Review*: THE WAY OF THE HERMIT – Interfaith Encounters in Silence and Prayer by Mario I Aguilar

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The Way of the Hermit: Interfaith Encounters in Silence and Prayer

The author of this book is a Catholic Benedictine Camaldolese Oblate who is also a Catholic priest, Professor of Religion and Politics at the University of St Andrews, School of Divinity, St Mary’s College, current Director, founding member of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics (CSRP) at St Andrews,  and a poet. Among several other academic responsibilities, he currently serves as an expert advisor to the British courts on asylum cases (Africa, Chile).

His literary and research corpus in the area of politics, religion, and liberation, and interfaith dialogue with African Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, is extensive. From 1993 until about 2009, most of his research output concerned African and South American nations, especially his home country, Chile. Beginning in 2009, his work in the areas of politics, religion and liberation, and monastic dialogue began to include more on Tibet, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and Hinduism. He has been the recipient of several grants for various projects from the Carnegie Trust and the Leverhulme Trust. He has also authored a book on Pope Francis.
The Way of the Hermit is an account of how some particular hermits in the Christian and Hindu tradition have helped shape the way he personally lives out his call to be a hermit and his interfaith encounters. In his own experience of the eremitic life he seeks to “become one not only with Christians but with all other pilgrims, especially Hindus and Buddhists”  (p.20). “In prayer and meditation, and renunciation,” he writes, “the hermit loves God and their neighbor through prayer and silence” (p.69).
This is Aguilar’s first book on the eremitic life and how it relates to/enhances his own interfaith encounters, be they virtual or in situ. The broad range of topics he addresses and the variety of literary styles he uses—at times reflective, at times descriptive—can demand patience of the reader, but a patience that is well worth the effort. Personally speaking, the book fed my own life as a lay consecrated hermit who, in my past career, lived and worked in Asia and had encounters with Hindus and Buddhists. I found his work to be enlightening, informative, reflective, and provocative. He is a true seeker and peacemaker. Even when he recounts tragic experiences, he is able to interpret them as stories of death and resurrection. He has a heart of love for those who are suffering, and he continues to give a voice to their trials and to be an advocate for those seeking asylum. He is eager to create bridges of respect, understanding, peaceful co-existence, and shared prayer encounters with his Hindu and Buddhist friends, insisting that the language of love is the best form of communication. Two of the most important external/exterior fruits of Aguilar’s interfaith encounters are the India Declaration on Shared Humanity and the St Andrews Declaration on Shared Humanity, which he wrote about in a past issue (2016 [VI:2]) of Dilatato Corde. These outline a “common journey for different faiths with the understanding that   first and foremost we are human beings” (p. 169, Appendix6).
Those living as hermits will especially benefit from his thoughts on what that contemplative call to silence and solitude entails. He bases his reflections on how he came to this way of life, how he is living it now, and how establishing one’s hermitage is a reflective, purposeful part of the call. He articulates well—almost in poetic language—his own interior movements and the mental and spiritual fruits of contemplative prayer that hermits experience.Those in the eremitic life who have an interest in interfaith encounters and dialogue, as well as monastics and lay people who wish to create bridges with people of other faith traditions, most especially with Hindus and Buddhists will also benefit from his recommendations on how to approach and enter into that encounter. Finally, those who are interested in the hermit vocation will find helpful material here, but will want to supplement Aguilar’s reflections on his personal call to this way of life with the study of other works that deal with the eremitic life.
Aguilar accomplishes what he set out to do.   His main goal in writing this book is to share his own experience of an eremitic life that has brought him into “deep communion with pilgrims of other faiths . . . especially Hindus and Buddhists” (p. 20).  To accomplish this, he reviews the lives and teaching of some hermits, describes his own hermitage space, and includes rites, prayers, and texts he has used for interfaith dialogue and rituals in his hermitages in Scotland and Chile.
In order to help the reader understand his interfaith encounters and the liturgies and prayers he developed to deepen dialogue and communion with Hindus, Aguilar begins by providing a good overview of a few selected twentieth-century Christian and Hindu hermits/sanyasis: Charles de Foucauld, Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sadhu Sundar Singh, Swami Abhishiktananda, and Thomas Merton. He recounts the history of Christian-Hindu dialogue in India from the late 1800s, giving special attention to Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889-1929), a Christian hermit who was born and raised a Sikh, became a Christian after claiming to have a vision of Christ, and then became a wandering Sadhu. He also had contact with Tibetan Buddhists and entered Tibet several times, disappearing there in 1927. Aguilar then fast-forwards to 1950, when five Catholic priests “who became monastic ascetics in the line of Hindu sadhus and with an enormous influence of the school Advaita Vedanta” continued this dialogue. [1]
Aguilar then provides the reader with helpful suggestions for “the organisation of space, time, prayer, texts, and symbolic objects within a hermitage, taking into account [his] own construction of an eremitic landscape” (p. 55).  “One of the great challenges of space,” he writes, “is to allow the space to serve the hermit rather than vice-versa” (p. 60). He observes that we do not have much detail about the living space of the hermits referred to in his historical overview, nor of earlier hermits. It would be interesting to learn if the Camaldolese have written about the design of their hermitages and, if they did, if the author made use of this material in the design of his own hermitage.
Aguilar’s one-room hermitage is an effective and efficient use of space. He is very firm about sleeping and praying on the floor as an expression of solidarity with the poor who have no furnishings and with Hindus and Buddhists who sleep and pray this way (p. 61). However, his implication that all hermits should follow his example and his comment, “I have chosen not to base prayer moments or sleeping moments in the fabulous world of furniture” strikes me as a bit extreme, especially when one remembers that he has other spaces to study, read, and meet people—his university office, for example (he is pictured sitting in a chair in his office on the book back cover) and perhaps also in other living quarters. It is not clear if he lives in his hermitage in Scotland and commutes to and from St Andrews. A hermit needs a place reserved for quiet prayer that is separate from the area for work. However, this space can be in the hermit’s home, and it can be furnished. Not everyone can sit (or sleep) on the floor, and one can also “ground” oneself when sitting in a chair, standing, or walking.
In chapter 3, “Interfaith Encounters and Silence,” Aguilar describes the time he spent with Kabir Babu, a scholar of Hinduism and researcher, in 2015 and 2016, a time he describes as “an unexpected journey in which differences were sharpened and commonalities became a daily appearance” (p.73). The initial round of conversations took place in St Andrews. It was followed by a second round in Amritsar, India, and finally, by a third, which followed the signing of the St Andrew’s Declaration for a Shared Humanity at St Andrews in September 2016.
Aguilar describes a distressing incident at the conference when a woman, a European theologian who supported the ordination of women, challenged the “circular, metaphysical and infinite way of dealing with the problem . . . of the religious traditions and their resistance to change” (p. 88). This circular, less predictable way of journeying had, in fact, been put forward by Kabir Babu as the more fruitful way.Apparently, the comments of this woman were challenged by another Hindu practitioner. Aguilar observes that the incident demonstrated the gulf that still separates the Hindu and European views of time and the way things are made manifest.The European theologian, he writes, argued that “there was little time left in this life to address a problem of inequality and find a solution. . . . The Hindu understanding of the ongoing reincarnation where there is no end contradicted completely the hurriedness of the Roman-Greco world” (p.89).
The author does not say if future conversations and conferences are planned and if this work will be expanded. I for one would welcome a sequel!
In chapter 4, “Creating Liturgies for the Absolute,” Aguilar reviews some of the experiences of Abhishiktananda and the way those experiences influenced him to adapt the daily prayers and Eucharist in his hermitages in order to express communion with Hindus and Buddhists.
I am intrigued to know if Aguilar is aware that many of his ideas on the role of contemplative prayer to prepare one for the Eucharist are very similar to what Jacques and Raïssa Maritain put forth in their book, Liturgy and Contemplation, especially in the section on contemplation. The main fruit of infused contemplation is love. Even when the mystical encounter is attained, asceticism must remain to avoid falling into the trap of an unhealthy egocentric fixation on oneself and one’s practices. The contemplative path leads to being wholly centred on God and not being obsessed with one’s perfecting of that path. The Kingdom of God is all that matters. [2] What distinguishes Aguilar’s approach is his articulation of a “deep love for a common path between Christian hermits and Hindus . . . in the manner that Abhishiktananda developed.” (p.98).

Aguilar describes and shares the changes he proposes and has made for liturgical practices in his hermitages: Morning Prostration (Morning Prayer), the Eucharist and Evening Fire (Evening Prayer). He follows the Roman Rite for the Catholic Eucharist, but because he celebrates it alone, as “one person worshipping God and celebrating the liturgy for the benefit of others who have asked for prayers and to be remembered in their own pilgrimage,” (p.102), he proposes that “The readings within a Eucharistic celebration could be composed of a mixture from different traditions or the rotation between different traditions so that a Christian reading is read one day, a Hindu reading is read the following day and a Buddhist reading on the third day” (p. 104).

Prayers for the Church, for Hindus, and for Buddhists follow the Gospel.  As was done in Shantivanam, Aguilar explains why earth (flowers) and fire (a match or a candle) are added to water and air (incense) during the preparation of the bread and wine. He adds two more elements, chapatti bread and water, as options, noting that chapatti is the bread of the poor in India and clean water is a luxury  (pp.105-106).
While I understand the adaptations made by the Christian monks at Shantivanam, who celebrated a communal liturgy with their local Indian followers, I have questions about Aguilar’s proposed way of fulfilling his desire to include the intentions of his Indian and Buddhist friends. Could his desire not be satisfied by remembering them in the intercessory prayers, without the changes he outlines in Appendix 4 titled “Roman (Indian) Liturgy (Eucharist),’ (pp. 163-165). In his heavily adapted Christian-Hindu Evening Prayers (2versions) in Appendix 3, pp.159-161, he has liturgies that can fulfill that desire. I am assuming that Aguilar celebrates the Eucharist alone because he does not have easy access to a church from his hermitage. I also assume that his local ordinary has weighed in and is fine with these proposals. Although he speaks of “proposals,” Aguilar’s way of writing about them leaves me with the impression that he is describing what he actually does.
Some readers of this book, especially, but not only, liturgists and canonists (and not only Catholics), could be concerned about and/or disturbed by Aguilar’s proposals for adapting some central Catholic liturgical rites and his reasons for doing so. The point I would make—or better, the question I have—is would it not be best to keep the Eucharist centered on Christ? I wonder if his Hindu and Buddhist friends also think this way. Aguilar does not say if they are also adapting their major liturgies and rites to include Christian scripture, or if they make use of his Christian-Hindu Evening prayer rite when they pray and meditate. In other words, I am curious to know if the liturgical adaptations he proposes are met with similar adaptations by his dialogue partners. It seems to me that a better “solution” would  be for each tradition in an interfaith encounter to maintain the integrity of their main foundational liturgical practices. I also wonder if Aguilar’s desires for the Eucharist could not be met by entering into the kind of meditative prayer that Teilhard de Chardin speaks of in his “The Mass on the World” in Hymn of the Universe (1961), a contemplative approach that is already suggested in this section of the book.

In chapter 5, “Reading Texts: Upanishads and Bodhisattvas,” Aguilar comments on his lectio divina. This chapter, at times mystical, at times poetic, takes time to read, reflect upon, and understand. I do not agree with all of his Christian analogies, and sometimes I think he has neglected to call attention to an appropriate analogy or has done so incompletely. For example, when he reflects on the verse, “There are demon haunted worlds, regions of utter darkness. Whoever in life denies the Spirit falls into that darkness of death,” he mentions the Hebrew scriptures, where, in the creation account in the Book of Genesis, reference is made to “darkness where there is no creation, dangerous waters above and below.” However, the second part of that Upanishad could also be related to Jesus’ words in the Gospels, “whoever denies me before others, I will also deny before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). Would it not be appropriate to include both the Hebrew and the Christian texts?

Chapter 6, “The Silence of Death” is about interfaith encounters and silence. Aguilar offers a fine reflection on the silence of Pope Francis at Auschwitz during his visit to Poland, and on silence and death. He notes that hermits can engage in an interfaith encounter with Hindus and Buddhists around the subject of death as they sit in silence, remembering the dead, praying for them, and knowing that at that moment of death, everyone is a hermit—alone with the Holy. None of us knows for sure what the transition will be, and this mystery unites us.

I conclude my review by suggesting some additions or revisions for a possible future edition.
  1. It is not clear if Aguilar is a private or publicly professed hermit as defined in Canon 603 of the Code of Canon Law. Furthermore, he refers to himself as a Benedictine Camaldolese Oblate, but he does not say what Camaldolese monastic community has accepted his oblation. He does mention canon 603, but only cites the first part of that canon, which deals with the life of solitude, silence, constant prayer and constant penance (p. 25). Under the provisions of this canon, the lay consecrated hermit makes profession of his or her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the diocesan bishop/ordinary. It is not clear if Aguilar has also professed these vows to his local ordinary. He mentions that he was ordained a Catholic priest while living in Chile. His ordination and his status as a Benedictine Camaldolese Oblate may have made it possible for his bishop to approve his formal assumption of the eremitic vocation without making any additional vows. It would help if he could clarify his canonical status.
  1. I think he needs to say more about how he reconciles his academic career with the eremitic call. Aguilar’s path to this vocation is quite unique in that he appears to have a full, active life as renowned scholar, writer, teacher and researcher, poet, advocate/advisor for victims of violence, director of the CSRP, all of which necessarily involves travel to other continents and hemispheres. In fact, the travel he did as part of his research while he was a student, doctoral candidate, professor and director led him to his interfaith encounters with Hindus and Buddhists. These encounters, in turn, led him to establish foundations for his two hermitages, one in Chile and one in Scotland.
  1. A question I had as I read the book is why Aguilar is not in a hermitage or ashram in India. The practical answer maybe that he is very much immersed in his career, which produces good fruits and is a source of needed income. He seems very much drawn to Swami Abhishiktananda’s path, and it appears that he much taken with Hindu and Buddhist texts, so much so that he makes greater use of them than of Christian texts in his prayers and liturgies. Could Aguilar be called to take up Swami Abhishiktananda’s “mantel?” If so, would this mean renouncing his current life path and work in order to go deeper? Since so much of his prayer involves Hindu texts, could he called to live among  the Hindu and Buddhist people and not just, as he says, having virtual encounters with them at times in his prayer?
  1. Aguilar’s book has been referred to as “spiritual autobiography akin to the monastic journeys of Thomas Merton, Henri Le Saux, and Bede Griffiths” and as a “thoughtful narrative.” The latter description seems more accurate. Thomas Merton’s work takes us from his childhood/teen years to his entrance into Gethsemani Abbey. The arc of his life extends from an early period of struggles regarding faith, to teaching English literature at a Catholic college in New York, to being baptized in the Catholic Church, and then leaving his academic and budding literary career behind to enter life in a rural coenobitic community in Kentucky where he then became a world-famous author. In the last years of his life he realized his desire to live in the solitude of his hermitage cell, and then felt called to go  forth to engage with the people and faiths of Asia.
For Aguilar’s book to be compared to such an autobiography, I think the author would have to say much more about his spiritual journey. Although he alludes to and references past events and encounters with footnotes that point to other references the reader can explore, this book only deals with the past five years or so. I believe his “arc” can be partially teased out from his extensive literary corpus and especially his time as a political prisoner when he was exposed to torture and suffered significant losses. I have perused several of his earlier writings, and I believe these past five years have been transformative. If he were willing to share more of his spiritual journey with us, that would be a gift.
  1. Where are the women in Aguilar’s interfaith journey? They must be there, and  he may even have prayed with him in his hermitages. Aguilar mentions Abba Moses (p. 17) but not—just to give one example—Amma Syncletica, whose reference to fire in her sayings would, I think, delight Aguilar, since fire is such an important element in Hindu rituals. He mentions speaking with men and women in India, and recounts some poems that family members wrote and shared, but his detailed reflections are mainly about encounters with Indian men who are on an interfaith journey.  He has also had access to some high-ranking male teachers in both the Hindu and Buddhist communities. Has he encountered women sanyasis/sadhus, or women who are Buddhist hermits? Has he engaged with women who are revered as leaders or teachers in the Hindu or Buddhist traditions? If so, it would be very enlightening to learn how these meetings have affected his spiritual journey.
  1. The addition of a glossary for the many Hindu and Buddhist terms he uses would be very helpful. I was familiar with many of them from the time I lived and worked in Asia and my continued reading and study of these faiths, but I too could have benefitted from having a glossary easily at hand. I would also have appreciated a bibliography containing the works he cited, in addition to other works related to the issues he deals with.

NOTES

* Kingsley, J., THE WAY OF THE HERMIT Interfaith Encounters in Silence and Prayer. Report Buddhist Catholic Dialogue Rome – DIMMID. Available at: https://dimmid.org/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC={35E6D330-79A2-4DBE-8FF7-F6857BC0DF6D}&DE=#_ftn1 [Accessed February 11, 2019].

[1] Advaita Vedanta is a philosophy that makes use of Hindu apophatic theology as found in the Upanishads and Brahma Sutras, passages of which the author reflects on in a later chapter, “Reading Texts.” What I write is a gross simplification of this material (see pp.64-66;123-129).

[2] (New York: P.J. Kennedy, 1960) pp. 67f.