The Hermitage of the Heart

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Part of "The Hermitage of the Heart"

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The second reflection, and if I were to give a title to this reflection, it would be to raise the question, okay, let's say there is this inner dimension to everything and to myself, this secret inner reality, this source out of which everything flows, this hermitage of the heart within me. How do I claim this dimension myself? How do I journey there? How do I enter in? And how do I abide there? In the scriptures, Jesus says to abide in me as I do in you. Once again we're brought back to that first quote from Colossians that I began the series


of talks with. If you have died, your life is now hidden with Christ in God. And what Paul is suggesting is that knowing and living and loving from within, from this hidden dimension, what we might call a sapiential approach to life, that all of that is only possible if we have died in Christ, if we have died with Christ, if we die daily with Christ. And so it's a strange thing to say, but as important as the hermitage of the heart is, it remains inaccessible to us. It is that deep, hidden, dark, secret, elusive space in us, what the Hindus call the cave


of the heart, or the Bible the heart of one's heart, or the author of the cloud calls the cloud of unknowing. It is like being nowhere. And thus we don't know how to journey there, yet it is the source of our being, crying incessantly out to us, perhaps saying something like, am I enough for you? And so, as the tradition of wisdom teaches, the one who dares to embark on such a journey within is surely not the one who arrives. And yet there's an intimate relationship between the one who begins the journey and the one who arrives. In fact, precisely because there is this dialectic, the process of death is possible, of dying.


This place or dimension within us, this hermitage of the heart, I think becomes elusive, as elusive as a wild deer when we go seeking it out with our own power and energy, or like the Beloved in the Song of Songs. When this dimension to us perceives it as being hunted after by my normal conscious I, that is, the ego in me that has somehow been inflated or distorted in such a way that it tends to feed off of controlling and manipulating, off of a certain kind of analysis and rationality, grasping, labeling, defining, setting boundaries and perimeters, this part of the ego which,


or this distortion of the ego that tends to think it can ensnare truth and reality and meaning and relationship and love and God, this dimension of my normal functioning consciousness that tends to make objects of everything and everyone, because an object is more manageable, is more controllable, is more graspable. The hermitage of the heart, like the wild deer, flees from such a hunter, from such violence and force, from mere curiosity, from being hunted after or photographed and mounted as a trophy on our ego wall of accomplishments. Now when I use that word ego, please don't misunderstand me. The ego as that dimension of the psyche that deals with concrete reality is desired by


God and has been given to us by God and is meant to be ours for all eternity. But it's what some might call the inflation of the ego or the distortion of the ego where it has learned to survive by a certain mode of functioning that tends to make it the center of everything and diminishes the other parts of who we are and in that way diminishes life around itself, in some way constricts the full reality and meaning and revelation of life. The journey inward therefore is as mysterious and precarious and uncertain as walking in the dark or as entering a cave without any light or as Jules Verne's journey to the


center of the earth. You remember that book and the movie made from it, this great adventure within the bowels of the earth. One cannot adequately prepare for what one will encounter. One's equipment, no matter how sophisticated or extensive, nor one's training or amount of techniques can take a person very far within. Before long the monsters and the creatures within, the ravenous and hungry desires in us, the ten thousand and one desires in us and fears within us and violence within us, come after us and may very well block our further descent and exploration into the deeper dimensions of life. Going back to the quote of Merton that we began these talks with, he suggests, quote, it's a matter of growth, deepening, of ever greater surrender to the creative action of


love and grace in our hearts. The key word there for me that I want to stress at this time is surrender. Surrender. It seems that the only way to enter and abide in the hermitage of the heart is by surrendering, by letting go, by dying, by letting the veils drop, by non-attachment or to use Eckhart's word, by releasement. It's a kind of falling within the mystery rather than standing outside of it seeking to analyze it as an object of curiosity or investigation. It is a falling within the mystery that is all around us and in the core of our being. It's a dying.


And our physical death merely represents the final stage of that death, of that dying process while we're living this earthly existence. The hermitage image is often of a vast wild desert or wilderness and we've said that that image evokes the sense of solitariness, being alone, of entering into one's own uniqueness and unrepeatableness. But I think it also symbolizes that place where one is reduced to the barest of necessities. One doesn't think of a hermitage as filled with all the modern conveniences of life. It's a rustic place where one has a few things, where one is really stripped of all the unnecessary things of life.


It's a, it represents a condition of simplicity, a condition of nakedness, of being stripped naked of all the fig leaves we constantly clothe our psyches with. The conscious part of us it seems, at least normally, cannot bear to be completely naked for it fears rejection. Some would say that's the deepest fear in us. So we're constantly putting on psychological clothing in order to make ourselves more acceptable to ourselves and to others as we perceive they need us to be. But I don't know if it's simply just the fear of rejection. Perhaps we clothe ourselves, our nakedness, and we can't bear to be naked because we're not sure there'll be anyone there. If we've taken that clothing so seriously we might tend to believe that's all that I


am. I am all that I have put together to create me and stripped of all of that there would be no one. The hermitage represents that journey into nothingness. No hyphen thing hyphen ness, no thingness. The journey beyond objects and beyond the ability and even the desire to objectify reality, to look at reality as definable objects. But it's also the journey to no hyphen where hyphen ness. One cannot focus one's attention on an object or a specific place. And so obviously when I refer to the hermitage of the heart I do not mean a particular place


or thing that you can focus on even with your inner eye. And thus this hermitage represents a kind of death experience as we imagine and perceive death to be. The extinction of the me and the life that I have known to be me and that I experience as me. But to surrender and fall into to die into this in a way is also beyond our own human power. For there is a vicious struggle going on within us between what Paul says is that which I most deeply want to do and that which some other me wants to do. And he says who will deliver me from this struggle? And his answer is Jesus Christ. His victory can be my victory.


His way of dying can be my way of dying. His resurrection to new life is my resurrection to new life. For the Christian we believe that we can only make this journey within with Christ by the power of his spirit. The Paschal Mystery, Good Friday to Easter Sunday, is about the greatest journey ever taken and it did not involve an exterior journey yet it embraced all of reality both in its inner and outer dimensions. By his dying daily and by his eventual physical death Jesus descends into our hell and ascends


into our heaven to release in us all that is held captive. As Saint Paul reminds us we have been baptized into his death so that we might rise with him to new life. The old me, the ordinary limiting conscious me that's not fully conscious or does not allow everything into full consciousness, this me descends into the watery tomb of baptism enabling a new me to arise from a watery womb. The tree Jesus dies on is at the same time the tree of life in the middle of Eden to which the believer is restored. Baptism is more than one single event in time. We are talking here about a process that occurs moment by moment.


For the Christian the Paschal Mystery is woven into the fabric of life, daily life, daily decisions, daily activities. Dying into new life, into the depth of life, the hermitage of the heart confronts me each moment of my life not just at my physical death. Baptism is like the first dramatic breath of a newborn infant but it will not sustain life in me unless I keep breathing moment by moment. What must die and surrender and let go in me is that which insists on not dying, which insists on clinging to its own life rather than receiving gratuitously life as a gift from another moment by moment. What must die in me is that in me which keeps shoring up its own existence by looking and


thinking and believing and feeling and remembering and imagining and willing and acting in certain ingrained habitual ways. It is a dynamic in me that distorts everything, that limits everything, that allows me to only experience a certain amount of the reality around me, a certain amount of the beauty around me. And this dimension, whatever we want to call it, the distorted ego, the inflated ego will only agree to journey within if it can retain its way of life, its controls, its determination to be its own center and God. The closer the dying, the closer to the dying this dimension of me moves, and this is all kinds of dying, not just physical, the more it panics and fears and bargains and manipulates


and wears camouflage like a soldier in battle, not wanting to be killed. This is why the Christian is called to ongoing conversion. It's not only a conversion from things that I do that are sinful to not doing them, it cuts radically to my own sense of myself. And all that precedes what I do, my attitudes and my ways of thinking and feeling, all the dimensions. Yet we must remember while this part of us fears death and letting go of any kind, some deeper dimension within us knows death and fears it not, but recognizes death not as an extinction or a dead end, but as a passage, as a doorway between two worlds, as a free


flow, as a way of being that holds onto nothing, is always empty and yet paradoxically always full. And I think perhaps we get glimpses of this every once in a while, where the normal way we view and experience the dying process becomes open into a different sense and a more spacious sense. I had this experience just recently in returning to the monastery here from California and being in an accident, a car accident, and let me read to you from my journal the entry I made that night, and I'm reading at this point from the journal.


After traveling 3,000 miles on three different flights with some delays and circling in the sky, and finally landing in fog and snow at Manchester Airport, the greatest surprise of the trip occurred within one and a half miles of the monastery. Our car hit an ice patch and we began to skid and then spin like a top right in the middle of the road with cars behind us, finally slamming into a large snowbank only a few feet from the tree line. In the midst of it all, which lasted perhaps no more than five seconds but seemed much longer, I first yelled, steer in the direction of the skid, but as we quickly spun out of control I realized that there was nothing we could do but surrender to the power and strange beauty of the moment. The car suddenly became a spinning top, like it was whirling on a dime, and all seemed unreal and fast, yet in slow motion.


Death became less fearful and actually enticing, enchanting, whirling us in a fairyland of white snow. While others died from the snowstorm, we were actually saved by its piled high snowbanks, like great shoulders cushioning our landing and bringing our ice dance to an abrupt halt. My mind entered a somewhat trance-like state within those few seconds as my body whirled in space, so light, so unencumbered, so free from the weight of human limitation. I thought, is this what facing death can be like? Does the mind cushion the moment of death with a euphoric tranquilizer? Strangely, once our car came to a stop and for a while afterwards I felt an exhilaration, an excitement, finding myself no longer tired from the long flight but rather incredibly


alive, as if I had just walked upon a tightrope hundreds of feet in the air. What on earth or in heaven happened during those few seconds? We did get home safely through the kindness of some friends, yet for me everything has changed. I danced with death that night. I gazed through an opening in normal consciousness. Oh my God, this was not a moment of inevitable doom but rather unbelievable possibility. It was like some great door opened and my brother monk and I were dancing in circles in the doorway to a music both familiar and new. So that ends the quote from my journal entry, and I think this touches a bit of what I'm


speaking of here, that some other part of us knows death differently than the normal conscious part of me does and does not see it as the enemy. When Adam and Eve, as we read of their account in the book of Genesis from the scriptures, I think as the story depicts, when their eyes are opened and they perceive their nakedness, they immediately clothe themselves. And some writers would suggest perhaps this was the birth of self-centered ego consciousness, which is in a sense of identity based on the inflation of one part of us to the almost exclusion of the other parts of us, in fact the larger parts of us. It tends to be an identity that is based on separation, on likeness, isolation, differences,


alienation over and against the world and others and God. But the journey to the hermitage of the heart therefore represents for us the way home, to the primal garden of paradise, where the naked truth does not shame us, because it's not us who arrives, not the us that would be shamed by that nakedness, but rather it would be the deeper self who is not shamed by the naked truth, but rather experiences in that naked truth peace, joy and actually delight. Because the way inward is so difficult and dangerous and mysterious and beyond our rational


capacities, we must not give up the quest and succumb to our fragmented, divided existence, nor to our society which primarily teaches us to focus our energies and attention and searching outwardly. So much of that energy is directed outwardly and our society allows for, permits very little energy except for maybe brief excursions into the shallow waters of pop psychology. We are a culture and a society so well trained to live off the surface of life and to consume life, because we tend to think we will only be filled by having more, rather than seeking to be filled by having less, but going more deeply into each and every single moment and


event and person and thing. Jesus tells us, if you wish to be my disciple, you must renounce yourself, pick up your cross and follow me. If you wish to find yourself, you must lose yourself for my sake. What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his or her very self in the process? Unless the seed dies and is buried, it cannot become what it is meant to become and grow and bear fruit. These are some of the most enigmatic statements recorded of Jesus in the New Testament, the most puzzling to us, especially if we are people who believe the only self is the outward


self, the conscious self. The only reality is outward reality, is that which I perceive and can grab with my mind and my hands. But the minute we realize Jesus is talking about an inner reality and that there's a difference between an inner self and an outer self, then these statements begin to illuminate us that we must choose one self and let go of the other self. And it seems that choice centers more particularly at a certain point in our own natural growth. It seems the growth of this deeper self and the more spiritual dimension to the person seems to really emerge at the point of mid-life, normally speaking.


And it can only come into its fullness by a letting go of the life we've worked so hard to put together and the sense of our ways of functioning and dealing with and relating to life and even our sense of identity. In a certain sense perhaps we could say dying is to the spirit within us as birth is to the human body within the womb of the mother. For the unborn infant, the fetus, to really grow and develop its potentials it must move out, it must die to its life in the womb and enter a bigger reality that we call the world and relationships extending much further than the single symbiotic relationship of mother and child. And so it seems similarly anyway with the spirit in us that at some point as it's growing


and seeking fuller maturity feels confined by sometimes the womb-like world we've created and we perceive to be. This limiting, narrow, confining approach to life, to even who we think we are. And of course even our view of God can be very womb-like and small and narrow. And it seems the spirit is calling us to burst out from that, that that had a role for a time but we must move beyond that. And that's like a death. It's a birth that is like a death. It's a coming home that requires a leave-taking of what we assumed was home. It's a leaving one self and a letting go of one self in order to discover another self. To journey to the hermitage of the heart requires this daily process of dying.


And maybe we should refer less to using the word death and talk more about dying. I think the word death suggests one particular moment and event that happens once in your life and I think there's somewhat of an illusion about that in the sense that it's not totally unfamiliar to us that the dying process the dying process is with us constantly. And so I think that's why the paschal mystery is such at the center of the Christian life. It's our way of life, our way of ordinary life. And I'll say more about that in my next reflection, the third talk. At this point, I'd like to give you some reflection questions


to perhaps help you focus on some of the main points of the second reflection, the second talk. The first would be, how do I imagine a life without control to be? Do I find surrender and letting go difficult and hard to recognize? I think in our life there are the more evident times when we see how we are grasping and controlling and refusing to let go. But then it seems the task is noticing the subtle ways that we are still exerting control. And so they can be hard to recognize, let alone to let go of. A second question, what are my attitudes towards death?


And towards the dying process? Do I see it as morbid and I therefore do not like to think about it? Do I realize its importance for my life? What do I mean when I sometimes say I'm not myself today or somebody else does? Well, who else would I be if I'm not myself? Does this simple expression perhaps give a hint that there is more than oneself in us? Another question might be, have I really accepted and embraced the paschal mystery as the way inward to the hermitage of the heart,


as the way into the depth of all reality, as the way to unity And a fourth might be, how do I run away from dying? What are the ways, the techniques that I've learned or that have been passed on to me? How do I try to avoid it? And then when I do let go, is it kind of a grinding my teeth, grudgingly letting go? And what kind of an experience is it? Is it unpleasant? Do I experience then a sense of loss and uncomfortable powerlessness? Do I go into depression? And let me give you some scripture. The Song of Songs, chapter 2,


starting at verse 8 and going all the way into chapter 3 and stopping at verse 3. The Song of Songs, chapter 5, verses 1 to 8. Chapter 6, verses 1 to 3. Chapter 8, verses 5 to 7. And then skip over and conclude with verse 14. Second Corinthians, chapter 3, 12 to 18. Chapter 4, 7 to 12. Romans 7, 14 to 25. Colossians 3, 1 to 4. Philippians 2, 5 to 11.


Ephesians 5, 14 to 20. Genesis 3, 1 to 10. Matthew 16, 24 to 26. So that concludes this second talk. A second question might be, what are my attitudes towards death and dying? A lot of these we've been taught, we've kind of inherited. A lot of times from our family of origins. They kind of just stick with us as messages and tapes inside, you know, that we hear. Do I realize its importance for my life?


This dying process is so important for my life, my growth into fuller life. The third question might be, have I really accepted and embraced the paschal mystery as the way inward to the hermitage of the heart? Have I really accepted and embraced it? It's interesting, some people say, well, I don't really like Easter and all that death and Good Friday and all that stuff. To me, Christianity is just about loving. They don't understand. Christ's way of loving is impossible without dying. That's the point. It is about love. Let's see, not seeing. So they have some other notion of love. That's probably a popular notion. And a fourth little question might be, how do I typically run away from dying?


We all have our favorite modes of running away from dying. Sometimes we've been taught them or we've devised them on our own. How do I run away from dying? Let me give you some scripture. I'm going to give you some beautiful ones from the Song of Songs. The lover is seeking her beloved. And I told you the elusiveness of this hermitage of the heart. If you're seeking and hunting after. She even at times refers to the beloved as a stag. You know, the idea of the deer. So Songs, chapter 2. Start at verse 8 and go all the way into chapter 3 and end at verse 3. Another one is chapter 5, 1 to 8. Chapter 6, 1 to 3.


Chapter 7. Chapter 8, 5 to 7. Stop with 7 and then skip over to 14. There's like a little interlude and then you're back to the poetry part. I don't want you to do the interlude but stick with the poetry part. So 5 to 7 and then you skip over to verse 14. Second, Corinthians. Corinthians. Chapter 3, 12 to 18. Chapter 4, 7 to 12. Romans, chapter 7. 14 to 25. Colossians, chapter 3, 1 to 4. Then a very powerful one, Philippians, chapter 2, 5 to 11. Though equal with God, he emptied himself.


Beautiful hymn, it's a hymn. Ephesians 5, 14 to 20. Now let me throw in there Genesis to the beginning. That's the fig leaf story. If you want to go to that, Genesis chapter 3, 1 to 10. And last, let me throw in, which I quoted in my talk, several of these I did, Matthew 16, 24 to 26. So the next reflection is at 4 o'clock. And if you recall what I said last night, that the next two talks there will be time for interchange at the end of the talks.