Lee Vining, California, is a small town (population 150 in the winter, higher in the summer) in the eastern part of California, not far from the Nevada border and up against Yosemite National Park. The town is named after a gold prospector, Leroy Vining, from the California gold rush days, but the ‘rush’ is long over and the town is now quiet, isolated and super-scenic. Back in its ‘rush’ days, the Jesuits started a Catholic parish, Our Savior of the Mountains, but when another town in the area, Mammoth Lakes, became a tourist ‘boom town’ (because of skiing) in the early 70s, the parish moved there leaving Our Savior of the Mountains as a mission-chapel. The church is now used only for one Mass on Sunday, when the Jesuit pastor drives in from Mammoth Lakes, and the rectory is empty, but well-maintained by the parishioners. And it is here that I am trying out, temporarily, the hermit life.
This all began last year when the Carmelites decided to move the pre-novitiate (i.e., postulancy) from Houston to Chicago. After ten years as pre-novice director, nine of those in Houston, it was time for a change but before beginning a new ministry, the Provincial, Father Jack Welch, O.Carm., recommended a sabbatical. The Order was founded 800 years ago by hermits living on Mount Carmel in Israel, and since then, no matter how ‘active’ the various ministries — parishes, schools, chaplaincies, retreat work — that original hermit element has remained strong. So when asked what I would be interested in doing for a sabbatical I replied that I would like to try to be a hermit. Having been only involved in super-active ministries, I had no idea where I should try this so I asked for suggestions. Father Quinn Conners, O.Carm., our Director of Formation, recommended Lee Vining, where he had been a hermit-on-sabbatical ten years earlier. He called the Jesuit pastor in Mammoth Lakes, who was happy to have someone live in the usually-empty rectory, so I drove in last October, sight unseen, to begin an ‘interior adventure.’ Saint John of the Cross describes God as “nada” (no-thing, or nothing), so I told the pastor that I was on the search for nothing. His response was, “you’ll sure find nothing in Lee Vining!”
Father Jack said that the Provincial Council gave its okay to the hermitage, and then he jokingly added that a hermitage is rough and that he thought I would last two days. Well, it has been much more difficult than I expected. The first hurdle was the telephone. In Houston, the phone rang constantly with request after request, but here, even though I did not want the phone to ring, I actually wanted the phone to ring. Was I no longer needed? By anyone? Obviously my sense of worth was dependent on my ‘doing.’
The second hurdle was even harder — the sharp drop in stimulation. Besides the phones, the modern world has us constantly connected (and stimulated) by email, the internet, television, radio, recorded music, blackberries, iPhones, iPods, etc., etc., etc. Humanity has existed for millennia without all that electronic stimuli, but I sure missed it all — and missed it a lot. I found that it was too difficult, and so I gave myself a weekly treat and re-connected to it all on Sundays. Ahhh! Nice!
The third hurdle was even harder — to pray. Not that prayer is difficult, but a concentrated discipline of prayer is. I told myself that prayer is now my “job” and I would have to work at it, like any job. My goal was to have pronounced quality and quantity prayer time, something like a Zen monk sitting for blissful hour after blissful hour in focused prayer. Yeah, right. A big part of the problem was just getting started because there is always another interesting book to read, or another long hike into the super-scenic locale, or laundry to do, or snow to shovel, or skiing, or whatever.
When I used to teach flute years ago, I found that my students never practiced. When asked, they always responded that they were too busy. So I made them promise that they would practice for only two minutes each day. No matter how busy, anyone should be able to find just two minutes. Of course, once they began to practice, the two minutes became five, then ten, then twenty. The major hurdle is simply to begin. When asked to practice for twenty minutes, my students did not practice at all, but if asked for two minutes, my students ended up practicing for twenty.
Well, in order to pray, I had to put myself under that same discipline. So, my ‘quality and quantity’ prayer is simply to spend two minutes each morning, two minutes each afternoon and two minutes each evening in meditation. That totals only six minutes a day! And it works! So when I sit down, I tell myself that I am required to meditate for only two minutes, and if it stretches to ten minutes, or a half-hour, or a full hour; well, that is all ‘gravy’ since the required amount is only two minutes.
Maybe that is the main lesson I have learned here in the hermitage. We often tell ourselves that prayer of any quantity or quality is impossible in this high-stimulus world of jobs, duties, social engagements, television, internet, email, radio, news, and gadgets galore. Well, let me tell you that even in the slow-paced and low-stimulus life of the hermitage, it is equally difficult. So, that is the advice from this hermit-in-the-making — to commit to two minutes of disciplined prayer each day. Two minutes, and your life will be ‘gravy.