Many years ago I found this “Hermits Unite” button in a catalog. I notice the button is still available. I had not thought of it until uncovering it from a hidden box or stack of folders stashed away somewhere. A quirky sense of humor; could be the logo for the Hermitary forum.
Needless to say, I have never worn this button outside of the house. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever worn it.
The Conferences of John Cassian (365-435) were intended to record conversations with desert hermits, but they read like theological essays presented by and to a more educated Western audience of clergy — which in fact was the readership of the Conferences.
The tracts, ascribed to conversations with desert hermits, record talks on the beliefs and values of the hermits as reconstructed by John Cassian’s pen. He was attempting to justify the eremitic model to a monastic and ecclesiastical system that was fast centralizing but was still flexible in structure and authority, especially with regards to eremitism versus coenobitism. The desert hermits would represent a challenge to the West in their exotic behavior and their theological sparsity. But John Cassian recognized the indispensible core of the hermits’ spirituality, prayer, asceticism and moral virtues, and preserved it with an aura of intelletual acumen.
Compared to the original Sayings, the Conferences lose the biting air of the desert, the heat of the Egyptian sun, the directness of the anecdotes. On the other hand, the Conferences become invaluable when we realize that Westerners at the time would have had no other translation or acquaintance with the desert fathers had it not been for John Cassian.
Despite the difference in style from the Sayings, there are many brilliant moments of pathos among the theological tracts of the Conferences. Here is one example.
Chaeremon, a withered old man over 100, when asked for some teaching, sighed deeply.
What teaching could I give you? The frailty of age has compelled me to relax my former austerity and has taken away any confidence in what I might have to say. How could I presume to teach what I do not practice? How could I instruct someone else in what, as I know, I do very little or lukewarmly? That is why I have allowed none of my juniors to live with me when I am this age. My example might weaken the austerity of someone else. The authority of a teacher will never be effective unless the fruit of deeds is impressed upon the heart of whoever is listening to him.
Albert Camus’ The Stranger is one of the more representative existentialist novels of the twentieth century. It is a bare story of an empty life, a self immolated by both self and society, a relentless and disturbing portrait of alienation. The protagonist is the solitary as conceived by society, the very image of the solitary that the world wants and expects: indifferent, lacking convictions, without time, love, or conscience.
These words of the protagonist in prison strike an ironic tone, presented as evidence, perhaps, of madness, like all the other behaviors the jury will scrutinize about the protagonist. And yet the words could be those of a hermit of legend.
I’ve often thought that had I been compelled to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but gaze up at the path of the sky just overhead, I’d have got used to it by degrees. I’d have learned to watch for the passing of birds or drifting clouds …
In his 2000 book, The Twilight of American Civilization, Norman Berman excoriates the shallow popular culture of contemporary U.S. society, sounding a clarion for sustaining the classical and the enduring. This sounds very conservative, even reactionary. But Berman also excoriates corporate corruption, profit motive, and consumer society with its mindless acquisitiveness and its abuse of the environment. Here Berman seems to sound the opposite side of the spectrum. How to reconcile his values?
What we narrowly call opinion and poles of a spectrum are themselves defined by the narrowness of the very culture. Thus Berman is intent upon going beyond what one writer calls the “right-left fallacy” and tapping the human psyche beyond personality and social convention.
As an alternative, then, Berman proposes the enlightened individual who takes on the tasks in personal and daily life of a “secular monastic” model — preserving the best of culture while embracing simplicity and an ascetic sense of habit and consumption. It is a monastic model in that its structure is a succession to a successful historical one, but it is necessarily secular today in that the aura of faith (one faith, anyway) across an entire civilization is obviously gone. It is secular, too, in that the model must be universal and perennial. Berman sees this as largely something individuals will pursue and reconcile, not groups or organizations.
It is a pursuit that many solitaries have already quietly understood as exemplars for their lives.
A too-popularized mysticism can parody suffering and dismiss its very ontological reality. This is the fine paradox risked by Eastern thought. Occasionally, it reaches virtual sleight of hand, as in Paramahansa Yogananda’s reconciling of suffering and evil with God. He insists that suffering is mere “divine play” of a dream-spinning God, just God’s “cosmic entertainment.” He advises those who suffer, those who live (all of us): “Watch yourself from the balcony of introspection.” We know that a truth lies at the core of this advice, but it is expressed in a flippant way that is more irritating than enlightening. Can we toss off easy nostrums to those who suffer violence, hunger, disease, or other human degradation? Does this nostrum address sorrow or unhappiness at the cruel twists of fate — especially at the hands of others?
We need to fully experience sorrow and suffering in order to credibly transcend it. But even then, we are not transcending something so much as enlightening ourselves, so that the source of sorrow, the memory of experience, does not go away but is understood and appreciated as a clue into the nature of reality. It may be that we resent that witness watching from the balcony as we grope, cringe, struggle, and sob. Yes, we will have to pick ourselves up in order to carry on. But we will also want to tell that witness on the balcony to come downstairs and join the living.