After six experiences of “self-made” hermitage, our “Hermits in Progress” -team had the opportunity to dive into a solid mystical tradition, spending one afternoon together with Catholic Carmelite-nuns. It may seem a short time, compared to the one-week-retreats we developed previously, but to me this has been a shaking encounter which awakened contradictory feelings of hope and suffocation and filled me with a sense of romantic fascination.
In the middle of a forest close to Espoo there is the only Carmelite-cloister of Finland. Throughout over 25 years a small community of nuns has been living secluded within the boundaries of such a peaceful wooden monastery. They never leave that place but for exceptional reasons and for very brief periods: that may happen once in three years . Their main activity is praying for others. The only reason for such a choice is, in their own words, their love for Christ.
After an intriguing interview with the nuns, we shared with them their evening-routine: Vespers-prayer, chanting, reading and one-hour-silent adoration.
Retreat 07 – March 2014 – Meeting hermits
I arrived to the place filled with memories of my Catholic period, when my favorite authors were Terèse de Lisieux, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross: the mystical spirituality of Carmelites was not unfamiliar to me. I was excited to meet people who were embodying such an ascetic path of prayer and seclusion.
Despite of my theoretical preparation, I felt overwhelmed by waves of love and joy as soon as the first nun came and welcome us in front of the monastery-door. It is hard to explain, but I believe that many persons who shared my same experience could recognize that feeling of being in front of a “living” person: the nun was full of life, in a way which looks more complete and at the same time more spontaneous and simple than our average way of being alive. It was like watching at a soul without filters, and that soul was beautiful, hilarious and extraordinarily approachable and humble. She showed us the chapel, where we spent a few minutes in silence.
Then another nun invited us into a small room, divided into two halves by a wooden banister. Behind it, the four nuns came in one by one and sat on chairs, smiling at us. They invited us to do the same: there were chairs for us as well on the other side of the banister.
They explained that in the monastery there were only four nuns. One of them passed away a few years ago and another one went back to Sweden in order to become a hermit: “she will be my next target”, I thought…
As soon as we started talking, I realized that nuns were interested in my Catholic background. I felt locked: I could not express myself freely, for example opening the discussion towards a more ecumenical perspective. They put Christ in front of all: Christ was the center of every action, and there was no space for doubts or questioning the very base of their own belief. I felt that the depth of their own spiritual work was not balanced by a curiosity towards other beliefs. I questioned if that was fear, which avoided them to create the conditions for a fair dialogue, or maybe just ignorance.
In a way, it was a pity that such a great mysticism was so limited by the boundaries of their own religious convictions. I admired Carmelites for their own commitment, but I felt suffocated by their unidirectional belief, which put me in the uncomfortable attitude of cutting off a huge part of myself.
Yet, I must admit that their own simple presence was captivating. I perceived the power of their own provocative choice in such an outgoing, extrovert and globalized society. Their own life reminded me that my own value as a person is not necessarily related to the great things I do, but it relies more simply in the way I do what I do. The inner motivation is actually more important than the external action. Nuns live the same simple routine every day, throughout their own entire life, performing normal actions which do not put their own skills in evidence or which do not reveal any immediate utility for the rest of humanity, but that does not matter: nuns are striving to fill every single breath with love.
I also reflected that these persons could develop a great strength by being secluded in a few squared meters, but probably they would feel lost if put into “real” big world. Yet, again, I realized that they were a perfect micro-cosmic example of everybody’s condition: maybe I feel I am a mature adult in my own society, but what if I would be eradicated from my place? Furthermore: I am so proud of my independence, but could I survive out of the ecological system of my planet?
Nuns explained that they are attempting to live each moment with the awareness of the “presence of God”. I began to reflect if such an attitude is fundamentally different from Zen attitude of living here and now. In the first case I am projected outwards, annihilating my own ego in the fire of a greater love, which is rooted in the dialogue with an invisible living presence: the Christ. In the second case my attention is turned inwards, overcoming my own ego by means of the deepening of my attention, looking for a contact with my own real Self. On the other hand, at a certain level of contemplation it is possible to perceive the presence of Christ within, while the Zen-goal of emptiness will be fulfilled by becoming fully present in the world. In both cases there is an attempting to overcome the ego. In both cases the meeting point between my real Self and Infinity relies on a positive change within myself…
This is a very hard question to be evaluated by means of theoretical comparisons. I can just say that when I met Zen nuns, they seemed to be more grounded into present real life while Carmelites were more projected towards the coming heaven. Zen nuns were developing human compassion, while Carmelite nuns were in love with the humanity of the Divine. In both cases there was a great love and care in their actions and words.
I do not know what kind of contribution such a visit to the cloister will give to our “Hermits in Progress” –project. In my perspective, this is part of our work of encountering “real” hermits. I start to think that the research we are conducting may bring us much further than we imagined: watching at spiritual seclusion –phenomena with artistic eyes offers us the opportunity to develop more creative approaches towards ascetic practices, free from the boundaries of a specific religious philosophy.
In the past year I had the opportunity to interview two Catholic hermits. In Assisi I spent one night sleeping on the street, close to an unusual monk which was attempting to live in the same poor condition of saint Francis. Despite of the gentle approach of these hermits, I perceived a subtle proudness for their own religious belief: I felt that their wisdom vanished every time they pointed out the superiority of Christian belief compared to other spiritual traditions. Like in the case of Carmelites, they were too much “partisans”, without giving space for a fair confrontation.
In order to facilitate a real encounter between religions, the renowned theologian Raimon Panikkar (1918-2010) suggests an approach of “interpenetration” and “mutual fecundation” and he points out three basic criteria to make that possible: honesty in the search for truth wherever you can find it, intellectual openness without biased opinions and deep loyalty towards your own tradition. He wrote that “the religion of my brother should be my religious problem as well”.
Dalai Lama added other provocative suggestions, such as:
– Organizing meetings of academics with different religious background, discussing differences and analogies of respective traditions, in order to better empathize with each other.
– Promoting encounters between people of different religions which had profound spiritual experiences, sharing what they could understand by means of their own practices, in order to enlighten each other in a deeper and more direct way.
– Regular meetings where leaders of different religions may pray together, in order to facilitate mutual understanding and tolerance.
– Encouraging people of different religions to go together in pilgrimage, visiting the holy places of each other.
– Meditation: when inner balance is established in me, following my own spiritual tradition, I will begin to experience a natural humbleness which will better allow me to communicate with people of different religions and cultures.
Coming back to my visit to Carmelite-cloister, I think that if on one side the power of that way of living relies on the deep commitment towards its own specific mystical tradition, on the other hand the great risk of such a mono-religious worldview is fundamentalism: everything could become too black and white, right or wrong, and the inclusive intention of Christianity would end up to produce separation and exclusion. I do not say that I met such an extreme contradiction in there: the one-hour-silent adoration actually gave me a remarkable feeling of union, pacifying my mental storm. Among all those points facilitating interreligious dialogue that I listed above, I am sure that the most important suggestion is already part of the daily routine of Carmelite-nuns: meditation! But I believe that a bit of sincere curiosity towards other spiritual practices could transform such a place into a universal (=Catholic) house of prayer, where for example people like me, with a stratified spiritual background, could feel accepted for what they are and find a fuller communion with those beautiful nuns, which did not escape the world because of fear, but through seclusion are attempting to be one with each of us in the love of Christ.