Dancing alone in that D.C. Franciscan hermitage?

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Back in my Rocky Mountain News days, I covered an ecumenical gathering in Boulder, Colo., focusing on contemplative prayer and meditation. One of the main speakers was a leader at the Nada Carmelite monastic community — part of the Spiritual Life Institute — located in Crestone, Colo., at on the western face of the Sangre de Christo mountains.

During the question-and-answer session, the mother abbess was asked why she kept insisting that her prayers and meditations were focused on the person of Jesus Christ, and not on her own spirit, her own soul, her own personality. Why, she asked, did she keep insisting that the Divine was outside of herself.

For starters, she said, the reality of the Holy Trinity and a transcendent God is at the heart of Christian theology. Deny that and you have denied the faith. Plus, she added, “I have never enjoyed dancing alone.”

I will help to keep that quote in mind while reading the recent Washington Post Style section feature about the urban hermitage that has been opened by the Franciscan brothers of urban Washington, D.C. Here’s the top of the story, which sets the tone for this three-pronged news feature:

The headline in the monthly Ward 5 newspaper described what sounded like an antidote to the nonstop iPhone-checking, list-making, ladder-climbing, goal-setting, Washington mind-set: “Refuge for the Metropolitan Hermit.”

The article described a postage stamp of a cabin, urbanely designed and gloriously sunlit, standing alone amid four acres of maples and white oaks on a protected hilltop you’ve probably never seen, although it’s in the middle of the city. Dubbed “the hermitage” by the brothers of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Northeast Washington, the space has no WiFi, TV or radio, and its occupancy limit is one.

It’s been booked nearly solid since it opened in October.

Now, I called this a three-pronged story for a simple reason. On one level, it’s a story about this unique and interesting hermitage. On another level, it’s also about the noisy crush of urban life and the challenges faced by those trying to flee it, even for a brief period of time.

So far so good. The problem, from my perspective as an orthodox and Orthodox Christian, is that the story also seems to have assumed that all theories, doctrines and methods of contemplative prayer are one and the same or, at the very least, they are all seeking the same end.

The journalistic question this story raised for me is whether that this story accurately represents the beliefs and ministry of this hermitage and the brothers who operate it. More on that in a moment.

The strength of the story focuses on that second point, with the Style team reaching out to its core readers, those urban folks trapped in their noisy ruts. This is the “we” in the story, the assumed point of view.

What do we complain about more these days than the tyranny of constant stimulation? Our attempts to tune out the outside world — the occasional radio-less drive to work, the concerted decision to leave the phone at home for a few hours — are often ineffectual. It has come to this: True solitude is such a rarity in our modern lives that we have to buy it — or, in this case, rent it for $70 a night.

But it turns out solitude isn’t that simple. Although participation in silent retreats is on the rise, many of those preparing to spend time at the hermitage said they were so unaccustomed to unstructured time alone that they made to-do lists — then feared they were doing “solitude” wrong and scrapped them. They agonized over what to bring and wear and eat, as if they were traveling to an exotic land.

Michelle Harris-Love, a neuroscience researcher, wife and mother who lives near the monastery, was happy to pay $140 for two nights at the hermitage. But as the days drew closer, a stressful question surfaced. “I thought: ‘How am I going to fill my time?’”

This is a serious question.

The Catholic University architecture students who designed the RV-size space worked to envision the needs and rhythms of tenants who were unplugged. They were asked to turn off all their own devices and spend an hour alone and silent. Of the 12, only three were able to do it.

This explicitly Catholic context is then linked to a larger trend in American culture, broadly defined, which is the interfaith quest for silence and peace, as represented by the rising numbers of people attempting spiritual retreats of various kinds.

Various expert voices are marshaled to help flesh out this perfectly valid story. However, things get interesting — some would say distressing — when we jump into the history of the Franciscans.

The 350-square-foot hermitage was the idea of brothers whose order is named for Saint Francis, the legendary Catholic preacher who ditched his wealthy upbringing in pursuit of a material-free life of contemplation. Typically hermitages — the word means a place for someone who wants to live in seclusion, usually for spiritual reasons — are in remote areas, but the Franciscans wanted to create one in the middle of the city.

The 42-acre monastery grounds lent themselves to the project; the property sits on one of Washington’s rare hilltops and feels almost Mediterranean. Its main building is a huge Byzantine-style church built in the late 1800s and modeled after Istanbul’s 4th-century Hagia Sofia. Its grounds include sprawling rose gardens tended by a 100-volunteer guild and the four-acre wooded hillside that is home to the hermitage. Although 20 friars live in the monastery, the property emphasizes aloneness, its design intended to facilitate contemplation of the inner self. (For the Franciscans, such contemplation ideally deepens one’s relationship with God.)

This website has many informed Catholic readers of various stripes. Thus, I would like to ask them to chime in as I ask one or two basic questions.

First and foremost, which description best describes St. Francis? Was he a “preacher” or was he someone whose ministry primarily focused on “contemplation”? I know some Franciscans and I have written about members of contemplative orders, such as the Carmelites. These are not the same ministries. The brothers in D.C., for example, describe their work this way, stressing that:

… 800 years ago, the Roman Catholic Church entrusted the guardianship of the Holy Land and other shrines of the Christian religion to the Order of St. Francis. This work has grown to include support of schools and missions in the Holy Land, as well as care for refugees and other needy people throughout the region.

The Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C., sustains this 800-year mission of the Franciscan Friars in the Holy Land through education, fundraising, recruiting vocations, promoting pilgrimages and providing pastoral ministry locally to religious and lay Catholics and to all of good will.

Also, it is rather strange to say that their spirituality focuses on the “contemplation of the inner self,” even if — the Post hastens to note the order’s narrow Christian vision — the purpose is to deepen “one’s relationship with God.” I thought that the primary purpose of self examination, in Franciscan and Catholic thought, was to lead to repentance of sin and, ultimately, to a state of thankfulness and union with a forgiving God. The goal, as the Carmelite abbess said, is the opposite of dancing alone.

In the end, I was left wondering about the purpose of this beautiful urban hermitage. This is a fascinating news story about a fascinating and timely subject. Still, I was left asking: Did the Post team get this right or not? Were the views of the Franciscans accurately reported or not?

A quick, shallow visit to Mount Athos

Few subjects inspire the whole “National Geographic visits the strange natives” school of Godbeat journalism quicker than monasticism.

This is especially true when journalists attempt to write about a place as genuinely strange, in a good sense of the word, and other worldly as Mount Athos, the stunningly beautiful peninsula in northeastern Greece that the Orthodox call “the holy mountain.”

The key to writing about Mount Athos is to get all of the facts right, especially when dealing with issues of worship and history, and then to let the monks and pilgrims speak for themselves. If you report the colorful details with precision, one does not have to try to make the holy mountain sound other worldly and different. It’s going to sound holy and different, with all of the facts presented in a dry and dispassionate manner. Period.

Get the basics right and a story about Mount Athos will pretty much write itself. As you would imagine, I would love to take a shot at that task myself, someday.

This leads me to a recent Reuters piece that is, in many ways, a perfect example of how NOT to write about the holy mountain. In this case, the journalistic goal is to somehow lead the story with the Greek financial crisis and its impact on the number of pilgrims heading to Mount Athos in order to escape, well, reality. Thus, the story opens in this manner:

Mount Athos, a self-governed peninsula in northeastern Greece, has been attracting pilgrims to its Orthodox monasteries for centuries. But the debt crisis has led to a sharp rise in the number of guests seeking calm and solace there. Women still aren’t welcome, though.

Mornings on the sacred mountain begin with loud blows. A monk stands in front of the monastery church of Agiou Andrea and hammers a block of wood. The medieval percussion instrument, called a simantron, is the wakeup call for the first religious service of the day. Several black-clad, bearded men scurry across the courtyard. It is 4 a.m. and pitch-black, and the air is filled with the sound of cicadas.

In a few minutes, the oil lamps will be lit in Agiou Andrea, one of 12 “sketes,” or monastic communities, on Mount Athos. There’s not a single empty space in the choir benches. Sitting behind the singing, rhythmically chanting monks are pilgrims from Greece, Russia and Romania. They have slept a few hours on spartan beds, gone without electricity and warm water, and spent the night swatting at mosquitoes.

The fact that male monastics have, for centuries, banned women from the peninsula is a fact that — whether this commandment is printed in a newsroom’s stylebook or not — must be mentioned in the first paragraph or two. That’s OK. The Orthodox are used to that.

However, it’s clear that the lead reporter on this feature got a bit mixed up when studying the map of the holy mountain. There are plenty of “sketes” on the peninsula (definition here), but the key is that its monastic traditions center on 20, not 12, full-fledged monasteries that represent the whole Eastern Orthodox world, not just Greek Orthodoxy. That’s a pretty basic fact to get wrong and, frankly, Orthodox readers are going to rather skeptical about the article from that point on.

It does feature some nice, candid quotes from “guests.”

“I am here to wash myself clean of my sins,” says Ilie, a young Romanian who lives in Germany. “Here, we are closer to heaven than anywhere else.” Nikos, a Greek businessman, has come to the monastery to find himself. “To simply turn off, meditate and forget the material world,” he says.

Raise your hands if you would be interested in knowing more about why young men from various corners of post-Soviet nations and the largely post-Christian lands of Europe keep on coming to Mount Athos (and why some of them choose to stay there)? That strikes me as an interesting subject and one I have not seen in news print, in recent years.

Meanwhile, this report returns once again to the familiar issue of monks clashing with the European Union over, yes, women.

Legend has it that the Virgin Mary landed here on her way to Cyprus and was overcome by its beauty. God then gave her the mountain on it as a gift. And since the “Garden of the Virgin Mary,” as the place is known, is devoted to only the “purest of all women,” other women are not allowed in. At least that is the reason given by the monks who have ruled Athos as an autonomous monastic republic since the 10th century. Not even female animals are allowed on Athos, except cats.

Whenever European Union officials argue that the ban should be lifted, the monks point to a Byzantine document over 1,000 years old that promises them eternal sovereignty over Mount Athos. The men there take no orders from the outside world — especially not from the EU. The monks live in another era. …

It is this defiant renunciation of the outside world that fascinates many pilgrims. But recently it hasn’t just been the pious who are coming. Many Greeks have discovered Athos as a place where they can forget about the crisis.

And so forth and so on. Business as usual.

So what is this article actually about? I cannot tell, to be honest. It has fragments of travelogue color, mixed with politics, mixed with just a dash of snark. And what is life on the holy mountain all about? Why do the monks pray and pray and pray? That is old news, I guess.

Read the article, if you must. Tell me if you can figure out why it was written.