HERMITAGE

“At certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house," wrote Thoreau. "The only house of which I had been the owner before, if I except a boat, was a tent," he added touchingly. He gives reasons for his "experi­ment" of living alone on the shores of Walden Pond, in a house built with his own hands: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life ... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…."  Ouch! such aggressive verbs: to front, to put to rout, to cut, to drive, to reduce.  And from a hermit too! It comes as no surprise that his vocation to the wilderness lasted only two years. I once met a real hermit, a Camaldolese monk, who said, "God lured me in here to persuade me to stop running away." He added nothing about cornering God, for God had cornered him.

It is near midnight now and the whole world is still.  I am lingering at the mouth of the tent before going to bed. Some shrubs beside me are visible only as outlines of deeper darkness. Their outer world of twigs and leaves is plunged almost as deeply in obscurity as their inner world of roots.  Everything becomes its own essence at midnight.  Only the deepest movements continue: the heartbeat, the stream's flow and the eternal birth-movement of the sea. This is God's time; God chooses to need our darkness. "What good is light," said Eckhart, "if it does not shine in darkness?" God plays with light and darkness, plays hide-and­-seek.

It is the most essential of all games, hide-and-seek. Babies play it, without being taught; they bring it from God. If I want to know what God's joy is like, let me listen to a baby's laughter when she plays this game. There was a Zen master who used to play hide-and-seek with children. He played with utter single-mindedness; once, he hid himself so successfully that he was not found for three days. God plays with utter devotion, hiding in darkness sometimes for weeks or even years. It takes two, at least, to play: I seek and God hides, I hide and God seeks. If one side gives up, there is no game.

This must be why Thoreau sounds so grim; he is not playing a game but mounting an assault. "The intellect is a cleaver," he explains, "it rifts its way into the secret of things."

As I leave my place at the mouth of the tent and withdraw into its interior, I know in my heart and soul that the real secret can never be assaulted; it can only disclose itself with joy.

From Take Nothing for the Journey: Meditations on Time and Place,
Donagh O'Shea, Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1990 (2nd edition, 2013)

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