Recently, a reader of this blog inquired about Catholic hermits seeking solitude, and why. The response right now is not going to be an eloquent essay on solitude. Rather, am tired out from pain and having to travel for construction supplies, medication, some food staples, and get input on paint colorants.... So writing with eloquence on the topic of solitude, philosophically or poetically, is dashed by physical and temporal limitations today.
However, perhaps this is a good thing. The late Thomas Merton who attempted the hermit vocation for a couple or so years, rather unsuccessfully as it turned out, wrote eloquently, theologically, spiritually, and philosophically about solitude in a book titled, Thoughts in Solitude. This Catholic hermit highly recommends the book, incidentally, for anyone as solitude is a gift and blessing to us all at certain times of our lives, including daily doses of it.
But as for the hermit vocation, Merton struggled with solitude due to his fame as a well-published and reviewed author, an international speaker who traveled quite a bit, and as a man who in his late 50's fell in love with a student nurse less than half his age, whom he met when having a surgery. The dalliance continued long enough for phone calls and assignations arranged by his friends outside the monastery.
Thankfully, for everyone involved, a fellow monk became suspicious with the numerous phone calls and overheard the lovers' conversation at one point, and reported it to the monastery abbot. Merton was given the option of breaking off the heterosexual , slowing down his international travels and speaking engagements, or leave the religious life.
Now, all of the above is public record, detailed in posthumously published journals. In fact, it is an excellent example of our human condition, of our temptations no matter our age or position in life, and the ever-present opportunity for making choices leading to change and also redemption. While Merton's choice to remain a priest and Cistercian monk was extremely painful for the young woman who had been swept off her feet by an older man--no less a very famous priest and monk--it was a wise choice for Merton's vocation and reputation as a Catholic priest and monk, as well as for the Church, overall.
By then, the pitfalls of his hermit experiment had overcome him. He returned to his more public and renowned position as author, poet, speaker, and at that time, interest in Buddhism. Within months, Merton entered into the profound solitude of sorts that we all will experience when we leave this noisy and busy world. He was accidentally electrocuted in Bankok, Thailand, after having delivered a speech opposing the war in Viet Nam.
What this discussion hopefully points out, is that solitude for any Catholic hermit is an aspect of the vocation which most likely is undergirded by the very necessary provision in the Church's documents on the eremitic vocation. To be "hidden from the eyes of men in the silence of solitude" seems integral and key to successfully seeking and finding one's stride in solitude.
All hermits owe a debt of gratitude for Merton's relatively short-lived hermit experiment, as being a world-famous writer, speaker, monk and priest is unlikely to ever ensure being hidden from the eyes of men, and thus precludes the silence of solitude. Anonymity seems essential for a hermit seeking solitude. It seems good to try out vocations or even a few aspects of some vocations to which one may feel called. Why not? How else will we discover God's will, for sure? Merton's experience highlights the aspects of hermit life and solitude that any consecrated Catholic hermit faces: Temptations in the adaptation to and within the silence of solitude.
It can be too much silence in solitude too soon--our cutting off from being known or noticed, being interactive socially or communally, facing the demons and ourselves...alone in our abodes, our cells, alone with our bodies, our minds, our emotions and our souls. Having an experienced spiritual director, adept with the eremitic lifestyle himself but more so the spiritual life with all inherent purgations, is invaluable. More so, it is key to be malleable, humble, compliant and desirous to seek solitude not for any external motivation, but for the interior one: Union with His Real Presence.
Another aspect of a Catholic hermit's seeking solitude beyond it being requisite in the Church's documents on the Consecrated Life of the Church, the Eremitic Vocation, is that of being called by God to the vocation. It is God Who calls the hermit to seek Him in solitude; yet it is God Who ultimately offers and paces and governs the amount and depth of solitude in continual flux dependent upon how He wills for the life and soul of the hermit.
In the years Thomas Merton was a monk and priest compared to the couple or so years he experimented with the hermit vocation, the latter was an eye-blink of time in earth hours, and within those hours were many not actually spent in solitude, after all. However, the attempt is beautiful; it was earnest and heart-felt even if ultimately disrupted and abandoned as not feasible for Merton. Perhaps the greatest benefit he left for those with hermit vocations are his writings on solitude.
This nothing consecrated Catholic hermit did not set out writing these particular details and thoughts in response to a reader's inquiry on Catholic hermits seeking solitude. Yet, somehow, it has hopefully helped answer something of what there is about solitude, or especially the silence of solitude, that is worth our seeking and why. The snares and struggles involved in seeking and hopefully finding ourselves in God, in the silence of solitude, are the bulk of the answer. They are what brings each of us to face our very own souls in the reflection of God's pure knowledge, power, and eternal light. The struggles and snares in the silence of solitude bring us to the point of facing what we are not, and Who He Is.
He Is Mercy and Love. He Is All to our nothing, whether we be hermit or not.
God bless His Real Presence in us! Little children, let us love one another as God Is Love!