Freedom in Solitude

Reading St. Romuald in a Time of Confinement
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Paolo Uccello, Scenes from the Life of the Holy Hermits, ca. 1460 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Sit in your cell as if in Paradise; cast all memory of the world behind you.” So wrote St. Romuald of Ravenna, the nobleman-turned-monk and founder of the Camaldolese Order, in the early eleventh century. Dissatisfied with the moral decadence and lack of ascetic rigor in the monastic communities of central Italy, Romuald left the comfort of his monastery and began living as a hermit near Venice. His solitary life—modeled on that of the desert fathers—didn’t last long. As his reputation for holiness grew, Romuald quickly attracted followers, eventually spending more than three decades wandering throughout Italy and starting hermitages along the way. He finally settled in a place called Camaldoli, living out the rest of his days (he died in 1027).

Appropriately for a teacher of silence, Romuald’s primer on Christian meditation for beginners, the Brief Rule for Hermits, is just one hundred words long. His advice is stern but practical, acknowledging distraction and frustration, but also urging patience and perseverance. His chief recommendation would sound familiar to any twenty-first-century practitioner of yoga or mindfulness: keep watch over your thoughts “like a good fisherman watching the fish.” And when your mind begins to wander, “do not give up, but quickly correct yourself” by refocusing your attention. Eventually you’ll be led to quiet, stillness, and peace.

Romuald’s Rule has been on my mind these past few weeks as I’ve been adapting to a slower, quieter, more solitary life at home. I’m lucky: I still have a job and health insurance. I also live alone, which led a priest friend to suggest I could frame this time as an “extended retreat.” It’s an unexpected opportunity, he said, for growing closer to God in prayer. Maybe not one I asked for, but one I evidently needed. As Romuald advises, I’ve been watching my mind, gauging how I respond to various stimuli. Nervous checking of the New York Times causes anxiety bordering on despair. Leisurely reading, video calls with friends, and outdoor exercise brings freedom, even joy. My solitude so far has been rich and fulfilling. But is that enough? I’m wondering if there’s a wider dimension to being alone, with a meaning and efficacy that extends beyond me.

 

The other side of monastic reclusion is generosity, selflessness, and care, especially for the least.

Mention the desire to be a hermit, or speak about the advantages of solitude, and many respond with puzzlement. Why cast the world aside when it’s so good, and when there’s so much good to be done? Reclusion is an eccentricity, at odds with what we take to be healthy human flourishing. It threatens our individual freedom and turns a blind eye to the welfare of our neighbors.

But Romuald and the Camaldolese tradition don’t see it that way. The monastic vocation is by definition paradoxical: a monk (from monos, Greek for “alone”) “dies to the world” and seeks union with God in solitude. But the same monk also relies on the wider community for material and spiritual support. Camaldoli embraces and even celebrates this contradiction: it’s the only religious order in the church to incorporate both anchoritic and cenobitic monasticism, two vocations in one institution. As the Order’s visual tradition makes clear, living in solitude and living in community are equally valid expressions of the Camaldolese charism. The seal shows twin doves drinking from one chalice, filled with wine flowing from a star above. Being Camaldolese means being alone, together. 

We find one vivid example in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Late in the Paradiso, completed nearly three centuries after Romuald’s death, Dante encounters the saint in the silent Heaven of Saturn. (Another Camaldolese hermit, the cardinal and church reformer St. Peter Damian, points him out.) Comparing them to birds warming themselves in the morning sun, Dante watches the souls of Romuald and other monks (St. Benedict among them) rise and descend along a golden ladder, whose summit lies beyond view. It’s a traditional image for the contemplative life, one Romuald, like Jacob in Genesis, had legendarily seen in a dream (except that he saw white-robed monks, not angels or birds).

That ladder served as the template for monastic formation at Camaldoli. The novice began at the bottom, living in common with the community in the cenobitic cloister, down the mountain from the hermit cells. After long periods of training, supervised by an elder, the monk could rise to higher and higher (or deeper and deeper) levels of solitude. The journey culminated in total reclusion—life alone in the hermitage.

That might sound austere. But the Camaldolese cell is a space of freedom and possibility rather than penance or deprivation, in keeping with the Order’s understanding of reclusion: a single-story cottage with four or five rooms, comfortable but spare, with space for just what’s essential. Upon entering from the private garden, an L-shaped corridor (used for ambulatory exercise during Lenten quarantines) brings you to the central cubiculum, a square room with a pantry, fireplace, table, chair, and sleeping alcove. Off to the right is a small studiolo, with a desk, bookshelves, and stool. To the left, in a space that fills nearly half the floor plan of the cell, is a private chapel, capped by a vaulted ceiling and culminating in a stone altar. It’s a “house church,” built for one.

You can still visit Romauld’s “original” cell at Camaldoli, one of about twenty that still survive, though all have undergone upgrades over the centuries. Stone walls replaced wooden ones in the 1500s; running water and electricity were added in the 1950s. (Now there’s also access to Wifi, thanks to a series of routers.) But the basic layout has remained essentially unchanged. When I lived in one for a few months in 2015, the simple space helped me organize my daily routine and focus my attention. I prayed in the chapel, read in the chair, wrote at the desk, and walked in the garden. Apart from the communal meals in the refectory, prayer in church, and the odd day trip into the valley below, that was about the extent of my activity. Confined to a single place with nowhere else to be, my mind and soul were free to wander. I lost myself in memory, in nature, and in the books I read.

Stationary “travel” is something Camaldolese monks have always done. One of my favorite figures from the Order’s history is the medieval cartographer Fra Mauro, who in 1450 painted the known world without leaving his cell. His massive mappa mundi now hangs inside a library in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. There’s even a crater on the moon named after him. Another is the priest and writer Angelo Calogerà, who in 1728 founded and began editing the Raccolta d’opuscoli scientifici e filologici, one of the most widely read scientific and literary journals of the European enlightenment.

Most people are aware that monasteries helped preserve classical culture after the fall of the Roman Empire, serving for centuries as centers of learning. Less well known is that they were also among Europe’s first hospitals. You can still visit Camaldoli’s Antica farmacia, replete with old herbaria, scientific instruments of the time, and handwritten pharmaceutical recipes preserved in glass display cases. And in the archive you can find long lists of ricoverati—patients admitted to the guest house for treatment. As the Rule of Benedict prescribes, the sick were to be received as Christ, regardless of their social status or ability to pay.

That’s the other side of monastic reclusion, then: generosity, selflessness, and care, especially for the least among us. After the Second Vatican Council invited the church’s religious orders to renew their charisms, the Camaldolese looked to the life of Romuald and articulated the idea of the triplex bonum, or “triple good.” It consists of three interrelated values: solitude, community, and service. These exist not as goods in themselves, but in dynamic interrelationship. Solitude fosters healthy community life, which in turn enables service of neighbors. The grace and love encountered there returns to the life of the community, and into the prayer lives of individual monks. It’s a rhythmic pattern, like breathing, that reveals the presence of the Spirit.

 

We’re not helpless, and, as in all crises, we do have a choice.

Cabin fever is on the rise, the associated stress being discussed in press conferences and work-related Zoom meetings. When you can’t really go anywhere or do anything, it can be tempting to spiritualize this crisis, to minimize the disruption. High-minded thoughts about being surrounded by the “communion of the saints” are one thing; not being able to attend Mass, receive the Eucharist, or join hands with fellow worshippers is another. Even on silent retreats, you still get to see and interact with people. Watching a solitary celebrant on your computer or television isn’t the same.

But we’re not helpless, and, as in all crises, we do have a choice. We can long for the way things were, and wonder when things will “get back to normal”—anything to keep from accepting the discomfort of the present. Or, as Pope Francis suggested in a recent Commonweal interview, we can get creative, and get to work. Those of us that can do so remotely, should. So too should we donate—medical supplies for first responders, money to laid-off workers and victims, time to those who just need someone to listen. We may not be hermits, but all of us are able to pray.

St. Romuald knew how to make the most of his time in confinement. He believed that the path to peace lay in the Book of Psalms: “the one way is in the psalms; do not abandon it.” What he meant was that the psalter traces the arc of a spiritual journey: from fear, anger, and depression to openness, gratitude, and joy.

Romuald closes his Rule by contrasting two very different images of the solitary monk in prayer. The first is that of a terrified petitioner, trembling in fear and awe before the emperor. It’s not necessarily a bad way to pray—after all, it’s Easter, and the gospel readings are now filled with terrified disciples quaking before the Risen Christ. But then Romuald says something strange and unexpected: “sit like a chick, content with the grace of God, for unless its mother gives it something, it tastes nothing, and has nothing to eat.” Fear thus gives way to a kind of fortifying, nutritive empowerment, in which the monk receives everything as a gift. But how to do it? For Romuald it’s simple: destrue te totum, he commands. Destroy yourself completely.

Though the COVID-19 curve appears to be flattening, with the worst possibly behind us, we will still be stuck at home for some time yet. We may grow lonely, impatient, even angry, as we long for the people, places, and things that used to bring us comfort. We’ll be tempted to focus on our private woes: how the crisis is upending our plans, delaying our enjoyment, making our lives more difficult. We need to resist it. If we want the post-virus world to look different—a little kinder, a little less selfish—we need to recall Romuald’s teaching: unless God gives it, none of us have anything. Even our solitude is not our own.

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal.

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