Hermitage

nature-forest-trees-hillsHere’s an insight I’ve gleaned from my Capuchin Franciscan friends and my study of the history of religious orders: whatever we do, we need time apart. Although Lent is coming to a close, it’s good to remind ourselves, as we push toward the finish line, of our need for retreat.

As with any friendly rivalry, there are lots of great jokes about the religious orders. One of the simplest says there are three things even God doesn’t know: what the Jesuits are up to, what the Dominicans are thinking, and who are the real Franciscans.

The Jesuits are supposed to be mission-driven – but it sometimes seems they’re always getting into trouble. The Dominicans are supposed to preach the Gospel clearly – but sometimes seem lost in complicated ideas. And the Franciscans are, well, men divided by a common ideal.

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The genius of St. Francis was to return to the heart. At his time, about the year 1200, it seemed that institution was always conquering true religion. Not long before, St. Bernard had led the Cistercians, a great reform movement of the Benedictines – and within fifty years it often seemed they were more interested in prestige than in the intense spirituality of their founders.

The mendicant movement – the Franciscans and the Dominicans – broke out of their institutions. They were, above all, men on the road, men on a mission. It seemed they had rediscovered the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, and truly personal union with Jesus.

But where St. Dominic looked back into history for practical ways to organize that movement, St. Francis seemed to care nothing for order. Dominic took the thousand-year-old Rule of St. Augustine, used the hundred-year-old constitutions of St. Norbert, and made some modifications for the mission at hand.

St. Francis’s first rule was just a collection of Gospel passages about poverty. He later wrote a second rule, but it’s pretty vague. Liturgically – they’ll just do what Rome does. They shouldn’t have money. They shouldn’t own anything. It’s an anti-rule rule, an anti-institution institution.

That’s the genius and the downfall of the Franciscans. Their founder wanted no foundation but the Gospel and poverty.

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The Dominicans have never split. Dominic created a structure within which there could be reform movements, but no one has ever founded a counter-Dominican order.

The Franciscans immediately split, and have ever since. I am friends with a group here who began when members of one branch of the Franciscans went to the bishop and said they couldn’t in conscience remain in that branch, because they weren’t living the Franciscan vows. They set off for a life of radical poverty – and another group quickly split off from them for being too institutional.

It’s both inspiring and obnoxious. That’s St. Francis and the Fransicans: the ultimate idealists, the ultimate movement for pure religious life.

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There have been many attempts to square the circle of a Franciscan “order.” The mainline, the Order of Friars Minor, tries to avoid division. Recollect movements tried to pray more. Conventuals emphasized stability. The Discalced emphasized poverty. Observants emphasized the whole package. And through history there have been constant divisions trying to discover the purity of Franciscan life

Here I have to skip over a lot of historical research, and simply say: in my view, it seems like the Capuchins have been especially successful at figuring it out. At the least, they present one solution to the problem.

And the heart of the Capuchin movement is hermitage. They are called Capuchins because of their pointy hood, which recalls the radical monastic movements. The Capuchin solution to the Franciscan puzzle is for everyone to spend a couple days every month alone in silence. Hermitage was certainly part of Francis’s spirituality; the Capuchins determined it was the key.

Why does it work? I think it’s because among all the chaos, all the rootlessness that, in its way, is part of the Franciscan genius, hermitage gives space to recenter. The Franciscan problem is the temptation to forget what it’s all about. Hermitage is a solution.

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Hermitage casts some light for us on the sixteenth-century movement for “mental prayer,” so influential, and perhaps so misunderstood, by the age to follow. Mental prayer has sometimes been turned into techniques, or even an opposition to Scripture and liturgy. But the real point is, sometimes we need space, time to think. On the simplest level, sometimes we just need to go for a walk.

Some vocations, especially monastic ones, are clear and orderly and constantly pointing us back to the center. But like the Franciscans, many of us live vocations – from family to the parish priesthood – that are hard to center. It’s part of the Franciscan genius – and part of the genius of our vocations – that we go everywhere, are open to the contingencies of real life, have a flexibility that doesn’t allow us to come to the liturgy seven (or, really, nine) times a day.

Maybe the Capuchin solution can be our solution, too. Maybe what we need is not techniques, but just some occasional time away, even an hour here or there to slow down, have nowhere to go, and remember why we’re doing all this.

How do you find time to breathe?

eric.m.johnston

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