The Desire for Solitude; Clothing of Tyson King
The Toronto Oratory has again this year been entrusted with the formation and education of a novice for the Brisbane, Australia Oratory-in-Formation. We clothed Tyson David King in the Oratorian habit as Br. Francis on September 7, 2014. Br. Francis was born in 1989 and originally came from Albany, a country town in Western Australia, after which he moved to Perth in 2011, having completed a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Criminology. Br. Francis spent a year living with diocesan priest of Perth to help him discern his vocation. It was during this time that Francis first heard of the Oratory, to which he felt a strong attraction. Acting on this call Br. Francis moved to Brisbane where he stayed with two priests who are involved in the formation of the Brisbane Oratory in Australia. On this occasion the Father delivered the following address:
September 7, 2014
DOMUS MEA DOMUS ORATIONIS VOCABITUR
In the Letter to the Romans, St Paul launches a terrible attack on those who know God yet refuse to honour him as God. Instead of honouring God, he says, they become futile in their thinking and their empty minds are darkened. Claiming to be wise, they become fools. That was the situation, and St Paul, after his experience of Christ, on the road to Damascus, spent his life in trying to break through to those darkened, empty minds, who know God, but refuse to honour him.
Things have not changed much since St Paul wrote those words, although today we don’t usually use St Paul’s straightforward language, and prefer to talk about secularization, and the anguish of modern man’s divided soul.
Yet even if it is true that there have always been unbelieving societies, and also, that our society is unbelieving, there still remains the question of how the Faith of the Church is to be presented to this modern world; a world that is, in fact, refuses to honour God. Part of the answer is that one way the glory of God breaks through the carapace of frivolity, and conceit, and indifference, is by the holiness of the saints. One of the reasons we are given the Saints is so that each one of them, in his own way, may strike us, through the force of his own personality, with the reality and the truth of Christ. Sanctity is something lived, and the lives of the saints are important because in the end, as Newman said, it is people we trust and not arguments. In this he was echoing Aristotle who maintained that:
We believe good men more fully and more readily than others; this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible …his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.
In the fifth of his University Sermons, ‘Personal Influence, the Means of Propagating the Truth’, Newman said that
… it [is] difficult to estimate the moral power which a single individual, trained to practise what he teaches, may acquire in his own circle, in the course of years… While he is unknown to the world, yet, within the range of those who see him, he will become the object of feelings different in kind from those which mere intellectual excellence excites.
The lives and personalities of the saints are examples of what Newman is talking about. The saints are men and women who have `become the object of feelings different in kind from those which mere intellectual excellence excites’.
What follows from all that? What follows from all that, practically, speaking, is that there will be no effective evangelization – either old or new – without a serious effort, on our part, to strive after sanctity; to try to live holy lives. Without at least the attempt to follow the example of the saints, the modern world is not going to be interested in anything we have to say.
Now, the quest for sanctity requires the presence of other people; it requires a community of some sort. Aristotle said that only a beast or a God could live alone, and this is profoundly true. Without other people to interact with, there are whole areas of our nature which lie unused and undeveloped, and perhaps most importantly of all, unknown; unknown even to ourselves. It is only in learning to live in a Christian way with other people that we begin to recognize ourselves, and then go on both to extinguish the vices that impede our progress towards union with God, as well as to develop the virtues that are necessary for perseverance in the spiritual life. The thought that everything would be much easier if it were not for the tiresome presence of other people is a temptation and should be recognized as such. It is a temptation, which if unchecked and given way to, will destroy not only the individual’s vocation, but poison the atmosphere of the house in which he lives.
It is worth noting that the earliest monastic tradition was quite clear on this point. In the Institutes Cassian makes the point that it is only those who have developed the virtues by living in community who should go on to live a more solitary life:
It is those who are perfect and purified from all faults who ought to seek the desert, and when they have thoroughly exterminated all their faults amid the assembly of the brethren, they should enter it not by way of cowardly flight, but for the purpose of divine contemplation, and with the desire of deeper insight into heavenly things, which can only be gained in solitude by those who are perfect. (Inst.viii:18)
‘Exterminated all their faults amid the assembly of the brethren’….The desire for a more solitary life must be based, then, on the experience of developing the virtues through interaction with other people, and not just by the positive desire to be closer to God. Solitude does not, by itself cure our faults. In fact, it often intensifies them, and brings them more sharply into focus.
For a man appears to himself to be patient and humble, just as long as he comes across nobody to interact with; but he will presently revert to his former nature, whenever the chance of any sort of passion occurs: I mean that those faults will at once appear on the surface which were lying hid, and, like unbridled horses diligently fed up during too long a time if idleness, dash forth from the barriers the more eagerly and fiercely, for the destruction of their charioteer. For when the opportunity for practising them among men is removed, our faults will more and more increase in us, unless we have been purified from them. (Inst. viii:18)
The desire for solitude, and an interest in the contemplative life may, therefore, be based on an unwillingness to comes to terms with ourselves, and to undertake the difficult job of trying to become more Christian in our behaviour towards other people, and towards ourselves. Union with God cannot be achieved by trying to bye-pass the demands of ordinary Christian living. And, ordinary Christian living is learned by actually living with other people.
Community life, then, is necessary as a preparation for becoming a friend of God. But, it is a bad mistake to think that community life has not a hard and painful aspect. Living with other people is supposed, at least to begin, to cure us of our selfishness, our pride, our impatience and the other vices. St John of the Cross, who had an austere and demanding view of community life, teaches [along with Cassian] that it is through our interaction with other people that the painful business of developing the virtues and fighting the vices is brought about.
Thou shouldst understand that thou hast come to the convent only that all may fashion thee and try thee. And thus, in order to free thyself from the imperfection and the disturbances that may arise from the temperaments and habits of the religious, and to pluck advantage from every happening, thou must think that all who are in the convent are workmen who are to try thee, as in truth they are. For some have to fashion thee by word, other by deed and others by their thoughts against thee; and thou must be subject to them in all things, even as an image is subject to him that fashions it and to him that paints it and to him that gilds it.’
`For iron, he says in another place, cannot adapt itself and be subservient to the intelligence of the artificer, unless he use fire and a hammer, like the fire which Jeremiah says that God put into his understanding, saying: “He sent fire into my bones and taught me”. And Jeremiah says of the hammer: “Thou hast chastised me, Lord, and I was instructed.” Even so says the preacher: “He that is not tried, what can he know? And he that has no experience knoweth little”.'[ Living Flame of Love, p 138]
Now, it will not always be like that; but it is unrealistic to think that a serious community life will always be smooth sailing. But, because it is difficult, does not mean it is not the place for you. St Philip laid great store on the virtue of perseverance – of sticking at it. And if you do persevere, then, at the end of your pilgrimage, you will be able to say with St Philip’s great disciple Cardinal Baronius, Dicebam in nidulo meo moriar, I used to say, I shall die in my nest; or with the Blessed Anthony Grassi, of the Oratory in Fermo, Hic requies mea, here is my rest. At those times you will know how greatly you have been blessed in your vocation to the Oratory, and that all the pain, and shadows, and disappointments were a small price to pay to be able to live and to die as a son of our Holy Father, St Philip Neri, the second Apostle of Rome.