Dancing alone in that D.C. Franciscan hermitage?

Dancing alone in that D.C. Franciscan hermitage? December 18, 2012

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?

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  • Laura

    When I read the words “complentation of oneself,” I was jared out of the story. That is not what complentative orders are about. The post got it wrong. Of course, you’re going to find things out about yourself during silent retreats and such, of course you will change once you’ve chosen to enter that life, but the point, from what I’ve read and and observed from Cloistered orders is to refine your relationship with God. When the woman in the story wondered what she would do with her time my first answer was “pray.” Most of the time in these orders is dedicated to prayer. Some, like Mother Angelica’s cloistered order, is exclusively dedicated to prayer. Each Nun has one Holy hour to give before the Blessed Sacrament each day or night, so the order as a whole is constantly praying. Praying for us, praying for the world, praying foor each other. i firmly believe, that their prayers, and the prayers of every Christian cloistered order, are the heartbeat of the prayer life of the Church. I don’t know much about Eastern Manasticism, but meditating on oneself seemed, well, “Buddhist.” I think this was your point Tmat, that the writer assumed the two traditions were the same. A wonderful film about Christian manasticism is “Into Great Silence.” Everyone should watch it.

    • Meg

      I’m no expert on Buddhism, but I don’t think Buddhist meditation is all about the self either.

  • tmatt

    “When I read the words ‘complentation of oneself,’ I was jared out of the story. That is not what complentative orders are about. The post got it wrong.”


    My POST got it wrong or the STORY got it wrong?

    • Meg

      I think she means the (Washington) Post got it wrong.

  • Jerry

    The focus on the divine outside oneself is not a fundamental part of Christian prayer/meditation

    One of the foremost writers on mental prayer, St. Teresa of Avila, stated: “Mental prayer … is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.”[1] Since the emphasis is on love rather than thought, modern authors recommend that it be called interior prayer.

    St. Francis of Sales said: “Begin all prayer, whether mental or vocal, by an act of the Presence of God. If you observe this rule strictly, you will soon see how useful it is.” He says that God is everywhere and is in our hearts and souls.

    (emphasis mine) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_prayer

    So yes “dancing alone” is avoided. But understanding that God is the glorious center of our hearts and souls is part of the Catholic tradition.

  • tmatt


    The key is the reality of a transcendent God. I don’t think you are contracting the central point by the abbess.

    Sharing among friends presumes the existence of a real other friend.

  • Laura

    The original article. You got it just right.

  • dmw

    For anyone who is actually familiar with anything the historical Francis actually said or did, he knows that at the heart of “Franciscan spirituality” is the denial of self and the complete association with the Crucified One and not the contemplation of the inner self.

  • Julia

    The contemplative orders are primarily away from the world all the time. That would not include the Franciscans. Not all monasteries are contemplative as their major vocation. The most well known are the Carmelites and the Carthusians who make the liqueur Chartreuse. Here’s the link to that movie mentioned above which really gives a great look at a seriously contemplative order. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgUxb1PrbZM See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Into_Great_Silence.

    The Catholic order known for preaching is the Dominicans, formally known as the Order of Preachers.
    The news writer must be thinking about the famous saying attributed to St Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Actually, the Franciscans do all kinds of things.

    Meditation, Catholic-style, is, or was in my 1950’s youth, taught beginning in early grade school. First introduction to meditating is with First Communion because you are supposed to have an interior conversation with Jesus for awhile at Mass after receiving Communion. Then we learn the rosary, which is meant to be an aid to meditating on various episodes in the life of Jesus. The rote praying of repeated Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers clears the mind of distractions. I have read that the rosary itself was inspired by Budhist prayer beads. Other meditations that don’t involve going to a monastery are little visits to church where you can sit very quietly and just commune with Jesus who we think is actually present on the altar. In most dioceses there is a church designated for Perpetual Adoration which is alway kept open and has people signed up for an hour long duty around the clock. In the old days before churches started being locked up, anybody could just drop in for a few minutes. I liked to do that to get a break from my 5 noisy younger siblings. Supposedly the Franciscans in the Holy Land invented the Stations of the Cross for those who couldn’t make it to Jerusalem to follow the Via Crucis during Holy Week – that’s all about contemplating the scenes hung on the walls of the Church, being one in spirit with Jesus and what is happening at various points in his journey to Calvary. Mel Gibsen’s movie, the Passion of the Christ, is based on the traditional Stations of the Cross.

    And it’s true that the only interior gazing at your navel in Catholic practice is to do an Examination of Conscience, usually before going to Confession but maybe also at the end of the day. Discerning whether you have a vocation to the priesthood or other type of religious life might involve some interior searching, but mostly involves trying to figure out God’s plan for your life which is not really ego-driven.

    So – I think the article is more aimed at people who just want some peace and quiet. The Franciscans apparently are not requiring that people who stay at the hermitage to use it for religious meditation. Maybe that’s why the writer is skipping the religious bit in her descriptions. Perhaps the Franciscans didn’t even talk to her about the Catholic view on meditation.

  • Rick

    Francis had a simple rule for hermits. Here is a link with commentary– http://www.assisijourney.com/public_ftp/hermitage.pdf Early Franciscans were itinerant ” preachers” who regularly took time to be in hermitages for contemplation. It was generally assumed that it was Scripture and the Trinity that was the focus of contemplation and prayer. Francis makes a very big deal out of praying the Office. In Francis’ rule he says that there should be 3 or 4 members of the hermitage—evening in the hermitage isolation was to be avoided and fraternity emphasized. There are one or two mothers/Marthas who attended to the needs of the sons/Marys

  • Dan Crawford

    St. Paul of the Cross founded the Congregation of the Passion in the 18th century. He wanted his order of priests and brothers to be contemplatives involved in active ministry. Thus they were to observe the monastic horarium in their monasteries when they were not preaching parish missions or conducting retreats. The novitiate and the monastic life focused on both the Divine Office and contemplative prayer. Passionists understood and daily lived in the tension between the active and the contemplative live but they knew that prayer, personal and liturgical, nourished their ministry. Sadly, that particular insight of Paul’s seems to have faded in the past 40+ years. The Passionist rule took much of its inspiration from the Franciscan rule – no doubt because Francis himself knew that the active life of preachers and missionaries needed the contemplative life to sustain it. Contemplation and the active ministry are not opposed, and a rich religious life needs both.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    One problem I had with this piece (besides the “contemplation of the inner self” (is that my bellybutton, or is that?) and saying Francis “ditched his wealthy upbringing in pursuit of a material-free life of contemplation”) is that the “experts” they cited were Buddhists. Obviously, we don’t expect the Post writers to be theologians, but we should be able to expect them to understand that the Buddhist and Catholic traditions of contemplation are totally different. Or should we? Since so many secularist people believe the “co-exist” mantra and bumper sticker, can we expect reporters to get that distinction and respect the two different traditions? Or was there something about their discussions with the Franciscans that led them to think, “Hey, Francis contemplating his inner self is just like Buddha saying ‘ohm'”? Or perhaps they simply don’t understand that Christians have a two millennia tradition of contemplation. But then, did they ever think to ask if we did?

  • All Catholic religious orders extol the virtues of contemplation to one degree or another, i.e. silence before God, quiet listening, etc. The missing distinction in this article is the one btw meditation and contemplation. I have no idea what “contemplation of the inner self” means. Sounds like something the Urban Seekers want to hear precisely b/c such a thing doesn’t involve any acknowledgement of a bossy god. In the Dominican tradition, we practice contemplation and study in order to improve our preaching. The motto is “sharing the fruits of our contemplation.” For their to be fruits borne of one’s contemplation there must be a seed planted and nourished. That seed is the Word in His “manifold wisdom.” IOW, there’s an object in/to Dominican contemplation, not some sort of abstract verb or non-conceptual concept. The sharing part happens in our preaching, ministry, and community life. Were we to rely on the “inner self” (whatever that means), we’d quickly become exceedingly boring and useless. Historically, Franciscans have been known for their selfless ministry among the poor. This “contemplation of the inner self” sounds like New Agey mumbo-jumbo to me.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  • Was he a “preacher” or was he someone whose ministry primarily focused on “contemplation”?
    He was both. We must all preach the Gospel and Francis did that be he was also known to be so lost in prayer he would at times walk right past the town he was going to. Franciscan St Max Kolbe ran the largest Catholic publishing effort in Europe before WWII. He did both.

    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 Post had good intentions and sounds like they explained it as they understood it. “Knowledge of Self” is certainly a Catholic goal as St Louis de Montfort teaches but like the Carmelite nun said we do not dance with ourselves. We are to lose ourselves, deny ourselves and contemplate and join with God. The Catholic Church has little “hermatages” like this in every Church. Where God is physically present in the Blessed Sacrament we are called to lose ourselves and be one with God. Eucharistic Adoration, often in “holy hours” can fill this so well.

  • MRD

    As other readers have pointed out the Franciscans are not a contemplative order per se, since they are involved with preaching, teaching, work with the poor etc. All Christians are to some degree called to a contemplative prayer life. ( Although this is a tall order for most of us) while still remaining active in the world and our families. A small number of Catholic orders like the Carthusians withdraw from world to focus on prayer. I am sure the Post writer had no idea of what contemplative prayer or any of this stuff means and conflated it with peace and quiet.

  • Gail Finke

    My guess is that either the writer supplied that explanation herself (she has a history of getting stuff wrong, doesn’t she?) or these are a very groovy bunch of Franciscans, which is entirely possible. There are all different sorts of Franciscans. My understanding (which may be slight) is that hte more contemplative ones are Clares of various stripes. There are plenty of contemplative women Franciscan congregations but I don’t know of any men’s. So if it’s true, it would be somethign this particular group of Franciscans say or do, not anything “Franciscan.” Catholic contemplation is not based on the self.