A Study of the Lifestyle and Maturity of Hermits and People who Live in Solitude – Part 2
Joseph Randolph Bowers, PhD
This paper continues the discussion on the qualities of personhood that are found to be in those who live an eremitic lifestyle and vocation.
In the previous section, we examined the eight qualities or dimensions of the solitary life, and how they appear to develop over time. We took a developmental socio-psychology perspective. We combined this with spiritual and theological insights, deepening the discussion with perspectives from ‘inside’ the eremitic vocation, as it were.
The author suggests that the solitary life is studied as a generalised human phenomena that appears to be lived by secular people, people who are fully dedicated for reasons of disposition or beliefs, and people who are laity within Christian and other religious traditions, as well as those who identify as formal members of Christian traditions that support a solitary vocation.
This confirms my observations that solitude, aloneness, and living alone in the world, are all common human experiences. I notice that the post on those who live alone in the world has been quite popular. Ironic that cultures and societies pay little heed to this form of life (by comparison to other vocations like marriage, family life, religious life, priesthood, sisterhood, etc…). Society and western religions generally provide little advice and guidance to those living this life. I’m not so sure the same holds true in eastern cultures, where there appears, from a western view at least, to be a rich tradition and everyday presence of people living and seeking the solitude of the desert. Perhaps the issue is more to do with modernity, and how technology and communications systems challenge traditional culture, irrespective of east or west.
Perhaps this lack of ‘focus’ or ‘attention’ is par for the course in a largely secular environment. Where faith gets little air time, naturally deeper forms of spirituality may go unmentioned. The lack of attention may characterise an important aspect of this path. To go to the margins means leaving the busy focus of everyday life. You have to figure it out largely on your own.
Coming to terms, itself, is a process that relies on personal commitment, a bit of sheer dumb luck, and heaps of patience and endurance. A person who seeks solitude needs to be motivated internally. No one else will be sticking around to help when things get boring and tedious. When others do stick, normally they bring their own baggage along, and change the dynamic enough that it becomes less about the one seeking solitude, and more about how to manage with regular interaction in community. A solitary has to decide, how much will I engage? Is this call about being alone, or about being alone-with-others? The basic answers to these questions determine much that follows. And there is no right or wrong answer, only the surrender of the heart to God in this now, and doing the best we can with what we have.
Solitude in world as laity
With a great deal of respect for western mystical and Catholic traditions, today there is a sense that all vocations arise within the context of family life and in society. In many places, especially in rural areas, we no longer have religious and consecrated members of the Church living in the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The western Church is living now in a form of spiritual and communal poverty. There is no doubt that western secular societies are now missionary territories, where life has become so secular that being religious appears different and out of place. In this context, there is either a growing appreciation for the powerful role and call of laity, or there is less and less of the Catholic way of life in local societies.
From this perspective, as someone who has been called to live as laity most of my life, the qualities and dimensions of living eremitic values in the midst of the world come alongside with the struggles, joys, fears, shortcomings, humanity, and humility of spiritual life in the secular world. Jesus is still the model for this life, as by his joyful submission to the Father through obedience, he gave his life for us, even unto the Cross. This sacrifice of himself for our sake forms the basis, process, and summit of living a vowed life in the world. Like Jesus, we risk living in the midst of other people who may have no idea about the spiritual values that a religious-minded Catholic carries around within our person. Grappling with all the issues that the secular world presents, in relation to work, career, profession, and the contrary values inherent in the daily exchange within relationships with colleagues and friends, makes living a consecrated life a very challenging and often difficult commitment to maintain.
As a lay solitary, I can agree with the author that the Catholic tradition challenges lay people to ‘authenticate’ our form of life. If not called to marriage and family life, and not called to religious vocation or priesthood, then what else is there? During an era when the Church is struggling in new birth pains to bring to life new forms of holy living, many people are left without a place to call home. Naturally, this makes us cling ever more to the basic symbols and practices of the tradition.
In many ways, not being a religious gives a different perspective on life, society, and Church. Living apart from existing religious orders of brothers and sisters may lead lay people who are called to a deeper commitment to a vowed life with a pervasive sense of the desert of exile. Even while Holy Mother Church celebrates these forms of life, without a ready made structure for discernment and entry into these life-ways, people are left to sift and sort through many year of potential confusion and conflicting information.
It stands to reason that those seeking a sacred way of life carry the most basic questions about the validity and nature of their privately living out the evangelical counsels. Few appear to reach a place of accessing valuable paths such as third orders and fraternities of spiritual life for laity. Perhaps the Church can do a better job at supporting and promoting these organisations of laity.
Having lived with these questions for nearly three decades, the foundational values of our life in faith provide the only viable means to live within the secular world. Lay people need a source of inner strength. We need a depth of spirituality that is authentic and integral to growth, to nurturing our gaze upon the Crucified Embrace, even as much as the power of this gaze is contrary to daily secular existence. We laity need, in desperation, a deeply eremitic path, a contemplative life that can sustain our weary and endless working in the world.
Seeking a place
So easily we can view ourselves as ‘quasi-religious,’ in the sense that we are not religious, but we are also not secular. We live in between two states, and thus never put down roots. We are transplanted into a space of other, given to nothing, and yet embraced by a Lord of Knightly Poverty and Passion. That is, how easy to fall into the temptation of feeling like a quasi-Franciscan brother. A wanna-be, who never was, and may never be. A person whose path is undefined and untested, and yet, every moment of every day, for decades that test was impressed on the heart and body. To live this way is not easy when living on your own. We can agree that spiritual life and vocation is not so much a state of life attained, as vocation is a process by which a person is fired like clay in the red hot embers of uncertainty. Laity called to spiritual life in the evangelical counsels may always feel ‘out of place,’ or more apt still, seeking a place, in the Church and ‘in the world.’
My suggestion is to allow this endless quest for Knightly Service to sway us toward the Divine Mercy. To allow the question to take possession of our heart only when this brings us to our knees, and then to prostrate before the majesty of Jesus crucified and risen. Jesus extending arms of welcome. Not giving us answers or a form of life that is arbitrary or preordained. Jesus gives us a form of life that is unique to our lives, fit just for each one. Living in the question provides a path, in and of itself. This too leads through winding paths, along the via negativa, to a similar goal. Holiness. Surrender. Penitence. Mercy.
We need to agree that seeking a place is an important reframe of the notion of being ‘out of place.’ One sees the problem. The other sees a solution. One stays with the questions, while the other lives authentically within the questions, allowing them to become embraced by a deeper practice. The meditation, attentiveness, mindfulness, and contemplative commitment within this life of solitude tends to change a person over the years.
Reasons for our way of life
There must be a reason why we live alone in the world, day after day, night after night. How to sustain this life? Even if that began for the sake of peace of mind or convenience, this question remains perhaps the most significant existential question that will either lead to ongoing solitude and an integrated personality, or to ongoing solitude and a disintegration of personality, or to the disintegration of solitude and the ending of solitary life, and perhaps ultimately to madness, which can happen within or outside of solitary existence. Under the million dollar question is the poverty of the heart. Here we get to why a person wants this life. What is this really about? And what do we really seek, and need, as basic to our humanity?
That is, for the person committed to doing more than just living alone, the practice necessarily includes growth, change, and discipline of self, towards becoming a more loving, more compassionate, and more grace-filled person. If these values are not present, we have to observe what motivates the life, and what utility these values have? We can at least respect the decision, self-informed, as it were, of the solitary to live this life as they choose. But the path of solitude appears nearly absurd without an underlying motivation beyond killing time.
There is no doubt that solitude makes sense from a religious-value perspective. Living a solitary life, as one who is seeking ‘solitude with God in the midst of the world,’ provides a gentle consecration of ordinary life to a spiritual perspective. There is a gentle influence and an embrace of non-religious reality with a religious-spirit.
And yes, a solitary may indeed live ‘in communion with the world’ to a lesser or greater degree, which itself may be a conversion in either direction, the secular or the religious, depending on the nature of that communion. We have to accept, to a degree, the risk inherent in that embrace.
We open our being to the secular world – and we in ways become secular. Like Jesus, who had to become like us in order to allow the possibility of transformation. He opened his arms to the secular world (as well as to the religious world of his orthodox culture, and of course, to all life and also all death or non-life. In doing so, he was himself changed into a secular being. In this case, he became a crucified poor man, at the lowest non-status status of any being in his social world. His secular value was rated as useless. Yet he died and was buried as a King in state, within a fresh and unused tomb that was paid for by one of the highest ranking officials in the land.
Clearly, the embrace of the crucified and suffering Lord Most High who became so low, gave to the world the greatest witness to a solitary life by being completely rejected and scorned by the secular and religious worlds of his day. What have we to think about this scandalous Lord and King? What do we think about these wounds? The suffering? His outpouring of blood? What do we think about this enormous physical and spiritual pain? What can we think or feel when we know, without any doubt, that his sufferings were motivated by nothing other than the deepest and most passionate love for you, and for me?
A model for living a solitary life
From the point of view of a lay hermit in the world, and as a Franciscan, this Jesus who shows us the very nature of the Creator, of God the Father and God the Mother, we can but fall into stillness, waiting for Jesus to rise again, to save us from our meditation on his passion and death. Perhaps solitude exists for this reason alone, that, if one can only admit the impact of realising the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice, we would remain forever prostrate, waiting in solitude, a stillness that exists for this purpose alone. You may read this and wonder of my sanity.
But I say, think not about questions of personality. Think only with a humble heart. Seek the Lord of Silence, and tell me what you find. Are you caught up in more questions in the cognitive mind? Or does the heart whisper past the noise a cluster of feelings that make you dreadful uncomfortable? If so, welcome into the world of the solitary. Welcome into the world of the seeker, the Knight of Stillness Awakening. Welcome into the darkness and desert of humanity.
God exists without any need for us, and yet She comes to us in Jesus. A suffering and dying Jesus. A receptive and open Jesus, waiting for us with loving passionate embraces. To show us the extent of His love, a Parent’s love for a child. A holy and pure love. A love of deep respect. A healing love.
Show us this solitary victim. He announces to us the mirror of perfection, the very essence of the path back to God. By imitation of Jesus crucified, we are made whole again, in a form of solitary life that gives life where there is only silence. To imitate is not to mimic. To imitate is to live again, to dwell within a mystery greater than self, to give birth to that mystery in body and life.
Show us this solitary victim. He announces to us the silence that speaks through this dark mirror, by pointing to our own heart and inner being. What are we? Who are we? We are found by the Other who exists in eternal stillness, silence, and in a most perfect Community of Being that needs not our existence, nor our fellowship. Yet the Creator of Perfect Being condescended to become an imperfect and contingent being, for the sake of gaining the love of the likes of me, and of you.
Through dualism, valleys, and beyond
But no doubt, as the author suggests, there are those in solitary life who likely wonder about ‘religious practice’ because they, in their way, stand outside of these traditions, or simply have not had the opportunity to become initiated into a tradition as of yet. From the outside looking in, the author suggests the religious approach may appear to engage ‘dualism (as evidenced by the language of combat and mortification).’
In my approach, I can examine these words and their utility and meaning, and might well do so in future. However, the path that inspires me, namely, the Franciscan charism of poverty, chastity, and obedience, in a stability and balanced lifestyle, exists within a holistic and integrative theology that nurtures wholeness while allowing for contingency, brokenness, and actively seeking to become poor and humble as a way of gently and passionately creating room for God to dwell within and among us.
Yes, of course, there are many non-dualistic ways of asceticism. The idea of dualism is overdone these days, and tiring. To focus on this analysis tends to be an intellectual excuse for not living a spiritual and value-laden life. Dual truth is part of creation. There is light and dark, day and night, male and female. There are dualities in emotion, we feel sad or happy, elated or depressed, peaceful or anxious. Simple and non-logical contrasts, if we examine them with any depth.
Rather, allow me to suggest that we can play with dualism to enable us to go further on this path to God. What is more dual than God and people? We are rendered other by the very nature of our being not God. And yet we are called to be with God. We are truly called through the valley of dualistic darkness toward the light of God’s oneness. Yet to fall into a truly non-dualistic mindset leads some people to the delusion that they are being God, which is what we call being crazy. A bit of dualism is useful. This helps us to define objective truth. God is God. We are not God. We are on a path toward God. God is on a path toward us.
In another example, for those who are attracted to loving someone, that love enables potential through a dualistic experience of me verses the other, of me as separate from the other, and as me as desiring the other. If the two come together, me and the other will create a moment in time. That moment may, or may not, lead us to a new expression of me with the other, and of me as a result of the other, if not also me after the other. The dualism remains, as an expression of respect and acknowledging that me, the other, and the space that is shared, are all three important and distinct aspects to an experience.
Discipline in the solitary life, whether based on religious sentiment or secular logic, does not change the fact that what is undertaken tends to work within the dynamic of a me, an other, and a space and time. The experience changes us. My dear friend who fasts for her health and wellness, for purely logical reasons, opens herself to growth and new awareness through the process of periodic fasting. Her experience is similar to another friend, whose values are based in a religious commitment. The meanings attached to the experience are different, but from the outside they both appear to be individuals who are growing through a well balanced asceticism.
Ironically, the friend who has no religion (or at least no obvious religion) has led those from religious backgrounds to the benefits of fasting, simply by her natural manner of sharing her experiences with others. The reverse I have not yet observed, which leads me to wonder about the messages we Catholics tend to convey to others, as well as our lack of awareness of the healthy basis of fasting and similar practices. Thus the way we view asceticism needs revision…
Living for… what?
The author suggests that one of the unifying characteristics of those people living a solitary life (who have a spiritual orientation) is that they seek to live with God alone, and for God alone. I’m reading these words as written by someone from a traditional religious background, as the words describe a western Christian and perhaps also Catholic mindset. I hear the words and agree. Yet wonder if the words hide more than they reveal.
What does it mean to live with God alone? We have to remind ourselves that ‘alone’ actually comes from two root words, all and one. The word ‘God’ also needs to be unpacked, as it means so much to so many people… Allow me for the moment to use the word ‘Creator,’ which has a depth of meaning from a naturalistic point of view, but also suggests an active participation in our lives as we are created in our personhood.
Then, we might say, those who live in solitude seek to live with the Creator of Life and Being, in all of the fullness of oneness, in the humility, truth, and beauty of being human and a member of one humanity.
To then live for God alone, as an extension of living with God alone, carries a sense of calling and purpose. To live for the Creator of Life and Being in all the fullness of oneness, drawing forth the humility, truth, and beauty of being human and a member of one humanity for the sake of the Spirit of Life, for the sake of the Divine.
Here I am. I am waiting.
Following still? What is Life that follows your heart, desires you? Don’t just give yourself away. Ask, who are You in Life and Being to desire me? What merit have You to ask of my soul such depth of commitment? What right do You have to be Life and God and Oneness, and demand of me a priceless gift, that which I can only give once in this lifetime? Who are you, that people call you God? I want to know. Show Your Being to me. Here I am. I am waiting.
For those of us drawn to this life, may we ask, may we wonder, are we ‘impelled by a passion for God alone?’ Does this passion drive us ‘to a union that has to be absolute and exclusive?’ Is this also dualistic and romantic language? Or do the words convey a depth of insight from a perspective we can relate to, and respect? Or respect, and not so much relate to?
For many solitary people and hermits, they may well rebel against such flowering language. When you live this life for a while, you tend to be pretty pragmatic! We work, sleep, wake, pray, eat, read, study, write, share meals, tend garden, shop, offer help, go to Church, engage community, retire to quiet, and start the day all over again. Who is to say that even a Roman Catholic hermit’s day is not simply functional, practical, and of utility? We might have to interrupt, to ask the person to pause, who might recollect and laugh upon realising they had forgotten all the reasons why they got into this pickle in the first place. Thus religious or spiritual motives change, perhaps becoming integrated into a person’s life, over time and with practice. Once normalised, they cease to be articulated in the same blunt manner. They are just a part of a life worth living.
But yes, absolute and exclusive. The one love of my life. An all consuming passion that allows no other to enter. A life worth living and dying for. These are the markings of a solitary life of prayer. A reason to remain chaste, celibate, and alone for God alone. For love. To be more honest. To be true to self. To open the heart to loving humanity in a way of fullness, through this rather odd path that is certainly less traveled than most.
Who are You God, that You would ask this of me? Here I am. I am waiting.
The shape of your life
Eremitic lifestyles do take many different forms. Each can be sharply idiosyncratic. The individual shapes their own way. And when you desire a life that appears to be unattainable, you still seek, albeit you often do not know what you are seeking or how to find what you do not know you need…
We agree with the author that it is most certainly possible and more so, is done everyday and by many thousands of people, to balance work, family life, various interests, and a solitary vocation. This is precisely why people like Saint Francis of Assisi founded a ‘Third Order’ for laity who seek to do just this, to live out the vocation of dedication to excellence within an ordinary lifestyle. This is just one example. But all religious societies (that is, specific groups within a society who share a calling to exclusive commitment to living as a brother or sister within an intentional community for that purpose) emerge from everyday families and cultures, and their ideals and aims are in many ways shared by those families and cultures – such that we can say that we all seek to live a meaningful life. We all wish to love, and be loved. We all desire to live a life worth living. Big assumptions. Do they bear truth?
It is only logical and desirable in a secular world given to psychology and sociology, that people are rediscovering the natural sources of these ways of life, and their inner purpose for health and wellness. They awaken to these paths, and live them, and later on learn about, seek out, and discover the spiritual traditions of the west, in a rather refreshing manner. They come along without all the baggage of western religion. They are among the first generations of purely secular people who have never heard the gospel spoken in a way they would have naturally understood, because most if not all Christians are too busy trying to be religious.
In other words, to engage the new evangelisation means to communicate the meaning of the gospel way of Jesus in a language people can understand. To do this, Catholics need to enter into the secular to speak a secular language. Once you know this language, you can begin to communicate the gospel in a way that will make sense to secular people. This is why, from the first generation of Christians, going to a place and living among the people, learning their language, and learning their customs and ways of life, were among the first steps of translating the message of Jesus to a new society. This is a difficult task for western Catholics who live within this secular world already, but who do not think in the manner of a missionary or even as a disciple of Jesus. Learning these skills and capacities is the first step towards communicating your inner felt-sense of God to other people.
Living solitude in the midst of everyday life provides its own innate and powerful insights. The teachings that arise are worth considering. They point to what orthodox theology suggests is the transfiguration of ordinary life into an extraordinary experience. The practitioner’s awareness and actions in the environment change the world in subtle and not so subtle ways. The world is transfigured into the image of the beloved.
The divine milieu
Aptly noted, Teilhard de Chardin called this ‘the divine milieu.’ Saint Francis said that when we are crucified with Christ, we embrace the world and all of creation with a Christlike love and passion. When we become Christ, giving birth to Christ, in our everyday world, we render that world holy by virtue of our interaction and action. By becoming low, humble, and poor, we are able to be fully human. Our way of being changes the environment, not from anything we do, of ourselves, but from the active grace and mercy of Jesus crucified within our body and in our being. This is a bit more than a ‘therapeutic moment.’ This is about a transpersonal awakening to a new form of life within the person.
Likewise, the Franciscan impulse seeks Jesus crucified and poor among the world around us, such that we begin to actively relate to Jesus within society as a sacred place. We see the sacred, because we are sacred, and the world itself is sacred, in spite of its confusion and belief to the contrary.
In fact, this very self-definition that the world is a secular place begs of a profound existential and spiritual poverty that millions of people, and especially academics and intellectuals, actually live within everyday. Their world is a nasty place, of back stabbing and distrust, of lack of consideration, and of competition. A poverty of loneliness pervades this place where people are lost within values of confusion, without a clear path forward. Of this world, Franciscan spirituality sees a place that has forgotten its innate sacredness and inherent value. To consecrate the secular world is to witness to the sacred and the divine that already exists within that world, through quiet acts of mercy and loving kindness.
Small steps for humanity
Solitude is periodic for many of us who live in the world. The degree of seclusion depends on our values, circumstances, choices, and disposition. Attending to our needs, we may remain solitary or seek others company. We may devote periods of time, setting aside this time for finding Life as Sacred-Stillness within the World-of-Busy-Illusion. Time apart is often simply rest. We may not have energy to do much more.
As mystics of the One, we know the silly matter of mind that spins noise and activity, avoiding self and consciousness, and yet, is profoundly elegant in beauty. This is humanity. Rich in poverty of being.
Agreed, that solitude may emerge during the life cycle. The elderly and the retired have an innate charism of solitude and contemplative life, simply by virtue of their developmental stage. Conforming ‘to a certain definition of hermit’ is pointless, unless you are young enough, and have enough time to spare, in doing the early vocational dance of ego and idealism.
I see many middle age and older budding mystics, perhaps baby boomers awakening to the cracked egg of their lives… Perhaps Gen X, getting old enough now to know better, and having followed the boomers and been dominated by them in everything, they are broken and humble enough to see light through their own cracked egg…
One might wish we had this clarity early enough, before the dictates of necessity and the birthing pains of the modern world consumed our younger years with ceaseless activity. Just having the simple idea – I want to be a hermit – may have been enough to stem the tide of disintegration of self and religious belief. But just such an idea, fully realised, may have led to another form of madness. After living life, it seems to me that vocation arises in spite of a calling as well as because of a calling. The in-breaking of the Creator into our created lives transforms us regardless the form of life, the actions taken, the path that is trod, and the contingencies of the years.
All we need to be, is to be present.
This moment is all we have. Live it well.
Qualities of being, in solitary life
The author suggested that those called to solitary life shared qualities that both led them to this life, as well as guided them during the living of said life. By comparison, one can review these to see how your own experience adds up, or is different. This may not suggest whether you are well suited to this life, as I suspect the decision needs to be made by each person and only after trying things out, living life, and allowing yourself to test your lifestyle, and your resolve.
I have used my own terms, which make sense to me, also in the context of developmental psychology. The original terms are in italics and bold.
There is an impulse, an inner guide. In traditional language, a strong sense of calling (from God, from Life, or within). Fascinating that people describe this as being stronger than a normal vocation, i.e. to priesthood or religious life. This is news to me, as I would have thought that those ‘normal’ callings were fairly unusual in and of themselves.
But, it makes sense that the call to be a solitary is unique and does go beyond the normative vocation. You can be a solitary, and never realise that is what you are. You can live a life alone in the world, and never know you live a form of life that is highly regarded by many. You can be a hermit, and not know that is what you are. You may put aside suggestions for priesthood and religious life, simply as they do not fit. The ‘more than’ relates to something that leads you further, challenges you to find more, and that insists that your path needs space and time apart, i.e. that this way of life could not be dictated by the standard ways of life that exist today in the Church and in society.
Also helpful to know, people described being content in being alone as children, with a natural inclination to solitude, in nature, and apart from family and community. Seeking out solitary places. Being contented loners. Having a dominant introversion in personality type, although this latter is not necessarily the case.
There is a desire, an inner motivation. This arises as a passion for more. This passion may feel like a fire that consumes all other desires, so that all you can do is try to satisfy this urge toward oneness in being with your God, Creator, Life-Maker… This has a primal nature within you. Or it just seems to be how you experience the world, and where you want to be.
There is a sense of individuality and differentiation. The self is distinct from other people. Society is the other. My way is my own. This expresses in an emotional distance from society. Perhaps also a felt-sense of detachment from the concerns of Church, i.e. of being detached from desires for involvement and membership in social organisations. This relates more to a sense of ‘freedom’ from the pressures of involvement, while orienting self in a deeper way to the other, from within a unique space of caring and loving for and with the other. I.E. detachment does not diminish a sense of belonging, nor of social responsibility, and of deepening one’s ability to respond based within a solid eremitic vocation.
There is an ability to self-define identity. A sense of applying identity to how to live each day. There is a strong ego-identity apart from others, but not egoic. Rather, balanced and yet strong. One’s autonomy comes with a strong sense of self and ordering of life in the way chosen. Establishing personal priorities, leaving out things, putting aside certain values (i.e. places, people, activities, desires, wants, dreams) while foregrounding other values (i.e. a cluster of values that assist the solitary life), are all part of the capacity for living a solitary life.
There is a locus of control, a self that is assured. Not in the sense of confidence, although that has merit, but in a sense of having what you need within the self as a person. The solitary is to a large degree self-sufficient, or has the quality of self-sufficiency. They do not generally look to others for support of the material or spiritual kind, whether secular, or religious, Church or congregation. Making one’s own way, earning a living, appears to be common and perhaps essential. Others might draw a pension. But the aspect of orienting work toward sustaining solitude appears normative.
There is a pragmatic approach to things, to the material. But more so, an attending to needs in a frugal manner that is practical and seeks to be sustainable. This expresses a sense of simplicity of lifestyle. Present needs define what is appropriate, and the rest tends to be discarded or put aside, to render a more helpful environment for the practice of solitude. Often there is a disregard of concern for providing for old age and sickness. It appears that solitaries live in the moment, and like the birds of the air, do not store up treasures that moths or thieves might destroy.
Simplicity goes hand in hand with a simple, uncluttered life. There is stillness and silence. There is a ‘rich emptiness’ that combines with, or generates, an intensity of creativity. There is the empty place that is filled with God alone.
There is an increase of capacity to manage, over time. This growth in stewardship happens later, as one’s life in solitude becomes established. After a radical withdrawal from the world, there is a sense of wishing to help, of service for others. For some, this includes prayer or ministry. There is a ‘sense of communion with others.’ Concern, compassion, and generative giving appear as natural and developmental markers of a life worth living. Some follow daily news as a prompting for prayer for the world, or for people involved in current events. There is a sense of solidarity, of standing alongside, and of sharing the burdens of others.
Finally, there is a letting go of everything that is not helpful to solitude, and for those so inclined, for union with God. This is a radical living of detachment for a higher purpose, or at least, a purpose worth making choices for. One backs away from ‘being drawn into causes,’ regardless their merit. Choosing a location for solitude may involve not having access to services and/or even to the sacramental life of Church. Such decisions warrant careful assessment, albeit prudence and discernment appear to be part of the growth in stewardship. One may not realise the extent of implications for choices made, and having flexibility to change direction appears important, although as we get older flexibility in circumstances may diminish in certain regards. I.E. a change of location may attach extremes of hardship, depending on the resources needed.
The author notes that the qualities above need continual work and diligence. The lack thereof may have something to do with lack of sustainability in solitary life. Maintaining order in life appears important. It does not need to be extreme, but might include timetables, planned balance between activities, and avoiding a general go with the flow attitude. Living alone without regular community support, a solitary will need to actively maintain support systems.
Again, no one else tends to jump in and take care of things when your way in life is basically about living alone. This itself begs of one reason why solitaries in various traditions often do raise their hand in the crowd, and say, “Here I am, I am a solitary, I am a hermit! But hey, I like company now and then, so please drop over for tea and some fruit cake! Here is a list of times I can be available, otherwise, the gate tends to be locked.” The response might be less than satisfying, but over time, certain people may be drawn to communicate, share, and support, and this leads the solitary practitioner into a web of community where their solitude takes on more generative meanings, even to the extent of nurturing relationships within a sense of ministry and caring.
Continual review of the above qualities appears necessary. Doing this as a solitary requires a high degree of personal commitment. No one else will do the work for you. You will not have a community to help by example. Many solitaries and hermits attach themselves to a community, for this very reason. They seek to make themselves accountable just as much as having ready made opportunities to contribute to others lives.
Solitude today may even be fashionable. Solitude for its own sake, or for personal ends (i.e. health, quiet, study, self- discovery), may well be warranted and well enjoyed. The reasons why many people enter solitude are varied, and necessarily so.
However, a Catholic and Christian solitary focuses on God. That is to say, we focus on the Divine action within life, and within being. The focus on God provides a way of life, a way in being more fully human. This way and focus provide a means to growth, and the resources to attain this end. The end or purpose is not to grow, per se, as it might be in the new age movement. The purpose for a Catholic and Christian in seeking God, is to empty the self of all useless baggage, and to let go of attachments, and to seek a form of life that is poor and humble of heart. This is the only, and perhaps the best, form of becoming whole and full of grace. We cannot accomplish this without the gift of the Father in Jesus, who became poor, chaste, and obedient to suffering, self-giving, outpouring in love, for others, without regard for cost to self.
Becoming one with God, and giving birth to God in the Church and in the world, make our solitary life steeped in the feminine and mothering charisms of nurturing, guiding, and sustaining a life of grace and mercy. When we give birth to God in the world, we become poor, chaste, and obedient like Jesus, a crucified slave to loving kindness and compassion, for others and for the world, vivifying the world that has forgotten itself. Opening for the world our arms in loving that which is broken, contingent, and ultimately beautiful.
When we live this vocation to the full, we begin to realise that the broken and lost, the poor and ugly, the sick and disabled, are indeed most beautiful. The beauty of poverty arises in the heart that sees life for what life really is. We break through illusions that see beauty in the mundane of wealth, power, and influence within the world. We no longer are caught up by social norms that seek to control others. We step away, seek a quiet place, and pray.
When we become broken, and life makes us broken, and our hearts fail and expand and fail again, we know we have entered that space of incarnation. We have not only sought God, we have been found by God. In the finding, and in the being found, as in the seeking, and the being sought, we are in love with beauty through a God manifest in a suffering child, a son, a daughter, a crucified Saviour, in whose eyes we know and experience divinity.
We are made whole and new again. Our years of silence enter upon this equipoise of stillness, where only the voice of a beating heart reminds us that life began eons ago upon a different shore. To that place, beyond the pale, we are drawn in spite of ourselves. Through the light of the resurrection, guiding the way. We are a people whose solitude rises and falls with the beating of God’s own heart.
This paper is for the heart and mind of those daring solitude. I love you, as my sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers. I love you dearly and wholly.
In the humility that silence affords to all,
Yours in the Christ,
Little brother Joseph Randolph
Eugene Stockton (2000) ‘Lay hermits,’ Compass Theology Review, 34(2), 46-50, http://www.hermitary.com/articles/stockton.html (1 April 2014).
© 2014, Joseph Randolph Bowers, St Clare Hermitage (excepting borrowed materials of course)