Hermits for a Season

Rejoice while you have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor. (I Peter 1:6-7)

St. Peter’s words to us. Rejoice in your trials, because they test your faith, like fire tests the purity of gold. [Spanish]

thomas mertonDoes everyone know that the Church of Christ has a “vanishing center?” A mysterious, invisible heart. Who lives there? Christian hermits.

In the 20th century, Father Thomas Merton gained fame among Catholics by seeking this total solitude. And many of us love St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross, for the same reason.

A Christian hermit devotes his or her entire life to praising God and fostering the world’s salvation. How? By separating him or herself from human society, in order to live a life of pure prayer and penance.

Christian hermits manifest the interior aspect of the mystery of salvation. Personal intimacy with Christ. A hermit lives hidden from other human eyes and preaches the Gospel silently. By surrendering absolutely everything to God in the desert of silence, the hermit finds the glory of Christ crucified.

All this comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 920 and 921. Maybe it sounds all too familiar right now. We could re-word the Catechism sentences like this:

Living as a Catholic during the coronavirus epidemic manifests the interior aspect of the mystery of salvation. Maintaining a spiritual life during isolation involves personal intimacy with Christ. The Christian staying at home on Sunday morning for the sake of public health finds in the desert of silence the glory of Christ crucified.’

st_therese_of_lisieuxMay God give us strength and insight. By His invisible power and grace, these weeks can deepen and intensify our spiritual lives.

May we co-operate with His grace! May we find the discipline we need. The real hermits will be the first to tell us: when your home and your church are the same little building, and you never leave, you either get holier. Or you lose it altogether.

On the other hand… We read something else in Sunday’s readings at Mass: They devoted themselves to the communal life. All who believed were together. (Acts 2:42, 44)

The Lord has not called us all to live as Christian hermits forever. By no means.

What should we be doing as a parish right now? We should be having First Communions, with the kids in their white suits and dresses. And big Quinceañeras. Cakes after Mass. Weddings with string quartets and trombones. Processions to the Virgin’s grotto. Mexican dances with tambourines and somersaults. Candles, chants, incense.

After all, Catholicism doesn’t mean just, “here come the hermits.” Catholicism means: “Here comes everybody.”

Now, you know me as a man of stone-like stoicism. I find my own personal emotions so uninteresting that I consistently ignore them–so that they will leave me alone.

But you will see me cry. When we come together again in church. Before I can even make the sign of the cross to begin Mass, I guarantee you: I will be crying for joy like a daggone baby.

St. John, Clovis, Nebuchadnezzar, and Us

Clovis Baptism St Remi

For the Memorial of St. John of the Cross, let’s meditate for a moment on what St. Remy said to Clovis, when the bishop baptized the king:

Bend down, proud warrior. Burn what you have adored, and adore what you have burned.

“Burn what you have adored.”

I have loved the wrong things: fundamental fact of human life. O man, O son of Adam, you have loved the wrong things. No matter who you are; no matter what you have loved, you have loved wrongly.

Sounds harsh. But the first Advent Eucharistic-Prayer Preface can help us out. “…when all is at last made manifest…” When that happens. In the future. Has not yet happened.

st-john-of-the-crossWe may be quite knowledgeable, we Googlers of this earth. But we are immeasurably more ignorant than we are knowledgeable. There is infinitely more truth that we don’t know than that we know.

Someday, when God wills, all will be open to our gaze. As it stands now, we stumble in the dark. Hence we love wrongly. Hence we need to burn it.

“And adore what you have burned.”

This clause strikes me as considerably harder to understand. Are we guilty of having burned God? Can you even do that?

I think the only way adequately to understand St. Remy’s whole sentence, really, is to presume that it refers to King Nebuchadnezzar. He cast the three servants of Yahweh into the fiery furnace. Nebuchadnezzar worshiped pagan idols and ordered everyone else to do the same. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused.

Nebuchadnezzar had a huge furnace he used for executions. When he gazed into his oven of death, he saw not only the three Jews he had condemned, but also a fourth with them, “who looked like a son of God.”

15-03-03/42When we have loved wrongly, we have not done so “in a vacuum.” That we love rightly is no matter of indifference. The One we have failed to love as we should: He, and He alone, we must love.

But wait! Nebuchadnezzar was given a special vision and saw something to love. We just got through grappling with the fact that we cannot see the One we must love. Anything we see, which we love—that, ipso facto, is loving wrongly. That, ipso facto, needs burning, not adoring.

Where is the One we have heretofore burned—and now must adore, according to St. Remy? Father Bishop, where is He? How can we follow the second part of the instruction you gave to King Clovis?

The saintly bishop replies: Do you believe in God? The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit? Do you believe?

Yes, Father. We do not see. But we believe.

Then there is your answer, mortal. Adore the invisible One you do not know. Adore the One in Whom you believe, Whom you have heretofore burned by adoring the things you know.


Some reputable scientists, even today, are not wholly satisfied with the notion that the song of birds is strictly and solely a territorial claim…It could be that a bird sings: I am sparrow, sparrow, sparrow, as Gerard Manley Hopkins suggests: “myself it speaks and spells, Crying What I do is me: for that I came.”

…Today I watched and heard a wren, a sparrow, and the mockingbird singing. My brain started to trill why why why, what is the meaning meaning meaning? …Surely they don’t even know why they sing. No; we have been as usual askng the wrong question.

It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird is singing. If the mockingbird were chirping to give us the long-sought formulae for a unified field theory, the point would be only slightly less irrelevant. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful? …If the lyric is simply “mine mine mine,” then why the extravagance of the score?

–Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


Your unworthy servant feebly seeks vanaprastha in a moutain wood. I miss you, and I am grateful for your prayers for me.

…An old friend has written a short story and a novella.

The author has no means of publishing these pieces himself, so I publish them here.

“President Wilson and the Other Dead People I Talked To” (no longer available–author’s request)

“West-East Highway”


Who fails to drink little or much from the golden chalice of the Babylonian woman of the Apocalypse? (Revelation 17:4) …She reaches out to all states, even to the supreme and illustrious state of the sanctuary and divine priesthood, by setting her abominable cup in the holy place… She hardly leaves a man who has not drunk a small or large quantity of wine from her chalice, which is vain joy in natural beauty.

–St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book III, chap. 22

Good Old War “That’s Some Dream”