Hermit Rules for Lenten Disciplines
Once upon a time, there was an African hermit who, without really intending to, became the abbot of a bunch of other hermits out in the Egyptian desert. These hermit neighbors had fallen into chaos, trying to pray and share life together, so, in about 324 A.D., Pachomius stepped up and wrote a rule of life to organize and unify everyone — as much as he could, anyway. Hermits are not exactly joiners.
Years later, his hermit rule was adapted by St. Benedict and others into rules of life for communities of monks and nuns. However, as one of my favorite books about hermit life, Consider the Ravens, by Karen and Paul Fredette, points out, the spiritual life in solitude is pretty different from the spiritual life in community. First, in a monastery a rule is needed to keep group activities and logistics orchestrated and running smoothly, while for one person, that isn’t necessary. Also, in a monastery, the purpose and energy are carried by a whole community, while in solitude, it is carried by just one person and God. That can be easier, and that can be much harder.
Living with others is challenging, but so is living with yourself, even if you are not a full-time hermit. One of the chapters in my book Holy Solitude is called “Enduring Yourself.” Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy: over-criticizing and over-blaming myself. Sometimes I try to be someone I’m not: an idealized version of myself or of a “Spiritual Person” who doesn’t really exist. Sometimes I hide myself: to avoid risk or pain, numbing myself with social media, distractions, or other addictive stuff. Sometimes I inflate myself: taking up so much room with my feelings, thoughts, or actions that there is not much room for anyone else -- or God -- to be there too.
That being said, looking back, I wish I had given that chapter a title more like “Forgiving Yourself” or “Accepting Yourself,” because having opening yourself to the grace of God and having compassion for yourself, is the only way through it that I can see.
A healthy vow of solitude means keeping a rule of some kind but also being willing to let go and listen to whatever God and the world may be asking of you, each day. As the Fredettes and other hermit-writers I’ve read explain, adhering too tightly to a schedule and structure can be spiritually damaging. If you’re always thinking about keeping your rule, your feelings and thoughts will bend toward enforcement, judgment, the self, and scarcity, instead of toward grace, change, hospitality, and abundance. The point of a life of solitude (the point of any spiritual life, perhaps) is love of God and love of neighbor, which can only happen through growing in love, not through growing in discipline.
This same wisdom is true about keeping a Lenten discipline. Hermits went out into the desert to be closer to God, not to punish themselves or others. This got lost in Christian history and Lent became a Discipline-and-Deprivation-Fest. Yes, fasting can lead to clarity and giving something up is not without spiritual benefit. But in times like these, where our lives have felt like a two-year fast, where we have already Given. Up. So. Much., I hope you will consider carefully: What sort of desert do you truly long for this year? What practice could bring you to a place of openness, clarity, wonder, or quiet?
Here are three quotes from my favorite hermit teachers that can be read either in terms of keeping a hermit rule or keeping a Lenten practice:
“It becomes more important to have a daily routine that is in synch with our God-given nature than to have a rule that impresses all who read it … but which is impossible for us to keep without a major ‘makeover’ of our true selves.” (Fredette, 122)
“Keep the schedule immovable enough to keep your natural habit restrained, and flexible enough to enable you to be led.” (Jones, 111)
“I abandoned discipline. I became erratic in my daily practices. I looked at each day individually, and listened within to see what was needed to relate to this silence within me. Slowly, new patterns have emerged.” (Taylor, 23)
The purpose of spiritual solitude, and the spiritual life in general, is not good order or perfection. Not escape or peace of mind either. It’s to behold God’s presence, to behold the self, to behold our fellow humans, and to behold all creation, with eyes of love and wonder. And so, yes, the task is focus and purpose, but also: Not To Fret So Much. Our task is to see with eyes of compassion first. As Meister Eckhart puts it: “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” A spiritual discipline is supposed to help us grow in wisdom and love, not to grow in how well we keep the spiritual discipline.
Thanks be to God. Have a blessed Lent.
Books I mention, with links:
Fredette, Karen and Paul. Consider the Ravens. (iUniverse, 2009).
Haverkamp, Heidi. Holy Solitude. (Westminster John Knox, 2015).
Jones, W. Paul. Teaching the Dead Bird to Sing. (Paraclete, 2002).
Taylor, Barbara Erakko. Silent Dwellers. (Continuum, 1999).
“No Shopping Till Easter” Resolution: UPDATE
Gah. In my last newsletter I declared a resolution not to buy anything that wasn’t for sale at the grocery store or otherwise a necessary item. Let’s just say that this is going miserably. I mean, it could be worse, and more importantly, I’m learning a lot about myself, my rationalizations, and my weaknesses - more than if I hadn’t made the resolution. That, in some ways, is the true value, more than achieving perfection at this discipline (see also: above essay). I mean to keep trying until Easter all the same. I like this old explanation of the monastic life: “We fall down and get up again. We fall down and get up again.”
To Hear More From Heidi
Sermon Preached at Christ Church Cathedral, “Made From Dust and Heaven,” February 20, 2022, Epiphany 7 (starts at about minute 28:00).
Written Interview with Cara Gilger, of “My Scattered Shelf,” on Everyday Connections: Reflections and Practices for Year C, January 2022.
My Newest Book - It’s not too late to order and use Everyday Connections: Reflections and Practices for Year C, for your personal or small-group study this year. The paperback right now on Amazon is down to $38 and a Kindle version is only $15.
Spiritual Direction, After finishing an internship in 2020, I started offering spiritual listening and guidance to both clergy and lay people, of many traditions, over Zoom or in person. If you’re interested or want to schedule a free introductory chat, respond to this email or contact me.
Still need a book for Lent ?
Check out Heidi’s Lent devotional: Holy Solitude: Lenten Reflections with Saints, Hermits, Prophets, and Rebels - "The book is an invitation to learn from those who have gone before us: saints, rebels, prophets and hermits. It’s an opportunity to follow a wise guide into a more holy life equipped and fortified by simple practices."—Presbyterian Outlook
Pre-order my friend Teri’s new book: Necessary Risks: Challenges Privileged People Need to Face — Ten risks, including to risk learning, risk teaching, risk leading, risk following, risk going, and risk staying, to consider, alongside teachings from theologians and thinkers of color like James Baldwin, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, and other.
A New Podcast About Desert Spirituality That I’m Excited About
“In Search Of” is a weekly podcast that explores mind-expanding, spirit-enhancing, heart-opening moments in a life of faith. Amy Frykholm is your host, and in the first season, out to the desert in search of saints and sages. You can listen to a preview by clicking here, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
The Rev. Heidi Haverkamp, Indianapolis IN