17 December 2017

Response to Article on Hermits

 Dear Sister, I am sending you the link to an article on contemporary hermits and solitude. A reporter went to talk with hermits whose names came from a newsletter and also from a monk. He visited two hermits and writes about both of them. Over all he was in search of some special wisdom solitude provides and was disappointed by both encounters. One of his summaries of his experience said: [[In other words, if you go into solitude to get away from something, your troubles will probably follow you. This, I suspect, was Virgil’s story. It was probably my own, too, and I returned to the city unhappy that my hermit encounters had not yielded more. To my disappointment, Virgil and Doug had proved all too human.]] I was hoping you would read the article and comment on it. Are these two men typical of hermits? How about diocesan hermits? Have you ever had someone come see how you were living? I don't even know what to ask. Please just comment on the article!! ("This reclusive life: what I learned  about solitude from my time with hermits"  in The Guardian, 6 October, 2017)

Thanks,  your link didn't work for me but I was able to google the article with the information you provided. The article was an interesting one. It sounds like the author made a number of correspondents through Raven's Bread, a longstanding newsletter for hermits, solitaries, and those interested in eremitical life. He notes the contacts he made there didn't lead anywhere so he first contacted Virgil ---   vying now, to my mind anyway, with Tom Leppard as the misanthropy  poster boy. Virgil is a disturbing and problematic stereotype. He is portrayed as an angry, volatile, possibly alcoholic misanthrope. Undoubtedly he did not yield any significant insight or piece of eremitical wisdom because his solitude was a matter of self-indulgent escape, nothing more. Solitude, as Merton might have said, had apparently not opened her door to him and for that reason the wisdom of solitude is not really accessible to him. There are other ways of saying that, but I think this is the most general and least personal since I do not know the man.

Doug sounded like both a nice and a lonely guy. I tend to believe the monk who characterized him as "the real deal."  Doug had his problems (possibly some form of ADHD) but solitude seems to be or have been an environment that suited him. The author may or may not have understood vocations to solitude; whether or not he did is unclear to me. What seems clear is that Doug's conversations with Saints, et al, made the author of the article believe solitude was harmful in Doug's case. After summarizing his contact with Doug the article starts to focus more completely on the destructive capacity of solitude. I wonder if this was not the cynical backstory which presupposed the author seeking out and speaking with contemporary hermits at all. Whether I am correct in that I do conclude he misunderstood the way he translated the following saying from the desert Fathers and Mothers: [[It is better to live among the crowd and keep a solitary life in your spirit than to live alone with your heart in the crowd.]]

As you note in your question, the authors says [[In other words, if you go into solitude to get away from something, your troubles will probably follow you.]] But the saying really means, if one is called to solitude and cannot live that out in physical solitude, it is better to live an inner solitude of the heart in the midst of the crowd than it is  to live alone when one's heart is somewhere else. Hermits, as the Church uses the term, are people whose hearts are made whole and full of life in physical and inner solitude. For one called to be a hermit it might still be necessary to live in a physically crowded situation like a city, but even then this person can cultivate a solitude of the heart which will be life giving. They will be in far better condition than the one who tries to live as a hermit when s/he is not called to it. Yes, one not called to live eremitical solitude might well be running from something when s/he moves into the desert, but this is not the only possible reason one turns to solitude when one is not called to it. In any case I think the article got the point of the desert apothegm wrong.

Also, the author reveals the real reason he is disappointed in these two hermits, namely, [[Virgil and Doug had proved too human"! I wish he had said too fallible or too hung up, or something similar. If one is looking for hermits to be anything more than entirely and radically human, then one is looking in the wrong place. The desert does not create angels. It creates (or destroys) human beings.

For those to whom solitude opens her door, solitude creates radically whole and holy human beings, human beings significantly marked and measured by compassion and love, persons who are attuned to mystery and the transcendent but who, for this very reason, are empowered to live as embodied spirit in the present moment. Hermits are profoundly human because they live from and for a dialogue or conversation with God who makes us human. This is true for any human person to the extent they are truly and fully human. That dialogue might be mediated in many many ways and God might be met in/and as truth, beauty, meaning, justice, future, depth, etc. but again, human beings are human to the extent they exist in dialogue with and are completed by God. The wisdom of solitude is always some form of this conclusion and the way solitude empowers this dialogue.

Have I ever had someone come to see how I was living? Beside the Vicar for Religious who visited regularly when I was first becoming a diocesan hermit and my own director (delegate) and pastor, no I haven't. I have been interviewed here twice, once for a local newspaper and once for a student's doctoral dissertation. A couple of other things including a podcast for A Nun's Life were done by phone or by skype.

In the main it is impractical to have someone come here to "see how I live." My hermitage is small and there is not much to see and no way to accommodate overnight guests. I have had a couple of lay persons who wanted to come and see "how I live" but what could I show them? How I pray? How I read or study? How I meet with clients, etc? How I do chores, cook dinner, wash the dishes? I think you get the picture. Life here in Stillsong is extraordinary but it is extraordinary because of the God that transfigures it with his grace; otherwise it is extremely ordinary and there is simply not much to see! Like Doug and Virgil I am all too human and if someone came here looking to find some extraordinary insight and wisdom or evidence of extraordinary prayer experiences, I would have to think they would be disappointed --- just as they might be disappointed by the incarnation and a God who chooses to come to us in the ordinary.

By the way, I don't think either man in the article is typical of the diocesan hermit because diocesan hermits live eremitical solitude in the name of the Church and for the sake of others. I did not get the impression from either Doug or Virgil that they had a sense of living solitude for the sake of others. This is an important dimension of every canonical (Catholic) hermit's life and motivation.