franciscan - September 2005
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2005
A Hermit in the City
Catherine Joy CSF
Tell us about the relationship between your work and your prayer, the balance of your life.
Balance, baloney! Something balanced is going nowhere, unless you're on a bicycle, but I fell off that.
The art of juggling, now that might work better, but I'll stick with balance.
Sometimes prayer is more weighted. At other times it's work. The scales may tip in favour of sleep one day, gardening or reading or piano playing the next. It may be that silence and aloneness heave in heaviest for a while and then flip suddenly into feasting with friends………
….. to be as good a (hermit) as I can and to remain myself and to write about it. To put myself down on paper ….. with the most complete simplicity and integrity, masking nothing, confusing no issue: this is very hard because I am all mixed up with illusions and attachments … no need for breast beating and lamentation before the eyes of anyone but You, O God, who see the depths of my fatuity…
Tom Merton wrote that, not me, but he does put it so darn well.
If this more solitary trek is teaching me anything at all, it is that my own schlapp through life lies in the desert of ordinariness - kicking at the empty cans of my own rubbish, the litter of illusion; manoeuvering around the clutter of accumulated trash, the debris of self-deceit and aggrandizement; watching the wrappers of discarded beliefs and silly ideas, relinquished so reluctantly, blown away by the crafty, playful wind of the Spirit. Just very occasionally the light hits a broken piece of something lying in the dust (perhaps another shattered image?) and transforms it into prismatic beauty, a glint, a hint of something hidden there in the shards.
And, guess what? The boxes are disappearing one by one. They have been for many years. First they were prized open (and believe me, this did not feel like gifts at Christmas) and the contents emptied out and now there aren't even any boxes anymore! Nothing to clutch, hold …. hold on to.
Could be liberation. It often feels more like emptiness, lost-ness, the verge of terror, mystery. One step closer?
My icon for this solitary escapade has always been Jesus' descent into hell. What I understand to be his total immersion in the land of our human 'unlikeness', that experience where the vacuum or narcissism sucks the light right out of our soul. The people I work with often tell me that hell is here on earth. Have you ever been close to the fringes of your own hell? I have been driven to the brink of my own Pit on a number of occasions and at the time I did not find Jesus waiting there to hoist me out ……. at the time, that is, but looking back…
And so this icon leaps off the wall; leaves its cosy place before candles and incense and arrives in the eyes of a man peering at me, piercing me with his agonized gaze through a faeces-smeared slit in his isolation cell door.
One solitary looks at another.
I can never enter this man's nightmare world of damaged psyche; never know the experience of his childhood's horrific abuse; never claim his genetic pre-disposition to severe mental illness, nor his battle with uncontrollable rage and unbearable pain; never hear the voices that plague him or know that terrifying alienation from self. I can, and do, extend my hand to him as far as I can reach… through that narrow way in the door. ….to my brother on the other side.
'I cannot withdraw from the mess people are in.'… Well, I guess, neither can I. (That was Merton again, by the way.)
Every day at this work, I am challenged. Where is hope? What is good news here? Is there any way to send the peace of Christ to calm those terrified eyes? Some balm from God to ease that broken heart of my brother solitary, staring at me through that foul window slit?
'Here, I must constantly revise all my absurdities.' (Merton again) and I will add, all my 'religious' head trips. Both feet firmly on the ground, hand reaching out in friendship, bound together by God's compassion, well, I believe that, but this man has probably never tasted anything remotely akin to compassion in his life.
'Everything that affects you builds you into a (hermit) as long as you do not insist on doing the work yourself and building your own kind of hermitage.' (Tom, again. I'll have to say that he is proving to be a good companion.)
Now, here is something from a very learned man, the Revd. Dr. John Swinton. He is writing about the friendships of Jesus in the context of mental health care:
This offer of friendship to the profoundly, severely mentally ill is part of my life at the moment.
Clinging to the living rock of this God of Life; grafted onto the Christ Vine - my soul is held fast by a captivating mystery while my life dances to the rhythms of the Spirit: now inner certainty, then paralyzing doubt - of everything; swept up next into joy shot through with anguish for the groaning of creation; my body, now full of creative energy, now too weary even to pray; longings, deep yearnings for this God whose very existence my ever present agnosticism questions, then down into the arid absence of all desire; then laughter with friends followed by intense listening to the wounded and my own heart bleeding just a little.
Sunlight dappling new leaves. My first spring in this garden. I am delighted by the loveliness it is unfolding for me: foxgloves, daffodils and a myriad blue, bluebells. A single iris and the green spears of gladioli pushing through.
The ugliness of this neighbourhood and the warmth and friendly characters who live in it.
Here I am, in the middle of it all………
Such is my solitary endeavour, at present.
I'd like my friend Merton to have the last word:
'For of all people, the solitary knows least where she is going and yet she is more sure, for there is one thing she cannot doubt: she travels where God is leading her. That is precisely why she doesn't know the way. That too is why, to most other men and women, the way is something of a scandal.'
With apologies to Tom for a little editing here and there.
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