It all started when I ran into a hermit at a party.
Turns out it’s not as incongruous as it seems. “I’m a hermit, not an anchorite,” Friar Rex patiently explained. (I heard his name, initially, as Friar X, which was beyond cool.) He’s a diocesan hermit in the Franciscan tradition–a new-as-of-the-late-80s canonical expression of consecrated life in the Church, one that developed While I Was Away. (See Canon 603.) Diocesan hermits profess vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to a diocesan bishop, not a religious superior as with religious who live a common life. They live alone (that’s the hermit part) but not cloistered from the world; a number of them, I was delighted to learn, blog and have Facebook pages. Diocesan hermits may choose the form of spirituality with which they order their prayer and work lives. Friar Rex, who had been a member of an Anglican Franciscan community (I did know about those), was naturally drawn to continuing in the Franciscan vein.
My questions prompted Friar Rex to ask, possibly facetiously, whether I might be feeling a call to this form of life. (My friend Michael hastened to interject that before I answered I should remember that there’s a big difference between being a hermit and being a hoarder.) I laughed then. The next day, I started reading some hermit blogs, and cried. It sounded like home, and I was sandbagged with unexpected and unwarranted nostalgia. I recognize that feeling. It’s God’s way of reminding me that my soul needs tending. So not a call, I later emailed Friar X, but certainly a tweet of sorts.
In response, I started looking for a spiritual director (like a personal trainer for the soul; imagine Jillian from The Biggest Loser in a wimple). Didn’t get far with that, but stumbled over a course in Deep Prayer to begin the next day–Ash Wednesday–at the Transfiguration Center for Spiritual Renewal in Ludlow Falls, a place of peace located in a nature preserve about 30 minutes north of Dayton. So now I am spending my Wednesday mornings in the wonderful company of a band of fellow pilgrims led by two Secular Carmelites, who are like dive masters preparing us to explore the depths of contemplative prayer in the tradition of the saints of Carmel–Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux, and others–while keeping us from getting the spiritual bends. I knew about Carmelites, but not much about their particular charism and spirituality, so this is new and wonderful to me.
At last week’s class, Frances, one of our leaders, noted ruefully that on the drive from Dayton to Ludlow Falls, we pass through Union–but only briefly. Besides being a town in Ohio, Union–with God and with our deepest selves–is of course the goal of contemplative prayer, and our swift passage through a corner of the town (not even a stop sign) is a tantalizing reminder of the elusive grace of Union here on earth.
On the way home, I started to see the road signs and landmarks as additional reflections on this Lenten journey. I crossed the Stillwater River, and thought of Teresa’s use of waters as metaphors for the stages of prayer. I laughed to see a handmade sign, on the gate of a hog farm, reading TEMP OUT OF MEAT. Lent, of course, is Temp (Time) Out of Meat, when we say goodbye to the fleshy carnival for a space to feed the spirit. Deep prayer, too, is a kind of being “temporarily out of meat”–out of the dailyness of the body, transcending time and space and weight and worry. Indeed, the whole business of being in the meat or out of it is threaded throughout our human history of returning to Union.
In the ancient myth of the goddess Inanna’s descent to the underworld to retrieve her dead sister, the language is shocking. The dead are “sacks of meat,” hung on hooks like the carcasses of slaughtered hogs. Without the life of the soul, flesh is empty. But we are more than sacks of meat, and it took the limitless Godhead’s willing deep dive into flesh–the Incarnation, literally, the “coming into meat”–to remind us how far down the highway we had strayed from the original Union. And how to get back.
I am deeply grateful to have found my way this Lent, by GPS (God’s Powerful Spirit), to backroads and byways so full of meat for the soul. I look forward to passing through Union–of flesh and spirit, action and contemplation, hermitage and highway–for a little bit longer each week, exploring even farther afield.
I’m not an anchorite, after all!