No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee (John Donne).
This quote is usually evoked to maintain the position of humanity being possible only in a social context or a relationship. In a nutshell, we will have to distinguish between the social nature of humanity and the transcendent spirit of a human person. Some people do not do well in the bustle of intensive social life. Psychologists talk of extroverts and introverts. It is simply the personality of an individual. There may be other technical terms like autism, but this posting is not about that.
I named this article after the famous anthem by Mendelssohn, Hear my Prayer with the latter section O for the wings of a dove.
The text is based on Psalm 55. This theme is a prayer and a desperate appeal to God for deliverance, and then launches into a description of the psalmist’s anguish and his desire for peace. It evokes the Sehnsucht of Romanticism and a very fundamental human need to be left alone for any number of reasons. Mendelssohn originally set the following German text to music before English adaptations came into being:
O könnt’ ich fliegen wie Tauben dahin,
weit hinweg vor dem Feinde zu flieh’n!
in die Wüste eilt’ ich dann fort,
fände Ruhe am schattigen Ort.
It struck me very strongly when I was a young choirboy singing this piece, for it seemed to be very “me-me-me” and “what I want”. Desire is often unattainable, as impossible an aspiration as flying like a bird. We do not escape our angst by simply moving from one place to another. We cannot evade the battle God has willed us to fight. This will be the most significant aspect to the solitary’s life, as in the famous Temptation of Saint Anthony of the Desert. Our only rest is in Jesus. The solitary life is illusory with only the idea of getting away from it all.
The Church and many non-Christian traditions have traditions of the solitary whose purpose is contemplation and self-awareness. There are canonically constituted hermits who are under the authority of a religious community. They wear a habit and live in a designated place. There are probably many others who live alone for various reasons and who do not depend on any religious organisation.
There are several websites I have found particularly interesting:
These seem to be sites of resources and possibilities for communication between hermits to support each other without living in community or being under a power or authority structure. You will find articles on Catholic and Christian hermits, but also those belonging to other world religious traditions, sometimes the eccentric who just lives alone in some remote place.
One of the first things to do is to get rid of the stereotypes of eremiticism. It is important also to get rid of the ideas of putting on the appearance of monastic life. L’habit ne fait pas le moine. Blaise Pascal is famously quoted as having said in regard to the Jansenist nuns of Port Royal, Qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête (The one who plays at being an angel descends to the level of the beasts). A literal translation is impossible for that one. In our days, discretion is of the essence, lest we encounter the self-styled abbot wearing a scapular and a cowl – and being found drunk and disorderly and unworthy of his apparent calling. I do have a particular person in mind when mentioning this. It is an error not to repeat. What is important is what is inside.
Earlier, I wrote a couple of articles on liminality. A person in this state comes to see the utter folly of society. Rob Riemen wrote of this question of “mass humanity” in his beautiful little books Nobility of Spirit and To fight against this age. The general tendency in society is to dumb down or bully the individual and plunge him into the comfort zone of the collective. Panem et circenses. Society and collective human nature have always been absurd, materialistic, status-seeking and self-justification.
Pope John Paul II wrote a book Sign of Contradiction in which he gave a profound analysis of the place of Christ and tension between sacred and secular. This sign of contradiction is one of the characteristics of liminality. Solitude does not come without difficulty, the first being accepting one’s own absurdity. The fool for Christ is strong in the Russian Orthodox tradition but also in the western Church. Think of St Philip Neri and St Benoît-Joseph Labre among many others. We have to accept this disintegration as attested by men like C.J. Jung and Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902–1980), something that may have influenced Wojtyla during his time under the Nazis and almost immediately under the Communists.
We are brought to the brink of our own chaos, pointlessness and irrationality, in which only the light of the divine can give any sense. As Berdyaev said: No one who has left a Christianity based on authority can return to anything but a Christianity which is free (Freedom and the Spirit). However, this freedom depends on a genuine search for the spirit. Without the tarnish of superficiality and illusion the mystery of God appears in all its depth. I find in authors like Thomas Merton and Alan Watts the profound thought that we all die alone, but it is in this aloneness that we discover our true self and unite with the solitude of all.
It is essential to transcend society, not reject it. Humanity is embraced at its spiritual level. Non-conformity cannot be rebellion any more than an exaggerated social life. The experience of solitary life, whether for life or for a time, will certainly help us to guard against false religion or narcissistic illusions. The aim is not to rest but to become fully conscious and awake. Far from being a drunken phoney abbot, the solitary is called to live life as it is, eschewing the quest for attention or admiration and being effaced.
Merton seems to introduce a certain dualism between being a solitary and the Romantic individualist. He was called to the hard and austere life of the Cistercian hermit, as was Fr Charles de Foucauld. I am not sure that all solitary life must be modelled on this radical austerity on pain of being sent back into the social life of common mortals. There would seem to be room for diversity.
Monastic hermits renounce divisive values like nation, group, family, politics, etc. but so do many other souls too. We have also to renounce our own ego and perhaps undergo the disintegration of the personality as described by several modern psychiatrists. Such an experience with make us wary of our concern for the appearance of everything, the ritualised aspect of liturgical life, the social dimension of the parish and its secular teaching. Merton describes the call to solitude as “silence, poverty and emptiness“. It is a way of paradox and apparent contradiction. Like Alan Watts, Merton inclined towards the “nihilism” of Zen Buddhism. I am not sure that Jesus was of that mind, or not entirely.
Solitude should be a witness to the spiritual dimension of Christianity taking precedence over the political and social aspects. It is a ministry, not of preaching and proselytising, but of healing the wounds of the world within oneself. The solitary is not so much the “specialised” monk who takes on a tougher observance of the rule, but who are chosen for it by having been alienated by the world. Solitude is won by suffering and disillusionment with the world with which we cannot relate.
The golden rule for any solitary is that appearances are not enough. It has to be an utterly honest and sincere approach to self and God. The solitary embarks for a voyage to the unknown, something absolutely different, a desert of emptiness that Jakob Böhme called the Ungrund. It is the abyss, without foundation. It is dark and irrational. It has no being. Thus Böhme described the origin of the world and evil. The Ungrund is a primordial freedom containing the ability to transform into matter, indeterminate even by God. It is only by accepting our own nothingness and void that we can begin to perceive God. Few of us will ever do so because of the sin of pride. The hermit will have his own personality and character but he is alone in his confrontation of God. The solitary is not always a mystic, but he is entirely on his own. He cannot live in modern society because it leaves no space for compassion or contemplation. Only today I saw a video about the condition of boys being initiated into manhood having the object of – competition and dominance. Its message was entirely the Ubermensch idea of Nietzsche. It was a salutary lesson to see it, even if some of the psychoanalysis about boys and their mothers made a considerable amount of sense.
It is easy to understand the story of St Anthony’s temptations in the desert. A multitude of demons came and started beating him. His suffering was immense, but he exclaimed “Here is Anthony. I do not flee your beatings nor pain, nor torture; nothing can separate me from the love of God“.
The story becomes that much more frightening as St Athanasius related:
“The demons made such a racket that the whole place was shaken, knocking over the four walls of the tomb; they came in droves, taking the form of all kinds of monstrous beasts and hideous reptiles. And the whole place was filled with lions, bears, leopards, bulls, wolves, asps, scorpions. The lions roared, ready to attack; bulls seemed to threaten him with their horns; snakes advanced, crawling on the ground, seeking a place of attack, and wolves prowled around him. They all were making a terrible noise. Groaning in pain, St. Anthony faced the demons, laughing: ‘If you had any power, only one of you would be enough to kill me; but the Lord has taken away your strength, so you want to frighten me by your number. The proof of your powerlessness is that you are reduced to taking the form of senseless animals. If you have any power against me, come on, attack me! But if you cannot do anything, why torment yourselves unnecessarily? My faith in God is my defence against you”.
I spent six months at the Abbey of Triors in 1996-97. I later wrote this reminiscence:
The monks in the distant choir were chanting the psalms of Matins in the gloom of the night. It was the day following the Feast of St. Joseph of 1997 as I sat alone in the empty nave of the Abbey church with my office book, not that I was as attentive to the words as I was on other mornings. They seemed no longer to matter. The candles on the altar gave a distant glimmer, and just enough light to read was given by carefully dimmed electric lamps high up in the coffered wooden vault.
The black shadows of the monastic cowls filled the plain wooden stalls, as the grey concrete pillars reached up to the high vault. Occasionally, one of the hooded figures would kneel and rise before returning to his misericorde, having presumably began to sing the wrong verse or confused one neume for another. Psalm after psalm, the monks continued in their chanting of the night office.
Unlike the monks, I had not slept for the whole night. It was the darkest day of my life, and under that shroud of profound hopelessness, I felt I had no further reason to live. Did God exist? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? If He existed, I prayed that I might die, that He would relieve me of the agony within my being. This must have been what it is like for a man who has been convicted and sentenced to a long term in prison, the businessman who lost all his money or the orphaned child. Indeed, the Abbot had frequently called me an “orphan” of the Church.
It was not in me to consider suicide. It is one thing to think about it, but the idea of actually throwing a piece of rope over a roof beam or taking a knife to cut my arteries would fill me with revulsion and horror. Even in these low depths, I would think of my parents who would always love me. Also, he who commits suicide commits a mortal sin in doing so, and would die without God. But, I prayed to God that He would do the deed, and take me away from this earth that meant nothing more to me. I waited for my heart to stop beating, but it did not.
Though I was making no sound, nor was I disturbing the Office, there was an occasional concerned glance of the Abbot in my direction. The office continued as I quietly sobbed in my pew. I would look up towards the apse of the church, my eyes moving around the blackened windows, as the night still held its deathly grip over the world. So the cold and empty depths kept its hold over my soul that morning.
The cold was piercing, as I wrapped myself in my black cloak and sat in my solitary place. The chanting continued, and the community came to the end of the second Nocturne and intoned Lauds. As they sung the Miserere, the verse Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus : cor contritum et humiliatum Deus non despicies had a special meaning for me. I had no need to follow it in my book, since the monks sang this psalm every day. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit, a broken and contrite heart wilt He not despise. This was my prayer, to a God I whose existence seemed more and more unsure, that He would accept my sacrifice.
Was my heart broken on account of my sins, something very wicked I had committed deserving of the heaviest canonical sanctions and punishments from God? He who hears you hears me. The ecclesiastical authority finds in these words a licence to take the place of God. Was it because of the words of my former superior the day before who had told me that my presence at the Abbey and following a canonical penance would make no difference?
Lauds came to a close as the bell tolled to summon the Brothers to serve the private Masses in the crypt and the monks sang the Benedictus. Beyond the east windows, the black was finally turning to a dark blue as the dawn began to herald a new day. My office book was still marked at the Venite, since I had not followed a word. As the office drew to a close, the silent and efficient sacristans began to prepare the numerous altars for the private Masses. It was time to go to the Abbot’s Mass in the crypt.
I rose from my pew as if I weighed several tons and slowly moved towards the glass doors between the narthex and the nave, as I had done every day. I noticed the slight smell in the neutral air carrying a hint of boot polish as I carried my little monastic breviary and the worn chant book in my hands. I also had my little Latin missal to follow the Mass, since the monks said their private Masses in complete silence. I made a bow to the altar and left the church through the glass doors and turned towards the little door leading to the crypt.
Going down the gloomy and dimly lit stairway between two high grey concrete walls, I arrived in the crypt. It felt like descending into the Führerbunker in Berlin, rather than into a place inhabited by God’s love. The first priest monks were vested and moving slowly towards to their altars accompanied by their servers wearing black cowls. Candles were still being lit as other monks were donning albs and the vestments for Mass. The altar under the apse of the church at the far end had four candles and the Pontifical Canon. It was the Abbot’s altar, and several people silently knelt in prayer as they waited for the Mass to begin. A strange silence reigned in this grey concrete bunker under the Abbey church. There were some twenty little chapels, each with a plain stone altar on which the priests of the community would celebrate Mass each morning. The cold grey polished concrete floor awaited its paving, perhaps a future low-priority item in the Cellarer’s budget.
At this point I felt as if I wished to vomit, as the boot polish smell grew stronger, mixed with the heavy smell of sweat, candles and damp concrete. I could no longer face this bleak sight that filled me with such sadness and despair. I turned around, climbed the stairs and went to my room in the guest house. I could take no more of it, and I felt repelled by the thought of doubting whether God even existed and receiving Communion as if this day was like any other.
What would bring someone to this degree of desolation? Was it the realisation that I had deceived myself for years in an illusory vocation, even to the point of having been ordained a deacon? All those years of hopes and dreams, broken almost on the point of priestly ordination, and now, nothing remained. What did the cassock I was wearing mean? Why was I in this house of prayer and monastic life?
The corridor leading to the guesthouse was totally deserted, and the air was thick with silence. I looked out of the window of the guest corridor overlooking the cloister to the countryside beyond. The new day was cloudy and dull. I returned to my room, undressed and returned to my bed, but sleep would not come to me. The words of the previous day were still echoing through my mind, gnawing at my soul like a demon out of hell. Sleep finally came until there was a knock on the door. It was the Abbot.
It was broad daylight, about nine in the morning, the time when the monks were in lectio divina. The Abbot understood everything before I said anything. There was little to say, only that I should make a pilgrimage to the little house where Marthe Robin had died some years before, and ask for the intercession of this humble servant of God who had suffered and expiated for her whole life. That morning, I drove the short distance to a small remote farmhouse in the Vercors hills where a few cars were parked. Again the same atmosphere of devotion oppressed me as a small number of pilgrims gathered in the humble bedroom where the servant of God had lived in agony for decades, finally relieved by death. They silently muttered the prayers of the Rosary. I joined them with my own rosary and made the effort to pray. The curtains were drawn in this darkened room, containing only a wardrobe, a small table and the neatly made bed. Pious images festooned the walls. Many people had come to this place during the life of Marthe Robin to ask her a pearl of her wisdom. She was now gone and present only in spirit.
What had brought me to this desolation? Why was the dice loaded against me from the very start, my vocation broken whilst still in the egg? Eight years later, the reason is painfully obvious. The notion of hope is a basic concept of existence, without which no one can live. If a man is deprived of hope, his spiritual and psychological life comes to an end. All psychologists know this. Hope determines human personality; it is connected with the basic instinct of self-preservation. A person who has no religion, or who is an atheist, depends entirely on himself and other persons, and understands the limits of the subject and object of his hope. For a believer, for a religious superior to willingly tamper with hope is a criminal act, a crime against humanity.
It would seem that living in the absence of hope is a part of monastic spirituality. It is also a technique of psychological torture that had been employed by the professional interrogators of the KGB and gurus of cults. If one maintains a person in controlled hopelessness for the right amount of time, the personality is broken and will comply with any requirement, like for example divulging secret information or giving unconditional obedience. A monk is trained to have hope only in God and to have no need of any earthly image or “icon” of that hope. It indeed takes a heroic and mystical soul to make a good monk – or a nihilist.
My own hope has been determined by my conditions and values in life. I always hoped for the love of God, reflected in that of other human beings. My vocation to the priesthood, my hope in which was nurtured up to the diaconate, is a vision of this love. The crucible that tested me that night between the 19th and 20th March 1997 was that of the whole crisis of modern humanity vacillating between faith, hope and love on one hand, and nothingness and despair on the other.
Why would this trial fall upon me? I believe that it was necessary to go through such an experience in order to bring hope to others, which is the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is surely the essence of the priestly vocation. I am not so self-centred as to believe that this can happen only to myself. I have seen people die from hopelessness. The Church will bear a great weight of responsibility for this, and the fact she is now going through her own “dark night of the soul” is evidence of poetic justice. It may take the bankruptcy and dissolution of entire dioceses to bring the message home, perhaps even the of the Vatican itself. One day, the Church will learn the value of hope for each of her most humble members in all conditions of life, and return to the mission of Jesus and the Gospel.
In a certain way, I must have been through such an experience, an episode of severe depression in reaction to being gaslit (I wish I had known about this term then!) the previous day by my old superior whom I had asked for reconciliation. It is easy to banalise or dramatise, but the scars from those days remain. Then would it be not be presumptuous to consider the life of a hermit? I am already one in my own mind. It is not the life of the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe on his island of paradise, but the arid and dry desert of one’s own inadequacies in the sight of God.
The only peace the hermit will find is in God alone. It is a lifelong wrestle that is ours alone without any help, as it is in marriage to a person who doesn’t care.
I have found the journey of Thomas Merton, like that of Alan Watts, very interesting. In a way, his and mine seem to resonate. I was a young Anglican church musician before converting to Roman Catholicism with a romantic view of liturgy and spirituality, but I was confronted with populist political ideology. I too was influenced by Thomism in Rome, Fribourg and the seminary of Gricigliano. By the end of 1997 I was expendable and expended, and still convinced of a vocation to the priesthood. It was not until 2017 that I would understand what was alienating me from everything to cause superiors and others to see me as unstable. That is indeed so for one who subscribed to the notion of an absolutely immovable and immutable God and the virtue of a person who has never changed in his whole life. To one Roman prelate I met, the very act of converting from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism is a sign of instability. It is change.
I have been brought to relinquish any resistance to that change. I ended up back in the Anglican Continuum and my priesthood has been accepted in something that can be objectively recognised as a Catholic Church. I was still seeking that stability that I believed was necessary to be acceptable as a priest.
What kind of hermit should I be? What would Dom Coureau of Triors say? It is not something to be attempted until one has been for years in a community and ready to live in a hovel provided by the community. Above all, that monk should have a particularly advanced experience of monastic life. That is not my way. I only spent six months in the guest house and was pretty miserable much of the time. I hung on in an attitude of pride: I would prove the superior who was gaslighting me wrong. I stayed two extra weeks as I checked over and tuned the organ I had brought from the UK and installed in the transept of the abbey church.
The French abbeys of the Solesmes Congregation are no exceptions to the rule of institutionalisation and convention. In his book Alan Watts wrote way back in 1947, Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion. I quote a paragraph from his introduction:
The present low ebb of Church religion consists in the fact that rarely, even for Church people, does it give the soul any knowledge of union with the reality that underlies the universe. To put it in another way, modern Church religion is little concerned with giving any consciousness of union with God. It is not mystical religion, and for that reason it is not fully and essentially religion.
That can apply also to monasteries when formalism trumps the individual spiritual aspirations of the men who occupy the choir stalls. I make no accusation against the community that kindly welcomed me and taught me my lesson. I am no more mystical than they and I live in the same dryness and agnosticism (etymological meaning of the word) as them. One thing that did not enter the equation was my “Aspergers” autism and my need to kick out against the walls of the cloister. We are brought up to believe that we must be a part of corporate humanity, a cog in the machine, in a relationship – whatever the cost. If solitary life is discouraged or even forbidden, then there seems to be little to expect from community life or marriage or anything else.
We need a notion of solitary life that goes beyond monastic rules and collective conventions. Anyone who has that degree of humanity and spiritual aspiration can live somewhere, appear to be someone very ordinary, and be a hidden treasure, a secret leaven in the loaf of bread. He can live in town and work in an ordinary job, but perhaps it is better to own a small house and a few outbuildings in the country and earn one’s loving by self-employment. Bernard Moitessier was such a man, more interested in eastern philosophies than in western religion. His hermitage was a sailing yacht. He was also capable of handling that boat in the most severe seas.
We have lessons to learn from Existentialist philosophers, men like Rob Riemen and the psychoanalysis of Jung and others in more or less a similar school. An autistic (high functioning) person is all too aware of the hollowness of collective life. He is alienated, not because he thinks himself better than anyone else, but because he cannot understand their unspoken language. An autist can “mask” and “play the game”, but inwardly remains elsewhere. He aspired to something other than the collectivist illusion.
The Orthodox theological tradition makes a stronger distinction between person and individual. Merton made a similar distinction as he criticised collectivism and considering solitude as selfishness and indulgence. Coming to terms with oneself is perhaps one of the most severe ascetic disciplines there are, no whipping, no hair-shirts, just honesty to God and oneself. Solitude has to be discovered and lived. It is not reserved to “trained” monks. We have to recognise our uniqueness and personhood outside of any institutional context. I am very encouraged to find the three websites early on this posting, as written by lay hermits as well as priests and former members of religious communities.
What does one do all day? Probably, it is not a very different life from that of many people who have a stable routine of getting up in the morning, going to work, eating meals at regular times and having time for leisure and hobbies. Add to that a daily Mass and Office, time spent in nature in forests, up mountains and on the sea. Then add the person’s ability to study and write, contributing to the heritage of philosophy, theology and other subjects.
I found a lot of interest in Buddhism and Hinduism in Merton, Watts, Dom Bede Griffiths and others. Personally I have not had the occasion to attend worship, even though it is available in western Europe. Their culture is so different from ours that simply attending their worship would leave me confused. That said, I understand why many in the 1960’s sought inspiration from India, Mongolia, China and Japan. Conventional Christianity has become too stale, perhaps irretrievably so. Whilst I resist the temptation of syncretism – mixing religions to produce a kind of artificial cocktail, I think we do have much to learn from Zen meditation and Hindu non-dualism. I am also a fan of the Perennialist René Guénon who converted to Islam in Egypt via Sufism.
I do believe that all experience in life can bring us to self-awareness, and therefore to God who is immanent within us as well as transcendent and infinite. Merton wrote:
This dynamic of emptying and of transcendence accurately defines the transformation of the Christian consciousness in Christ. It is a kenotic transformation, an emptying of all the contents of the ego-consciousness in order to become a void in which the light of God or the glory of God, the full radiation of the infinite reality of His Being and Love are manifested.
Solitude begins by being aware of a need to pull out of collective humanity and its materialism. Then one can live in a boat, or in a little house in the country, anything that “floats one’s boat” and ensure conditions for life. Some hermits were homeless like St Benoît Joseph Labre. Whatever, the most important thing is within, to transcend the world in order to seek wisdom and enlightenment.