Friday, December 25, 2015

Hermits of Bethlehem

Chester, New Jersey

Beyond the threshold is silence.
Stillness suffuses like light.
The world outside is spinning.
Summer flames at its height.

Solitude is a boon companion.
Self-knowledge climbs like a sloth.
The bed is spare, a thin beard.
The rocking chair is a moth.

Dig in a cave in darkness.
Toss out handfuls of soil.
Bake bread in your heart, an oven.
Bring steaming thirst to a boil.

Listen for the least word of power.
Pierce yourself with a sword.
Afternoon deepens day shadows.
The sun is a violent lord.

Dusk emanates blood-red rays.
All trials in an instant will pass.
Gaze upon woods colored jade.
Dream dreams of emerald grass.

Originally published in The Penmen Review (July 29, 2015)

Bethlehem Hermitage

1 comment:


    The most obvious quality that people notice and feel about a hermitage is its silence. This is not merely the silence of the place, or even the silence of the hermit in his cell; very often it’s the silence of God. We go to a hermitage expecting to hear God’s voice, and when all we get is silence, we’re surprised and shocked. It’s easy to doubt one’s faith at such moments. We’re disappointed with God. We expected better of Him. After all, we’ve gone to considerable time and trouble to establish contact with the Holy One. We begin to wonder if there’s something wrong with us that makes God unwilling to show Himself. Or (worse yet) maybe this whole God-thing is a delusion. Even people with a lifelong commitment to their faith can begin to doubt it when they come up against a silence that is so complete, so deep, and in response to such earnest pleading.

    I remember the story the Desert Father told about himself when, as a seminarian, he went through a time of arid meditation. In response, his spiritual director told him simply to lengthen the time of meditation. The answer to silence, it seems, is more of the same. It’s hard for those of us who visit for short spells to break through God’s silence by extending our periods of prayer. But even in a few days we encounter God’s silence in a manner that will stay with us long after we leave. Bethlehem Hermitage is different. When we’re away from it, in the confusion of our daily occupations, we don’t hear God because we’re not listening or haven’t got time to listen. His silence is a sign of absence or irrelevance. When we’re at the hermitage we don’t hear God because we are listening. His silence then is a sign of His mystery. His silence becomes revelation.

    After we get past the first shock of it, the silence of God has its own particular character. It’s a waiting silence—the kind of silence, for instance, one experiences in a room during the moment before someone speaks. Lying in my hermitage at night I hear the hunters’ guns in the woods, and I reflect that God’s silence is not the silence that sweeps in after the explosion, but the silence that builds up before the next one. It’s a different quality of silence.

    The second great lesson we learn is how to break the silence. If this silence has a deep and sacred quality, then the first word spoken to break the silence is crucially important. It falls on us like thunder. At Bethlehem the silence is often broken by a phrase from the liturgy or Scripture. We who have been waiting with some disappointment for God to break His silence are often jerked awake when the first words of worship sweep over us. The shepherds at the first Bethlehem must have felt something of that shock when their silence was interrupted by angels.

    God’s silence will always remain a problem. It’s disappointing, annoying, uncalled-for, yet also mysterious and appealing. His silence is more profound than ours. Often we leave Bethlehem with still no word from Him. But at least the silence is more tangible. To use a common expression, it grows on us, and we know God is inside it somewhere. We leave Bethlehem with the feeling that we have become the silence. We have become, ourselves, hermitages where God sits in silence, and His silence has become our Word.

    One can learn the discipline of silence by faithfully reflecting on God’s presence in word and works, and take the time to listen and wait patiently for His answer. One would grow in awareness of this lived reality and may even try to extend these valuable periods of silence alone with the Alone.

    Layman, Husband, Father, Editor

    Source: In the Silence of Solitude: Contemporary Witnesses of the Desert, compiled and edited by Eugene L. Romano, HBHJ (New York: Alba House, 1995), pp. 24-25.

    Waiting and silence are fecund spiritual values.