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Blog entries beginning with #101 are not essays but minimally-edited notes and reviews from the files I've collected over the last few decades. I no longer have the time and energy needed to sort out and put together into decent essay-form the many varied ideas in these files, but I would like to share them with all who are interested.
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Post #120 offers notes and reflections stimulated by a book I read in Jan, 2000, about the contribution individuals make to the emergence of post-patriarchal society.
HERMITS, Peter France, St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
This is a well done book. The author lives in England, but spends part of each year as a hermit on the island of Patmos, with Bishop Kallistos as his spiritual father.
There are chapters on Christian hermit groups, including the Desert Fathers and the Russian startsy, as well as individuals such as Charles de Foucauld, T. Merton and Merton’s friend Robert Lax (who also lives on Patmos but as a full time hermit, which he has done for thirty years). There also are chapters on non-Christian hermits such as the early Greek Cynics, Thoreau and the Hindu Ramakrishna.
The chapter on the Optina monastery is of great interest and the one on Merton is especially stimulating, but the best is the one on the Desert Fathers; it’s likely the best thing written about them since Merton’s own work.
The Taoists were probably the earliest hermits to arise within a civilization. The author nods to them and the early hermits of India.
Within western civilization, Socrates and those followers of his known as the Cynics emerge as the first humans to consciously live as individuals rather than more or less unconsciously as group participants in a city- state.
The author stresses how totally immersed in the collective people were in the Homeric age. As I have observed previously, with regard to the Grail legends, it is difficult for us today to appreciate how little a person’s self-worth came from within rather than from external approval and socially-conferred status.
The author says the Socratic Cynics emerged not too long after the early Taoists, and were likely influenced, via trade routes, by the religious thought of India. The Cynics sound very much like the early Christians, and the author claims there is a fairly direct link from the Cynics to the Desert Fathers. (An in-depth comparison between the life-styles of the Cynics and the early Christians might be a source of major insights into what might be unique about Christianity.)
The essence of the hermit life of the Cynics and of the Desert Fathers is independence from conventional human society: opting more for life with nature than with culture. The hermit is an outsider, a stranger to the conventional perspectives of the culture of the day.
This is expressed primarily, at least in terms of the Desert Fathers, by living apart from society and especially by not commenting on the established culture: being silent and having no expressed opinions. (Clearly this distinguishes the hermit from the prophet; although the eremitical life may be prophetic, the individual hermit does not take on a prophetic role.)
The Desert Fathers persisted for several centuries (longest in Syria) and their heritage eventually passed to the hermits of Mount Athos and still later to those of northern Russia.
In western Christianity, the trend was to cenobitic (communal) monasticism, via the Rule of St. Benedict, although the eremitical life emerged again around 1000 AD with the Camaldolese in Italy and the Carthusians in France.
In modern times, outside the established Christian traditions, eremiticism appeared at about the same time (early 19th century) with Ramakrishna in India and H. D. Thoreau in New England, both of whom had and continue to have immense influence in the modern world. Charles de Foucauld did his thing in the late 19th century, and Merton his in the mid-20th century. The author says Merton did more to publicize the hermit life than anyone since Simon Stylites.
Personally, the hermit archetype has been a powerful image for me since adolescence. I found the chapter on Merton especially interesting for several reasons. One is that I am able to compare my own inner development chronologically with Merton’s, but that’s primarily of only personal interest. More importantly, the chapter on Merton helps make clear what being a hermit is all about (the essence of the hermit ideal), and perhaps even more significantly, it points out two aspects of the eremitical life which represent, via Merton, evolutionary advances.
Merton’s first hermitage was nothing more than a room, newly built following a fire at the monastery, near the infirmary stairs, where he was able to spend some time daily. Of reading in this special cell he writes, "One is alone, not on guard, utterly relaxed and receptive." I think those words (especially “not on guard”) may capture the essence of the hermit’s wants and needs.
Later Merton used an outside tool shed and still later a cabin the woods, where he was gradually permitted to spend more and more time, and where eventually he lived full time. What he does there, he says, is simply to "live in complete harmony with what is around me." That, I think, is the essence of the hermit’s goal, communion with all. And the means to that goal: freedom from the need of being "on guard."
Of the two evolutionary developments within the eremitical perspective which seem especially significant to me, the first is a reappraisal of asceticism. Merton eventually got electricity in his hermitage and, with it, a refrigerator. On that occasion (probably, I would guess, in reaction to criticism) he wrote of his doubts about the intrinsic value of the past ascetical practices within the church.
"Depth psychology… has made these things forever questionable. They belong to another age and another kind of consciousness. Artificially austere practices… prevent… and can be a substitute for deep change. (We) need to avoid all trappings and décor of a theatrical eremiticism-- the hood, the costume, the diet, the stone pillow…. These things are affectations."
Later he wrote, "The hermit exists today to realize and experience in himself the ordinary values of a life lived with the minimum of artificiality."
The other change in perspective which seems especially significant to me is mentioned almost in passing by the author. If, as Jung indicates, the Grail legends along with Gnosticism and Alchemy are part of a great tradition of individuation outside the patriarchal establishment, and if we are indeed moving toward a post-patriarchal era, then a major shift in the hermitical tradition would seem to be called for.
As outlined in this book, eremiticism arose within the context of patriarchal civilization. Yet we know that the shamanic personality, characterized by that same developmental reality we today call the individuation process, appeared much earlier. And so it is the pre-patriarchal perspectives of the Paleolithic hunting culture that we must recover if we are to move toward a post-patriarchal world and into the future.
Merton points this out in a wonderful passage. Once, alone in the woods, he saw three deer-- a stag and two does. Afterwards, he wrote:
"The thing that struck me most-- when you look at them directly and in movement you see what the primitive cave painters saw. Something you never see in a photograph. It is most awe-inspiring. The ‘muntu’ or the ‘spirit’ is shown in the running of the deer. The ‘deerness’ that sums up everything and is sacred and marvelous. A contemplative intuition, yet this is perfectly ordinary, everyday seeing-- what everybody ought to see all the time. The deer reveals to me something essential, not only in itself, but also in myself. Something beyond the trivialities of my everyday being, my individual existence. Something profound. The face of that which is in the deer and in myself."