BOOK REVIEWS: HOUSE OF HERMITS

Belisle, Peter-Damian. The Language of Silence: the Changing Face of Monastic Solitude.
London: Darton, Longman and Todd; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003. (Traditions of Christian Spirituality series)

As the subtitle suggests, this book treats of solitude and silence in a coenobitic religious context, in what author Belisle calls "corporate solitude" or being "alone together." The history of the subject necessarily treats of hermits but approaches them from a view of their approximation to a social and utilitarian function in spirituality. Since the series includes titles on other Catholic orders -- Carmelite, Jesuit, Dominican, Franciscan, Benediction, Cistercian -- perhaps the book might be better subtitled "The Camaldolese and Carthusian Tradition," although the book ranges farther and wider.

Belisle covers biblical archetypes, desert solitaries, and Patristic and early medieval sources of eremiticism. The treatment is more exact and animated in the chapters on monastic applications, and mentions Julian of Norwich as a representative anchorite. Remaining chapters make a tenuous extrapolation of solitude to the Russia starets and to high-profile twentieth-century Catholics: Charles de Foucauld, Jules Monchanin, Catherine de Hueck Doherty (Orthodox not Catholic), Dorothy Day, and Christian de Cherg, the latter killed by Muslim fundamentalists in Algeria in 1996 reminiscent of the murder of Charles de Foucauld in the same region eighty years earlier.

Clearly Belisle wants to identify the virtues of everyone from Moses and Elijah down to de Foucauld and Dorothy Day with the degrees of solitude in their lives, but this carries the danger of reducing solitude as social disengagement to nearly anyone's personal quiet time. It may persuade modern readers to accept solitude and silence more readily into their own busy lives -- the book's audience is clearly popular given the summary treatment of complex history and personalities.

But the subtitle may confuse the issue for that popular audience. Belisle is a Camaldolese monk who clearly knows the value of solitude and is eager to share his enthusiasm, but the subtitled "monastic solitude" has had a rockier history than he lets on. It colors his view of solitude, making solitude a utilitarian tool that is never an end in itself. From the Introduction:

I am in solitude to experience a presence and I move out of solitude to share that experience with others. Solitude, at its most authentic, moves from communion to communion. This kind of communion forms community at a powerfully intuitive level because bonding within the framework of communion implies profound commonality. Communion is a compenetration of being at a moment always "now" and in a manner ever "present."

Lay and secular solitaries may not think that their solitude has an ulterior social motive. More likely, they are following a personal propensity and, if lucky, turning it into good spiritual results for themselves, not compelled to measure the result only in terms of others. Perhaps a divine economy of solitude will bring the grace or karma of a solitary to that universal communion Belisle refers to, but it is more compelling for the monastic than the lay person to have to think in those terms.

Nor has the author's constructive understanding of monastic solitude been seen so positively over the centuries. Solitude is still a rarified option hardly universal in ecclesiastical circles. And most lay people will know "compenetration" as the love of another person or of nature or, mystically, of God. Less likely will a norm for solitude as sharing be acceptable even to solitaries. Indeed, solitude as voluntary social disengagement is more attainable by the lay person and the non-monastic hermit, and may be the secret that makes its fruit in their psychological and spiritual lives successful.

Belisle's better chapters deal with the Camaldolese and Carthusian traditions. The coenobitic blow to eremiticism delivered by the Rule of St. Benedict (not how Belisle puts it, however!) is summarized in this understatement:

Because clear provisions for solitaries were made neither by the Rule nor by the general monastic world, the question of solitude suffered its ups and downs through medieval times.

When provision for solitude reappears in medieval Europe it is with new orders altogether, beginning with Romuald, Peter Damian, the Constitutions of Camaldoli prior Rudolf, and with Paul Gustiniani in Renaissance times. The Camaldoli reconstructed the desert and Byzantine laura in an attempt to maximize eremiticism within a structure that the Church would tolerate. They did more to rescue the concept of solitude and silence than any preceding order. Physical isolation in cottages with complete autonomy for the monk with respect to work, meals, reading, prayer, and practice was the hallmark recreation of the desert hermit life.

The Carthusians modified the physical isolation by placing the monks in cells within a common building, which is the monastery. This was, as Belisle puts it, "a combination of Benedictine monasticism and eremitical spirituality," but it certainly curbed the fruits of solitude, a solitude Belisle prefers to describe mildly as "mitigated by coenobitical life." But the chapter on the Cistercian model, made famous by the example of Thomas Merton, the author subtitles "alone together." This state of being "alone together" was in fact the bane of Merton, whose frustrated desire to switch from the Cistercian Trappist order to the Camaldolese or the Carthusian is well known.

The author acknowledges having restricted solitude to a few monastic orders, excluding the role of solitude in other eremitical orders (Gilbertins, Celestines, Olivetans) and in the mendicant orders (Franciscan, Augustinian, Carmelite). But the extrapolation of solitude to non-monastic lives like Charles de Foucauld and Dorothy Day suggests Belisle's desire to build a bridge to contemporary lay sensibilities. He concludes by suggesting the universality of religious solitude and its appropriateness in the spiritual life of everyone, which is indisputable.

All these points should not belie the fact that the book is an accessible introduction to the history of silence and solitude used by specific orders and a welcome survey of less frequently discussed topics. As mentioned, author Belisle projects his positive experiences with solitude clearly and with enthusiasm, which makes the book congenial reading and the topic commendable to its readers, given an awareness of the complexity of the subject.