assisting people "who see speaking with a sympathetic anchorite could be more soothing than praying to a remote and unflinching God." When these characterizations are combined with other references to religious hermits it is hard not to hear them as cynical rather than interested in the phenomenon of eremitical solitude per se. In any case I will return from time to time to post about this book because I believe it fails to appreciate solitude  even as it is presented in the books and websites Finkel cites or claims to have read while it fosters a destructive and (especially in this case!) pathological stereotype.

Above all in my estimation, Finkel fails to distinguish between isolation and solitude and judges the nature of the hermit solely on the degree of isolation, physical solitude, or seclusion evident in her/his life. In part  this is a failure to truly appreciate the call to personhood experienced in and represented by eremitical solitude and thus, the very real communal nature of  the rare call to eremitical solitude. In part it involves a na├»ve use of the term "the world" as meaning anything and anyone except the hermit per se along with the conflation of eremitical solitude with misanthropy (the one thing Knight seems most fervent about) ---misunderstandings which allow Finkel to regard Knight as dwelling in true eremitical solitude despite his living close enough to others that his sneezes could have been heard by them and despite his insistence on taking care of himself by thieving whatever he needed ---  instances of relatedness to others which, in either case, are hardly examples of the freedom of eremitical solitude. In some paradoxical ways, not least his consistent drive to escape others while robbing them, Knight is more pervasively related to and defined by others than most legitimate hermits. This entire vision of eremitical life can, again, be summed up with that most pathetic sentence: [[(Knight's) closest companion may have been a mushroom.]] I am sincerely thankful it is not the vocation to which I have been called by God or entrusted with by the Church and I hope the influence of this sad image of eremitical life is less than I fear!