By Chris Chaplin msc
MSC Encounter No. 66: Autumn 1998
During the years of discernment which lead to my decision to follow the hermit’s life I was frequently asked the same question, “Why?”
Again and again I would find myself in the awkward situation of being asked to clearly state what was motivating me. The questioning was almost always focused on me, and yet it had more to do with God. I wrestled with putting words to an experience which was only gradually unwrapping and I often slipped into rationalising into order to justify what I felt I was being called to, especially as contemplative life appears to be so ministerially unproductive and I belong to an active apostolic religious family. Those of differing faith backgrounds and even some of atheistic orientation would ask the same question. To many it is puzzling; to others inconceivable that someone would want to follow leadings of this kind. What seem quite valid comments were heard “waste of good man-power”, “when the church is so short of priests”, “an escape from the responsibilities of religious life and ministry”. So yes exactly, “Why?”
And not only “Why?”. What of the spirituality underlying such a vocation, the values which guide and support the hermit’s life and what has this life to offer the church and world in which they are lived? So in this short essay I hope to reflect a little on these questions.
Answering the first question, “Why?” is really quite simple. I would have to say, “I believe I have no choice but to go in this direction.”
You will no doubt recall the parables of the treasure in the field and of the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46). In both, the finder lets-go of other attachments in order to secure possession of what is most desirable to him. Could they do anything else? In his letter to the Ephesians Saint Paul refers to himself as “prisoner of the Lord Jesus” (3:1). He is made captive by God to the call he has received. It is his nourishment, his strength, the hinge-pin to his whole life. Paul eats, sleeps and breathes the gospel and suffers as a result. Could he do otherwise? Now I find that I have arrived at this very same place.
With the help of grace providing many signs of confirmation, I am convinced that God is calling me in this direction at this time. To God’s invitation and graciousness I could not now say “no”. If I did I would be turning my back on the very thing that my heart desires most, that which brings me deepest joy and peace. Would I want that? To decline the treasure, the pearl that I have sought? So I am caught. Of course I can say no, free will is God’s greatest gift to me. But can I really? My life would be like an empty shell if I chose to negate the very life in me. I would be deadened as far as my inner-life goes if I said “no”. So I share Paul’s sense of being a prisoner in the Lord Jesus. Despite the grandiose promises of my natural inclinations this imprisonment remains a better option. So part of the answer to “Why?” is simply “I have no choice”.
A more central reason for becoming a hermit lies in the origins of the call. I can honestly say that I am A segment from a mantra parchment not drawn to the hermit’s life in order to follow that which my heart longs for; the joy of being saturated with the presence of my God. Nor to follow my own contemplative leanings, or because I thought God was asking me to make a stand against contrary values, or even that I believe stillness, solitude and a deepening of my own inner-life was important . Even though I hold all of these reasons as valid they are secondary. I didn’t say “Yes” to further my own search for God; I said “Yes” to be where God wanted me to be. I recently read similar words in a journal on Thomas Merton and resonated loudly with them; “I [Merton] came to the hermitage not to find Christ, but because this is where I believed Christ wanted to find me.”
I have carried within me the inner reality of this call for some years; that of trying each day to live in the place God wanted me to be. In some ways you could say I was a hermit long before I began to live as one in the outer world. To be in the now moment with the now reality long enough to hear the voice of God loving, encompassing, directing. This is the essence of the hermit’s life.
In one sense I suppose we are all called to be hermits of one kind or another, whether we are apostolic religious, contemplative, or in another life-style we are called to live where Christ can find us. Our MSC documents consistently encourage us to live this way. In his Christmas letter of 1997 Michael Curran spoke of “a deep interior life” as “one of our most urgent needs”. Certainly the greatest challenge facing the hermit’s life as much as the apostolic life is to hold fast to this deep interior life. And not only hold fast to it, but also actively nourish it through prayer, discipline and mindfulness of God. Nurturing one’s deep interior life brings growth in sensitivity to the movements of God’s Spirit and heightens the awareness of the sacrament of the now moment. If I stay immersed in the now moment I find I cannot escape myself and many home-truths are laid bare before me, some repulsive and others attractive. I grow to gain a sense of what brings life and passion to my living and what about myself tends to deaden my interest. Of course what I am referring to here is the process of discernment.
If the call to a deep interior life in order to discern God’s will is not exclusive to the hermit why in particular choose the eremitical life? When I live in God and that relationship is the ground of my life’s choices, I become aware that any of life’s many pathways will be in the service of God’s will. I am not being called to make a choice for what is of God over what is not. This discernment must have already been made. The invitation is to discover which of the many pathways of potential goodness, is that which I, by virtue of the circumstances of my own life, am most brought to life. According to his rules for discernment Saint Ignatius understood that God was given greatest glory in those things where we are most enlivened. In other words when I know with conviction in the depth of my heart that a choice will bring fuller life. Life becomes synonymous with God at this point. The nature of vocation is one’s life fully alive and is therefore a sign of the workings of God, and though determined by God is freely chosen or not chosen by the person. Once again we hear overtones of choiceless choosing as echoed in these words from John 15:16, “You did not choose me, no I chose you…”
So why in particular follow the way of the hermit? My discernment has led me to understand that this way is the way God asks me to follow at this moment. Why say “yes”? Because this is where I find myself to be most fully in my life where God is most fully.
What of the spirituality?
Part of the uncertainty of following God’s will is its open-endedness. Revelation is a moment by moment unfolding. So there are no assembly directions, instruction booklets, policy statements, or preparation classes to provide security. It would be comforting to experience God’s call as a builder might approach a kit-home. When following God there is no precognition of purpose, outcome, or even which steps to take along the way, unlike plans for a home which once down-loaded can be taken up and followed through to completion. No, God’s way requires us to be in continual relationship with him. Each moment we must listen again, discern again, in order to be servant of the moment. There is no possibility of down-loading God’s will in one sitting. So gradually bit by bit we have some small and limited sense of what is God’s mission for us. Over time the image which all these bits generates, reveals the pattern of God’s unique and personal relationship with each individual. Here we can begin to articulate the spirituality giving direction to our lives.
The spirituality inherent to eremitical experience is of course most ancient in Christianity as well as other world traditions of religion and philosophy. The movement of early Christian men and women away from their attachments to this world into a more intense seeking of union with God is the foundation of consecrated religious life in all its forms through Christian history. The spirituality of the hermit, to enter vigorously and whole-heartedly into the interior journey, has continually challenged the church to live in the ‘heart-lands’ where she can discern God’s mission for her. I believe therefore that the heart spirituality of the religious family of Jules Chevalier is essentially the spirituality of the hermit. The values which guide and support this heart spirituality are widely known and do not bear repetition here, suffice to say that these are the values which inform the life of the solitary MSC.
While heart spirituality is common ground for all MSC, it is obvious that the hermit lifestyle differs. What then is peculiar to this lifestyle and what in particular does the hermit offer to the church and world in which they live?
The beginning point I believe is my earlier statement about why one would choose such a life. Primarily the hermit’s life is one dedicated to God. Consequently the things particular to this lifestyle are tools which promote that dedication. The hermit nurtures his yearning to be where God is as God yearns to be where he is through stillness of life and the experience of solitude. These are the hermit’s most important means for allowing God to encounter him.
Other means are secondary to stillness and solitude. Dependence on Providence challenges the hermit to let go of control of his own life and the world around him, and seek God alone. The hermit seeks detachment while at the same time staying open to all things as the means through which God may speak to him. There are also signs of our times, mainly movements of convergence, which I recognise are to be part of my life as a hermit. Undoubtedly these are movements of God’s Spirit which belong to a bigger picture and not to the hermit’s life exclusively. These include a reverence for God in all creation and a willingness to be at the service of the natural order through custodianship rather than through exploitation; to live by subsistence, where possible; to seek simplicity of life; and also to be something of a sign post to a well at which people from all corners of life may quench their spiritual thirst. This involves a ministry of presence, reconciliation and hospitality. I will expand each of these briefly.
The hermit yearns to be where God is as God yearns to be where he is. To hear both my own yearning and those of God my heart must be stilled. If I am full of anxieties, concerns, chattering thoughts or other inner dis-ease it is difficult to hear the quiet breath of God. If my body and my living is frenetic and full of haste, my movement unreflective, my activity unconscious, I can be sure my mind and heart are not at rest. Stillness pervades the whole of the solitary life. It is not conducive to deadlines, appointments, and clock watching. It is measured and mindful. It is prayer in living, mindfulness, or simple continual being aware of the presence of God and that he is the purpose for all movement, thought, and stillness. It is an attitude before God which respects God’s lead. God’s word is clear, “Be still and know that I am God.” I suspect that I am not alone in discovering that it is impossible to let God lead my life if I’m not conscious of his presence in each now moment. Stillness involves openness before God, a coming to God and asking God for stillness.
The hermit lives in the stillness (and solitude) intentionally so that he may be ready for God to speak to him. Those who know God know his Spirit moves in his own time and in his own way (John 3:8). Imagine sitting all day in front of the television waiting for the picture to come on at its own will. You wouldn’t want to be out of the room at the wrong time or you might miss the news or your favourite programme. Contemplative living is not about going to prayer and switching God on and off like a television set, but being there ready, open and waiting on God. Prayer and mindfulness therefore are essential to the day of the hermit. In fact every moment is prayer, whether at work, or during the chanting of the hours, meditation, reading or even eating.
The hermit’s life is one of both being and doing. It really matters not which of the two is more the focus of life so long as the hermit brings both into God. The most wholesome way of living the being – doing dilemma is to be in doing and do in being. The convergence of opposites can be a profound religious experience. Living in the paradox rather than trying to resolve it. Jesus the God-man / man-God reconciled all things in himself upon the beam of heaven and the beam of earth, we are invited to live in his heart at the intersection.
While the grand silences of monastic tradition have not been observed by all hermits through history (some were quite gregarious) and neither are a part of my life as a hermit, quietness is at the heart of stillness. The quiet of the hermitage amplifies the moment and all voices are louder. In the quiet the bandicoot’s squeal is alarming, the river whispers and babbles so clearly words can be heard and God’s voice speaks in the heart with the clarity of a bell at frost-covered dawn. The quiet allows me to hear my own inner voices as well. Some of light, some of darkness. I hear the mystic within me wanting to soar to the heavens and just as loudly the demands of my mundane life anchoring me in my body. The quiet also encourages a dialogue between the different sides, so they can be reconciled, healed and brought more into God, for God is the hub of all. This bringing of different parts within to a level where they can co-exist and even work together brings great hope. It confronts me that you have to have your own inner room in order before the world around you comes into focus and some similar coming together becomes an outer reality.
Coupled with stillness is solitude. Solitude is different to isolation and is not loneliness. Isolation is to cut oneself off from others. Loneliness is to live with feelings of incompleteness around one’s personhood, and seek what is perceived as lacking in oneself in others. Of course this is a vicious circle which can only be addressed by finding in one’s self what is believed to be lacking, but in reality is not. Solitude then is neither a withdrawal from the world, nor a compensatory behaviour. It is the adult capacity to live autonomously in the truth of one’s life.
To undertake the way of solitude is to step into the desert with Jesus (Matthew 4) and stand toe to toe with the darkness. It is part of the wisdom of old that calls us to take up our spiritual task in the world as David encouraged Solomon, “Be strong and show yourself a man” (1 Kings 2:2). Solitude is literally to be alone or stand on one’s own. I quote here the personal prayer of Alain de Boismenu M.S.C., who like many missionaries lived the solitary life though may not have named it as such. The words of this prayer express the sentiments of solitude;
“Make yourselves capable of holding fast and walking alone under the eye of God alone. Then come resolutely determined to lose your life for Our Lord and His Gospel, without any other support than your intimacy with the Divine Master, and the glorious satisfaction of being in His service.” (Bishop Alain de Boismenu M.S.C. Yule Island, P.N.G. 1945)
I am stirred by the words, “eye of God alone”. For God’s vision is unitive, not the two-eyedness that humanity sees with. To stand alone within God and to see with his one-eyedness brings with it a vision of community and reconciliation. As I am drawn to see through the eye of God’s heart, the separation of my interior life from my outer life fades. Instead of being divided I stand more fully in the one God and the unity of my own being. This seedbox is fertile for germinating peace and justice between myself and those around me. I am deeply saddened by humanity’s incapacity to sprout seeds of this kind and I believe there is an urgent need for us to “stand alone before the eye of God alone” in order to seek integrity in our own lives.
The call to be a ‘man’ and stand alone can become confused. We hear that society is awash with individualism. I have my own share of “I can do it on my own”. In some ways the capacity to do for one’s self is vital to healthy growth however the hermit is called not only to do for himself but also to acknowledge his profound dependence upon his God who provides so often through the goodness of others. So the hermit must accept his life’s neediness and his own sinfulness and be prepared to stand alone, dependent on God alone.
Jesus’ total dependence on his Father is the hermit’s model. When Jesus arrives at the tomb of his friend Lazarus he prays, “Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer, I myself knew that you hear me always,…” (John 11:41) And when Jesus instructs his disciples on how to pray he says to them, “Ask, and it will be given to you” and again “everyone who asks receives” (Luke 11:9f). The hermit is challenged to believe this will be true for him, that he too will always be heard by his Father and have his needs cared for. In my following this way my experience of providence has been bountiful. I may be accused of attributing to God too much of what is just coincidence and the generosity of others, but this only highlights the ‘eye’ the hermit is given to see with. That ‘eye’ perceives all things come from one source not many. When building materials turn up as you need them, it is God supplying. When rain falls to water the garden, God is at work. When food arrives by post in a big box from a far away place just when the larder is critically low, God has spoken through the generosity of the sender. God in all things. Providing at all times. Coincidence is awesome enough on its own, yet when one takes into consideration that what occurs is in fact what was asked for then the knees bend in humbled awe, and one realises coincidence is of God as well.
Instruction in the way of dependence on God includes learning to let go of control of life to allow God to take over. A rather vulnerable experience. I am reminded that vulnerability is a chalice for the Spirit and bread for our creatureliness. Interestingly, a paradox lies within this dependence and vulnerability as well. One can only choose to be dependent on God and its ensuing vulnerability if one has known the truth of who they are before the Creator. In other words the hermit must have control of his own life in order to relinquish it. This means accepting responsibility for living and choices made. How can a child surrender in an adult way? The way of the hermit involves taking up ownership of life and its consequences as fully as possible in order to lose it again to God, as has been said when speaking about standing on one’s own. So, I am called to participate in my life and be accountable for it. The strength to abide in this way is only possible if I know a deeper contentment, am at peace with my self, and am seeking to live adult ways and not those of the hurt inner child. This comes as gift of God. It is not something one can accomplish through egoic effort. The hermit is not being asked by God to be involved in a collusion of infantile dependency, but to “be strong, and show yourself a man” (1 Kings 2).
The attitude of detachment questions the investment of energies in products of this world. It tries to place the focus back on God so that the world is Spirit-driven rather than materially-driven. The things of this world pass so quickly, especially since obsolescence became sales policy. What lasts is worth investment. Our religious living (to bind again into one that which was whole) is where we will accrue greatest dividends. We hear Jesus confronting us with this truth in the stories of the rich young man and the eye of the needle (Mark 10:23-31).
Detachment challenges the tyranny of having, so prevalent in our market driven society. Let’s say I still have a computer, its a few years old and I have to update, I have to have a printer, and so I have to have special paper to make copies of what I’ve typed, but I would really benefit from having access to others on the net so I have to have a modem, have a service supplier, and as you can see ‘having’ is accumulative. Being vowed with poverty becomes a nightmare! Having is part of a systemic tyranny that is almost impossible to untangle ourselves from, a tyranny that devours people like fast food, especially the poor.
A recent maiden parliamentary speech summed up the situation well. The newly elected member believed that the country would see change for the good when government began to treat the Australian community as a “society” rather than an “economy”. To see people as people and be concerned about the inter¬relationships between them, rather than as commodities for trade and exploitation would no doubt be a welcome change. Investment, possession, competition are good in themselves but have become the mammon of twentieth century western society. Such false gods, promising security, life-style, peace and happiness, do little to resolve the real problems of a society losing its soul and only offering temporary relief from symptoms. True peace is something the world cannot give, but comes through a profound respect for the dignity of the human person.
Detachment allows people to be who they are. The hermit is being taught a lesson about not seeking to make anyone into anything. This is God’s way. God has already made us who we are, we only need to uncover and be true to that image. Growth in the attitude of detachment is part of the hermit’s schooling that he may be an instrument allowing God’s justice to be enfleshed in our time.
There are other attachments of course, other investments; power, dominance, denial, fear, sexuality, hurt and the list goes on. One example of investment is activity that compensates for poor self-worth. I hear the hopeful voice, “if I work hard and if this ministry is fruitful people will see and I will be worthwhile”. So much is held up against the unreal expectations of society, church, family, religious order, one’s own and even those attributed to God. Often these attachments are subtle, but I see them in myself and often enough in others.
God’s response to our misdirected investment is, “and I love you”. The hermit is not being asked to change the world but to let go of investing energy into creating his own kingdoms and to be a cradle in which God can nurture ‘kindom’. The hermit is challenged to hold out open hands without grasping, clinging, holding, clenching. To be as Mary, the receptive womb for God’s living Word, and Jesus, who “… did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. But emptied himself…” (Philippians 2:6, 7). A river bed carries water to its destination, but is only a cradle for the river. So too we are God’s cradle in the world and the means to allow his Spirit to flow to its destination. We cannot know what God’s Spirit intends, (though if we do it is gift). To be a cradle for the Holy Spirit humbles the heart and opens us deeper.
The hermit’s task is to remain open before God. And it is precisely in this openness that one begins to see what ministry contemplatives offer the world and the church. What one sees is a glimpse of the mystery we know as the mystical body of Christ.
Reverence for God in all creation
Service of the natural order
Contemporary secular sciences suggest we live as part of a finely tuned and balanced living organism with its own internal order. The natural order of the created world can be seen in this organic way. Nevertheless humanity has long struggled against the natural order seeking to superimpose its own through unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. It is no surprise many are concerned about the gross ramifications of our lack of proper stewardship.
The hermit lives with and depends upon the natural order. He is discovering that humanity’s tradition of mastery over nature is ultimately self-destructive and feels beckoned to a way of living which is in harmony with God’s creation. Depending on God includes depending on the earth for fruit, vegetables, shelter, water and the natural rhythms of day, night and seasons. It means avoiding unsustainable and harmful technologies.
Not being from the country I find that nature has a humbling mastery over my own will. I am dependant on the weather and the plants and the animals. In the past I was more dependent on a small sheet of magnetised encoded plastic than God. As a hermit I attempt to live in deep respect of nature, for nature is a teacher and the hermit needs to listen to it and learn. God speaks in the smallest frog, the living constellations of the night sky, the gossiping voices of the river, the texture of sand and clay, the society of plant-life, and even the animals that wreck my vegetable garden. To not hold nature in respect would be the equivalent of telling God to shut-up. I would have stopped listening to the creating Word and lost my sensitivity to the subtle movements of God’s Spirit.
Simplicity of life
Simplicity of life underlies all that has been mentioned about the hermit’s life to this point. It has the capacity to break down difficulty and complication. Complication provides a great place to hide motivations that are unclear, resistances to growth, sinfulness, and blindness. Their presence is a good indicator for when I’m not facing something honestly and often accompanying these is confusion, paralysis, hopelessness and helplessness which do not make for healthy living. Simplicity of life is supported by establishing solid boundaries, clear expectations, routine and discipline. As God is the wreath the solitary is competing for he should have no other goal to divide his attention. Hence the hermit life is not generally a source of unhealthy stress.
Simplicity of life includes living as efficiently as possible, not adopting unwieldy systems, and having only what is needed. The basic elements of permaculture give good guidance to the hermit. The hermitage has no electricity, phone, or vehicle, which require constant energy expenditure with nothing flowing back to replenish the cycle. Such utilities require income, employment, taxation, insurance and many other time and energy consumers which take the hermit from his purpose. If the circle of life is kept uncluttered then more energy is left for the primary focus of the life – dedication to God in stillness and solitude.
Church and world?
One task of the hermit is to remain open before God for the world and the church. I mentioned earlier that what one gains is a glimpse of the mystery of the mystical body of Christ through the hermit’s life. We are not a collection of unconnected individuals. We are one being. One organism. If one of us is hurt, collectively we all hurt. The hermit knows he is not on a desert island isolated from the rest of the world. Rather, the opposite is true. As he enters the Heart of God, he discovers the reality of our oneness. We are one body in God as the Word was one with God (John 1) and we are the body of Christ the living Word (1 Corinthians 12:27). The hermit stands as a witness to this reality. His task is to hold the body of Christ in his own living. Living then before God he not only brings himself, but he brings all. In this way the hermit prays for, with, and within the church and the world.
In this time there are many who seek either healing or enlightenment. By living in the heartlands the hermit acts as a sign post not to himself, but to the union which the heart of the other longs for. He points to the well at which they may quench their spiritual thirst. The hermitage therefore provides a ministry of presence and hospitality, a wayside for the pilgrim on the journey.
Witness is given to those values inherent in the solitary life. Bringing all things to God, stillness, solitude, dependence, detachment, reverence for the natural order, simplicity and others discussed above.
The life offers challenges to those who hear of it, usually confronting them to move from the head to the heart. Through a vision which seeks to draw together the opposites of life by being in the Heart of Christ, the hermit may also witness to the truth of our unity in God, providing a place of healing and reconciliation.
I have touched briefly on the main characteristics of the hermit’s life as I have come to know of them through my short time discerning, preparing for and living as a hermit. I am very aware that what I have said will develop over time. I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to God for bringing me to this point and ask his and your blessing on this mission of ours. Peace.