Asceticism and hermitism have fascinated me for a long time, (which might surprise those who know me as a convivial, gregarious person who loves an audience). Judaism’s focus on community are largely incompatible with such practices, so I’m not sure where the interest comes from, but I think it’s a combination of feeling daunted by the impossibility of keeping up with/learning about everything, a sense that life should be about something transcendental, coupled with a residual smugness about being a “smart kid” in elementary school though not one of the more socially adept ones. I want to believe that there is wisdom that is accessible from consistent introspection, that it’s more than just misanthropy that I feel when I want to be alone. The Perfection of Solitude describes the varied ways in which Catholic monks lived in the Holy Land during the time of the Crusades. I had not been familiar with the distinction between eremitic and cenobitic monasticism, but it makes sense: the former are those monks who live fully solitary lives, while the latter are members of an order that dines together. The latter feels more sustainable to me; being a part of an “intentional community” also provides the opportunity to engage in the world in a meaningful way in a way that total solitude doesn’t. Spending a period of time alone might provide some insight, but taking that insight to the grave would feel like an act of selfishness to me. The obsession with physical proximity to holy places is a complex subject for me; I have certainly felt moved in places of great history or meaning and can understand wanting to stay there to contemplate and be a part of the place, but it seems to me that appreciation of a place can quickly turn into a desire to possess/control it (since only a finite number of people can be present in any given place at any one time). Abraham Joshua Heschel’s description of the Sabbath as a “cathedral in time” and the emphasis in rabbinic Judaism on temporal holiness rather than spatial holiness seems to be a mature solution to that problem.
Is holiness definitionally exceptional? Can a person simultaneously be humble and demand different rules for him/herself than for the population at large? In reading the lives of Dominican Saints I found myself asking these questions a lot. Many of the examples of the saints’ humility involves their own mortification: sleeping on boards, self-flagellation, extreme poverty, etc. It’s easy for that to start to feel competitive/addictive in the same ways that weightlifting, eating spicy food, drinking, or other physical “achievements” can escalate. And at least in my own life, that’s always been tied to competition and the sense of pride in having outdone someone else (or at least my own previous personal best). I don’t know that I can reconcile that urge with true humility, but maybe these saints didn’t view themselves as being humble in the sense of unimportant, but rather felt that, like a prophet wearing sackcloth and ashes, their outré actions were intended to shock the viewer into reflection. Catherine of Siena perhaps stands out in that department, reportedly drinking pus in order to punish herself/overcome her own disgust. There’s a certain grim comedy in some of these stories, where the saint goes to extreme lengths to be humble and then is honored/venerated. The compilers are often careful to specify that the saint did not seek out these honors (clearly they’re sensitive to Jesus’ comment about not being like the hypocrites of performative religiosity, and want to reassure the reader that these saints were doing things for the right reasons). At the same time, the saints documented inevitably did accept their role and the associated prestige. One wonders about the anonymously generous souls. There might be an interesting version of the superhero stories there, where the hero takes on an alter ego not for the sake of building up a larger-than-life persona, but the opposite, for the sake of invisibility and avoiding the personal acclaim. These saints, like the Old Testament prophets, aren’t completely stoic. Peter Martyr reportedly got exiled from his monastery because his colleagues heard him talking to angels and thought that he’d had a woman in his cell. He then complains to Jesus about having been treated unfairly, and Jesus says, essentially, “You want to talk about being treated unfairly? Hold my beer.” It struck me as a marvelous tidbit of levity and realism in these stories.
Coda: Though I finished reading these two books multiple years ago, I recently read Halldor Laxness’ The Great Weaver from Kashmir, which touches on some of the appeal (and harm) of the ego-boosting quest for perfection. One wonders about the ordinary lives that saints and hermits left behind, and which would have been the greater gift to the world.