Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Dangers of Solitude

All of the People of God, all of the baptised are called to a life of prayer and contemplation, not just contemplative nuns. Most people get the prayer part but not the contemplation part. How can I, with my busy life, the obligations I am bound to by conscience, my short attention span, my weaknesses and addictions, my phobias and fears, be called to something as other worldly as contemplation? Does it help to translate a life of contemplation as a life of intimacy with God. Or is that notion of intimacy with the Almighty just too scary?

Well, in spite of all the possible objections we are all called to contemplation to some degree or another according to the circumstances of our lives. But, instinctual fear at the thought of such engagement is not so far from the mark. We ask, "What will happen to me if I go there? What will happen if I go to that secluded place, or if I just enter into the seclusion of my own heart and dwell there for a while with God? We are wise to ask.

Believe it or not, there has been a recent wave of people choosing to move even more radically into contemplation by living the life of a hermit. They do not chose to dwell in caves as did St. Anthony of Egypt but make their apartments, their trailers, their cabins or yurts into their hermitage, a place of intense and exclusive intimacy with God.

According to the practice and customs of this monastery silence and solitude are sought and cultivated outside of the times in which we prayer, work, eat and recreate together. For an extrovert like me, these times carved out of daily life feel like my hermitage. For a busy family person, or someone with a career, the time and place they find to engage in the life of prayer and contemplation may feel like their hermitage, their place apart.

And now we get back to that question. What will happen to me if I go there? What will happen to me if I make myself available to God? Some have images of St. Teresa of Avila in levitation, to the ecstatic look of the saints in medieval and Renaissance art. I don't think most of us have to worry about this happening to us. At least, I don't.

Much more realistic possibilities were explored in an article by Kenneth C. Russell entitled The Dangers of Solitude (Review for Religious, Nov.-Dec. 2000, p. 575). The intended audience are hermits living alone. However, I believe that anyone who seriously pursues the contemplative life in the midst of their particular day to day will inevitably face the same experiences. Here is some of his wisdom in the short form. Hope it draws to seek the entire piece.

* If you leave the flurry of activity you will come face to face with the self that you usually scurry around trying to avoid. If one begins to see behaviors for what they truly are it can be awfully uncomfortable. Even worse, it can make it a matter of conscience to do something to correct an unfortunate reality.

* "Hermits [read as contemplatives] also soon discover, as the Carthusian GuigoII put it, that they are a crowd unto themselves." Distractions and temptations will abound. This reminds me of a saying that can be heard in 12 Step support groups. "While you are at a meeting, your addiction is doing push ups in the parking lot." In other words, spending time in contemplation doesn't necessarily make life any easier.

* Solitude, not playing an active part, even for a short time, on the busy stage of life can makes us "vulnerable to the imagination's readiness to reassert our right to a place in the world."

* "Hermits have to live without the external momentum that social interaction usually provides."

To the extent that we are addicted to this momentum, that we think we cannot live without it or that live without it is not worth living, we resist the life of contemplation to which we are all called.

* Doing "good things or deeds" to relieve pressure or to justify a lapse from our contemplative practice can lead us down the proverbial road that is paved with good intentions. For people who are not hermits but living in the world, these can also happen to those enticed into speaking more and more about contemplative prayer to others, to suddenly entertaining groupies and finally to the total collapse of their contemplative life. Russell quotes Aelred of Rievaulx, "When you are pressured to get involved: Tu sede, tu tace, tu sustine. Sit still, keep quiet, and stick to it!"

* The social self will not go lightly into solitude. Our moodiness will show. Solitude once eagerly sought will become distasteful and repugnant. Those who spend time apart can become the target of acedia (dryness in prayer) and sadness.

* In response to all of this is the advice to live in the now. Living in the present moment counter acts weariness and distraction.

* Above all else is the need to remain faithful to the practice and to stay focused on one's center, the place within where God dwells waiting for us to cast the eyes of our soul upon the presence and contemplate the glory.

No comments: