Monday, May 07, 2012


OK, I see that I need to clarify some things, and I know this will make a lot of people who are into 'have your cake and eat it too' very angry.

I have, for a long time, been saying that 'we are all solitaries'. And this is true: communities of all kinds are only as healthy as the solitudes that make them up; and those solitudes have the responsibility to the community to do the work that will help them to be spiritually mature. But that does not mean that everyone who likes their solitude should take vows. You can be ihidaye, have singleness of heart, within a marriage, community, and even alone in the woods. It does not mean you are 'a solitary' or should or, more importantly, could, from an eremitical point of view, make vows.

Vows of solitude, whether they are made to God in the hands of someone, or whether they are not made explicit, as was the case with the desert fathers and mothers, many of whom fled the institution in protest to what it was becoming. 'Flee bishops' was their watchword, and with good reason. Furthermore, to make a vow creates a dualism: singleness of heart might also be translated seamlessness of heart; to think of vows implies a divided heart, because it is a distraction from beholding. 

The desert way of implicit commitment is preferable because a vow also means a commitment on both sides. The 4th century desert dwellers knew that in their beholding God would never fail them: vows would have been irrelevant, if not destructive to their life, because it would involve them in the very institution they had fled, and which would inevitably betray them. 

Religious institutions today are not willing and have no interest in committing to supporting a solitary life (or any life except that of the clergy: it is of, by, and for the benefit of the clergy as the diocesan structure is also—see the post on the Diocese of Eastern Oregon on September 16, 2010) so it makes no sense at all to involve anyone who is formally part of the institution in a life of solitude. 

There are neuro-psychological reasons for this: institutions operate out of the self-conscious mind, and are concerned with all the linear, small-minded (because the capacity of the self-concious mind is very small compared to that of deep mind) and self-absorbed issues of power, preferment, control, numbers, money, careers and self-perpetuation. You cannot serve God and mammon.

By contrast, solitude (see next paragraph) is a sign that the person has already begun the process of re-centering from self-conciousness to deep mind, which is holographic and kenotic. From this alone it can be seen both why ordination is spiritual suicide (and why the desert hermits avoided it like the plague), and why it is inappropriate for ordained people to try to oversee or 'form' (dreadful, Procrustian, stereotyping word) or become solitaries.

Living a solitary commitment entails a number of key factors: 1) physically alone; 2) mentally alone; 3) chaste and celibate; 4) no dependent relationships of any kind, either the solitary on someone or someone on the solitary; 5) no distractions, such as pets (which do, after all, have personalities and make bonds and are dependent) —unless there is a question of vermin and a needed cat; 6) absolutely minimal use of electronics: telephone, mobile phone, internet, computer and gawd knows what other intrusive nightmares now available or which lie ahead in the future; 7) as self-sufficient as possible; 8) manual work balanced with mental work; 9) limited hospitality; 10) going out of the cell only when necessary for work or charity's sake (e.g. a necessary visit to the library, the doctor, a 50th birthday of a long-time confidante, on very rare occasions, to respond to invitations for teaching or preaching). [NB a solitary will seek work that, if possible, enhances the solitude. This will be work to support the solitude as opposed to the drive for a 'career', which is incompatible with solitude; 11) avoidance of fulfilling one's own or others' stereotypes (the garden gnome, the fetish, etc.—anything that takes away from allowing the solitude to unfold on its own in ordinariness).

For a married couple to want to make 'vows' as solitaries degrades both the marriage (the participants are vowed to each other) and the life of solitude (as described in the previous paragraph). Ditto for the ordained: they are vowed to the institution. And as I have shown above, vows in any event are inappropriate.

In addition, I think it dishonours the millions of men and women who for centuries were irrevocably committed to and lived the asceticism of rubbing up against one another in community for their entire lives; who wore simple clothes, which became the ancestors of what became the religious habit up to Vatican II; who made a sincere attempt to live selfless lives under appalling, often overcrowded conditions for most of their often very long lives—I think they are dishonoured when some loose association of people who are married, single, or civil partners, style themselves 'religious communities' but meet together only once or twice a year (perhaps to share religious consumption preferences?) and assume (presume: it is presumptuous) sometimes extravagant 'religious' habits (see remarks about sewing machine communities in a previous post) including, in the case of women, veils. This is a bit too much like one of the characters in the film The Producers, who cried triumphantly, 'If ya got it, flaunt it!'

In the developed world not only is it inappropriate to wear a habit outside of a religious house (it can be appropriate inside the house for a number of reasons, as long as it isn't worn all the time, which leads to all sorts of community and individual problems); it is also now quite simply too dangerous: habits attract all sorts of mentally ill and violent people. In our culture walking down the street stark naked would be less obtrusive than wearing a habit.

If you want to love and serve God, hide in plain sight; don't dress up in 17th-19th century peasant costumes (or, in the case of the royal monastery in Spain which endured (I use the word advisedly) until the 1950s, habits so elaborate it took two maids more than two hours to shoehorn each nun inside them for feast days. It is rather by your being—that part of your being that is out of your own sight—that God through your self-forgetfulness will transfigure the world, and it can only happen out of your sight (see the quotation from Matthew 6 about the right and and the left hand below).

Those concerned with these issues often seem to have forgotten one of the key passages of the gospel:

‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father 
in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.'


Blogger M.T. Webster said...

I confess I would like to see those elaborate Spanish habits. Hildegard's nuns used to wear white gowns and crowns on feast days, didn't they?

There is, I think, a strong strain of play in liturgy and religious ritual, and that includes playing dress-up; I know I am not the only child who ever put on makeshift vestments and played church. But it so easily turns into fetishwear, like black leather and high heels.

8:44 pm, May 07, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

I agree about the play, but we no longer have genuine liturgy—as Holloway says, we've exchanged poetry for packaging.

And religious life is moribund: it's now about class, manners, status, dependence, power, and self-perpetuation.

9:27 pm, May 07, 2012  
Blogger Ultra Monk said...

I belonged to a convent that had a mother house in Switzerland. Those sisters still wear the traditional habit. One of them visited us. Part of our entertainment was she explained all about her veil and the parts underneath (can't remember the proper names). The part with millions of pleats seemed pretty difficult, but they had a machine to iron those.

Anyway, thanks for the description of "solitary" Until I don't work for a living, I'll not qualify.

10:47 pm, May 07, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To Ultra Monk: working for a living doesn't disqualify you! As I noted earlier, we all have to make do.

10:49 pm, May 07, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Fierce, clear wisdom. Thank you.


9:29 pm, May 08, 2012  
Blogger Joel said...

Bless you. j

3:46 pm, May 11, 2012  
Blogger it's margaret said...

"Ditto for the ordained: they are vowed to the institution."

Dang --there you go again, blowing my little inappropriate boundaries off the map....

--maybe this would explain why I am not known to 'git along' with bishops... of most any sort.

Bless you.

2:36 pm, May 16, 2012  

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