After more than three weeks of analysis, decompression, and procrastination, I finally have a few thoughts on my hermitage experience.
I was a Franciscan hermit for nearly 95 hours. With the exception of an hour and a half a day for mass, dinner, and evening prayer, I was left a in a one-person cabin by myself. I was without a phone, computer, television, newspaper, and clock, leaving me with no way to know anything about the world outside of what my own senses could perceive. I was alone with myself. I was alone with God.
At the onset, I was very excited, but unsure of what was in store. I knew from my experience at Mt. Savior (Living In the Moment) that prayer did not have to be planned, systematized, well-constructed, or even articulated in an understandable way for it to be affective. Rather than seeing prayer as something that begins with the sign of the cross and ceases to exist with the final Amen, I needed to understand prayer as more of a constant act, a conscious state of being that both informs my every action and is informed by my worldly experiences. Every moment can be a prayer if I allow it to be. With this in mind, I closed the door, entered into solitude with this to say:
So what’s my plan? I have no idea. I’m afraid of the free-flowing, “do-whatever-I-feel-called-to-do” type retreat because it has the possibility of getting nothing done. On the other hand, too much planning (or even any at all) doesn’t leave room for God to operate. In that way, I’m going to err on the side of inefficiency. I’m going to let God lead.
With that said, I also knew that there was absolutely no way that my IFNJ/3 personality was going to be able to survive five days of solitude without at least a framework from which to start. Each morning I woke up with the sun around 7:00 and prayed morning prayer on my porch. After a simple breakfast, I would return to the porch to gaze at nature and contemplate a few things with God for an hour or so. When the time felt right, I would come in to shower, pray midmorning prayer (which, with midday and midafternoon, only takes about 5 minutes) and head out for a hike. After a good hike it was usually time for lunch, and so I sat an ate my humble meal (pictured above) with a prayer. By this point in the day, I started getting a little itchy and needed to actually accomplish something (or I would go crazy), so I usually sat for a while and read either from the Gospels or Francis’ writings, filling in the time before dinner with “productive things.” The bell rang sometime around 4:30, and it was off to Mass, dinner, and evening prayer with my brothers, before returning ever so soon for some more solitude. Partially because I was bored out of my mind at this point of the night, and partially because I was tired, I found myself heading to bed with the darkness, what I can only guess was about 8:30 or 9:00.
It may seem like a lot of “planning” for someone who was letting God lead, but each day was somehow entirely different. One day on my hike, I prayed my own Canticle of the Creatures in the style of the Rosary, replacing each Hail Mary with a praise of God through one of his creations, followed by Francis’ prayer before the crucifix. This was completely off-the-cuff, and to no surprise, moved me in a profound way. Similarly, I decided on another day to observe each of the hours of the Divine Office, but to use my own prayers instead of the ones in the breviary so as to be more attentive to where I was being moved at that moment.
And do you know what? Even if it does seem like a lot, it took me more than twelve hours to complete it all! Do you have any idea how quiet, quiet can be when there’s nothing to do but sit and listen? Better yet, do you have any idea how much there is to hear/feel/understand/know when you’re still enough to let it happen? It’s dangerous, I tell you!
In the stillness of the moment, I was reminded of two people that I had neither spoken to nor thought about in years. What makes these individuals special is that they hurt me in a profound way a long time ago, and I have bottled my resentment towards them ever since, never seeking to let go or to seek reconciliation. Only when my heart was still enough to hear God did I realize that my subconscious bitterness towards both of them had been stinting my relationship with God, and that it was time for me to “unclench my fist” so to speak. Was it possible for me to love God while hating my brother, I asked myself. Providentially, the Gospel that afternoon was The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), a Gospel that gave me a pretty good answer. Without the openness to be still, I would have never heard in the way I needed to hear it.
Which brings me to the culminating point of this post: this moment is sufficient. Unlike in our Western, capitalistic society in which we’ve been trained to want more and to work to achieve more in the future, God offers everything that we could ever possibly want in each present moment: Himself. As C.S. Lewis correctly points out in the Screwtape Letters, “The present is the point at which time touches eternity” (#15). To be more concerned with future possibilities than with present realities is it to implicitly accept a false existence, a construct of our own imaginations that bears only a semblance of truth, over the concrete Truth presented to us by God in this moment alone. While we should always remain hopeful for the future, and plan for it in the sense that we will be open to the new possibilities that God may provide, to allow either of these to distract us from the fullness of God’s presence in our lives in this very moment is utterly useless. When I was still enough to listen, I realized that there’s nothing I need to be left wanting for. In this moment, I can know God.