Monasteries of the Heart

In My Own Company

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The monk poet Ryokan writes:

You musn’t suppose
I never mingle in the world
Of humankind---
It’s simply that I prefer
To enjoy myself alone.

Me too, Ryokan. I have to say the best hours of my day are when I can sit in my study in early morning and just read and write and think. I enjoy playing golf alone and going to movies by myself. I’m still not totally crazy about eating alone or taking vacations by myself. At work I spend long hours alone planning, writing and editing—there are days when less than thirty minutes are spent in conversations with co-workers.

I’d like to think that I’m developing a “hermit heart” where I’m more at home with me, happier in my own company. And that’s a good thing, as long as I’m not using silence and solitude as an escape from the “world of humankind.”

The hermit that I’m most attracted to is the one described by Catherine deHueck Doherty in her book, Poustinia. In that book she talks about the Russian hermit, a poustinik, who lives alone with God but is not a solitary. Rather, this Eastern Christian hermit is attached to a local community and serves humanity through a life of prayer, fasting and availability. It’s availability that makes this type of hermit different. The poustinik is available whenever there are communal needs, such as a village fire or harvest time. And, most importantly, the poustinik is always available to those who knock on the hermitage door. Always the poustinik is present to share a kind word, some food and drink, good conversation and encouragement. Always the poustinik listens to what the visitor really needs and attempts to assist.

So, I may prefer my own company, but if I have a true hermit heart, the needs of others take preference. The silence and solitude are a sham if get irritable or testy, for instance, when I’m reading and the phone rings or I’m engrossed in a project and someone interrupts me.

From what I’ve read about him, Ryokan was a beautiful wandering poustinik. He lived alone meditating and writing poems but the door was always open to the visitor in need and to the children who just wanted to play.

I may never become a poustinik—that is live by myself--but I do hope this movement to preferring my own company is a first step towards a hermit heart and not a step backward into the more selfish.

Oh, there’s a knock on my study door. See what I mean. This is what I prefer, being alone with my keyboard and with me but there is a second knock….