- A highly respected Trappist abbot, Andre Louf, had this to say about the hermit life:
“ In a sense the effect of solitude is a secularizing one; it gives release from many false ideas and illusions, from myth of every kind. It teaches one how to be an ordinary human being, frail and in need of help.”
So much in that short quote; so much I would heartily agree with; and yet there may be more there than he intended but which I also found fascinating.
Now we all live within myths, by myths, through myths. These are one of the means that make our lives more than just “one damn thing after another.” Myths lend coherence to all our choices, illumine our grasp of the past, and give us a horizon to aim for as our future. The human being needs myth as much as air, water, and food. This is not what Louf is talking about.
Human beings are very talented mythmakers, and this is pervasive in all aspects of their lives, and this also includes especially religion and spirituality. With the beginning of the modern era came an intellectual movement, “secularization,” really a call for a kind of demythologizing of religion among other things. The science of history and rationality would be all that is allowed in understanding the essence of religion, etc. We won’t get into that here, but what was not seen is that our sense of our history and our rationality are inevitably interwoven with mythology. You can’t have one without the other. The thinking behind “demythologizing” is itself fraught with myths of its own. And all this too is not what Louf is referring to….but we are getting close.
Myths can be and often are also an obstruction to our vision, a kind of drug that mimics reality, and sometimes just plain toxic to our heart and mind.
Louf speaks of “false ideas and illusions,” things which afflict folks both in secular life and religious life. People in secular life are fed toxic myths by their culture; they are drugged by self-images that chain them to an ultimate futility, and so on. But people in religious life are prone to their own version of such toxic myths. Merton has written especially well about all this. So Louf is proposing that real solitude can have a salutary effect on these kind of ills, purging the “false ideas and illusions” of religious life. Mostly all this is very, very true; and yet one must add that hermits are susceptible to their own version of these illusions. No one is immune; and the purging process of “demythologizing” might be too steep a mountain to climb for some.
- The ancient Greeks believed that the human person was communal by nature, meant to live in community. They had a saying that someone who lived in solitude was either a madman or a god. Interesting implications!
Solitude gets hard, very, very hard without a certain supply of mythology. The hermit begins to fill the void by telling himself stories, even subconsciously. Stories about who he/she is; stories about what their life is about. Inevitably and initially these stories are a kind of self-preoccupation, making the hermit’s life into something “special.” For some this can end up in a kind of craziness; for many others it’s a sad spectacle of human beings working very hard to “fortify” their stories in various ways. BUT…if the process of solitude unfolds in a healthy way, a kind of deconstruction of these stories, a very real personal demythologizing, begins to take place; and then one rediscovers, or more likely discovers for the first time, the “specialness” of ordinary life. And the heavy burden of some “identity” or credentials (whether created/imposed by one’s society or one’s own fantasy) yields to the freedom and “lightness” of being nobody, a “true person of no title” as Zen puts it.
- And this brings us to our Zen friends, who I think best illustrate what Louf is pointing to (but I doubt he would agree with this!). Consider the following from Zen:
“When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinsu priest…was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him. Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared, but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise. ‘The founder of our sect,’ boasted the priest, ‘had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air. Can you do such a wonderful thing?’ Bankei replied lightly: ‘Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.’”
(from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones)
“A monk told Joshu, ‘I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.’ Joshu asked, ‘Have you eaten your rice porridge?’ The monk replied, ‘Yes, I have eaten.’ Joshu said, ‘Then you had better wash your bowl.’ Mumon’s comment: Joshu is the man who opens his mouth and shows his heart. I doubt if this monk really saw Joshu’s heart.
(from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones)
“Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water”
“My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing.
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
My supernatural power and marvelous activity:
Drawing water and chopping wood.”
Much could be said about these, but I will refrain from commentary. Suffice it to say these zen accounts illustrate a nuanced version of what Louf is pointing to. Just my opinion, but I think that zen is more effective and goes deeper in demythologizing our personal spiritual life (though not without perils of its own). Probably Louf would not agree! But speaking from experience, the new Christian monk has few resources to help him/her discover the “right path”; but they will find a plethora of “distractions” of a spiritual/religious kind. And as for the full Christian hermit living a full solitary life, if he/she is not open to this personal, intimate demythologizing of their life, they will likely succumb to a weirdness and an impoverishment that is truly lamentable.
Closely associated with the above is of course the myth of the “special way,” which of course makes one “special.” The rigors of a full solitude will work very hard to deconstruct the “specialness” of one’s position as a hermit, but sad to say many hermits still are able to keep building and rebuilding that fortress of “specialness.” And the institution of the Church is there with its seal of approval.
And for all those of us not living in solitude but caught up in “religious busyness,” here is a wise word from Meister Eckhart:
“If a person thinks he will get more of God by meditation, by devotions, by ecstasies or by a special infusion of grace, than by the kitchen stove or in the stable—that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak around his head and shoving him under a bench. For whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way and misses God, who lies hidden in it. But whoever seeks God without any special way gets him as he is in himself, and that person lives with the Son and is life itself.”
- Then there is the myth of “goodness/holiness.” Consider this story from the Gospel of Luke(18:18-22):
“And a ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? Only God is good. You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal….’ All these I have observed from my youth.’ And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, ‘One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have, and distribute to the poor…and come follow me.’”
What a remarkable account…so simple yet so subtle and profound. We
all have inside us this need to see ourselves, and for others to see us, as
“good”; and for some the appearance, the feeling, the approbation of
“holiness.” Look how Jesus, like a zen master, demythologizes that sense
of goodness the man had in one stroke. “Why do you call me good? Only
God is good.” For too many “goodness” consists in “keeping the rules.”
Jesus does not throw this out. For a harmonious community and a
harmonious way of life a certain rule-keeping is important. But it’s
obvious here that this man is looking for something beyond his notion
that goodness flows from rule-keeping. And surely that is also us! Jesus
calls for a total radical change, and this means also a radical change in
how we envision goodness/holiness.
Dostoievsky’s Brothers Karamazov has a lot to say in this regard. Recall
how Staretz Zosima shared cookies and tea with women in his cell and
this was frowned upon by the ascetics of the monastery. And then when
his body corrupted soon after death, this was looked upon by all as a lack
of holiness. Recall also that talk by Zosima as he goes at length to show
our great capacity to falsify every gesture of love, that the self wants to
get some benefit for itself and vitiate even our apparent acts of self-
sacrifice. He points to an imagined example of a man who was willing
to suffer and even be crucified as long as there were people there
giving him adulation and applause. But, he said, real love is a “harsh
and dreadful” reality (Dorothy Day’s favorite quote) where there is no
adulation and approval. So it is with our sense of what real goodness/
And finally there is this demythologizing of goodness/holiness with a
dramatic wallop, jolting us out of the habitual narrowness of our ego self
that thrives on images and fantasies. So there is the example of the
desert monk who was accused of fathering a child and who accepted
without complaining responsibility for raising that child (same kind of
story shows up in zen literature). Then there is the monk who enjoyed a
drink in a brothel tavern and conversed with prostitutes. And how about
the zen master who lived under a bridge in Kyoto; or, in the Russian
tradition, look at the “fool for Christ.” Such folks break that precious
container that holds our images of goodness/holiness.
- Finally we come to the “granddaddy” of all toxic spiritual myths. This one
comes in various packages and disguises. You’ll get a glimpse of it in
every suggestion of “trying harder to achieve your goal”; “more pain,
more gain”; “measuring your progress”; “labor”—how often that notion
appears in Orthodox and Desert spirituality….”the labors of the ascetics.”
One is reminded of Sisyphus and the rock he pushes uphill and never able
to reach the top.
Here zen also comes to the rescue. Consider the following story:
A new monk comes to the zen master and asks him how long will it take
to reach enlightenment if he works very hard at it. The zen master said,
“About ten years.” The new monk was dismayed. “What if I work extra
hard, applying myself totally all day, every day, how long will it then
take?” The zen master thought for a while and said, “Then it will take
Here we have a profound paradox, yet one which is also found in one way
or another in all the major traditions.
What is it pointing to? First of all it is NOT an inducement to be passive,
do nothing, advocate a watered-down spirituality, laziness, etc. No, you
must “do,” but then you must “not do,” as your “doing” obscures the
point of it all.
Note, every spiritual tradition presents you with a “path,” a “way,” for
your journey to a goal it names. The path has an obvious part consisting
of various practices, engagements, commitments, etc. All this is good and
proper for a spiritual journey. Focus and a certain kind of structuring of
the life is helpful. However, borrowing a sensibility from the authentic
ancient Taoist tradition, we could say: the path that can be named is not
the ultimate path, the journey that can be named is not the final journey;
the practices that can be named are not the deepest practices; the goal
that can be named is not the absolute goal.
You see, what happens on any and every spiritual journey is that the ego
self always appropriates every aspect of the journey for its own
enhancement, so that all the structures and practices and teachings begin
to serve the self and obscure the Reality of the Journey. If allowed to
flourish, this will lead either to personal weirdness or just a plain sense of
futility. At a certain point one perhaps will feel like Sisyphus and the
“rock” will become too heavy. And the signposts of the journey, on which
you so much depended, will no longer make sense or will not even be
there. For some this is the where one gives up (the self is THAT rock and
what a heavy burden it is!); or, even worse, one plunges into
“more effort,” etc. “double-down” on the ego self as it were (but you
don’t realize that’s what you are doing). But it is precisely here that one
can discover the path, the journey, the goal, that has No Name.
Wendell Berry put it well:
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.”
At this point I will conclude with two quotes. From Abhinvagupta (about 900CE), the great spiritual master of Kashmir Saivism:
“There is no need of spiritual progress,
Nor of contemplation, disputation or discussion,
Nor meditation, concentration nor even the effort
Please tell me clearly: What is supreme Truth?
Listen: Neither renounce nor possess anything,
Share in the joy of total Reality
and be as you are!”
And a final farewell from our zen friends:
Joshu asked Nansen: “What is the path?”
Nansen said: “Everyday life is the path.”
Joshu asked: “Can it be studied?”
Nansen said: “If you try to study it, you will be far away from it.”
Joshu asked: “If I do not study it, how can I know it is the path?”
Nansen said: “The path does not belong to the perception world, neither does it belong to the nonperception world. Cognition is a delusion and noncognition is senseless. If you want to reach the true path beyond doubt, place yourself in the same freedom as the sky. You name it neither good nor not-good.”
At these words Joshu was enlightened.
From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones