I appreciate how stories are good teachers---sometimes, the best teachers. Stories usually are understandable and when they make a point, it is clear and memorable. I thought about this as I was recently reading a piece by Richard Rohr, one of my favorite writers on spirituality. Rohr’s story comes from a time when he was spending a little time at the Abbey of Gethsemani, the Trapppist monastery where Thomas Merton lived.
Rohr talks about his encounter with a recluse. As Rohr explains, a recluse is a “hermit’s hermit.” A recluse is a monk who has been given permission to move outside the monastery itself. Often in this stage the monk is called a hermit. Toward the end of his life, Merton was given permission to become a hermit.
Merton built a small hermitage about a mile from the monastery at Gethsemani. I have visited the hermitage and easily can imagine living there. It is more than ample space for one person. It was this hermitage which Rohr was visiting. The thing about becoming a hermit is not the space so much as the amount of time spent by yourself. We know that Merton frequently walked into the monastery. A hermit goes one step further.
A hermit is a monk who becomes even more radical. A hermit might live in a tent or some makeshift hut deeper in the woods or further away from the monastery. A hermit would only make it to the monastery on Christmas and Easter. If we read monastic history, these guys would often appear on the scene looking very much like wild men! But they would also be deeply spiritual men (and women).
With this background we begin telling Rohr’s story. Rohr says, I was walking down a little trail when I saw this recluse coming toward me.” Since I have likely been on that same trail that Rohr was walking, it is easy for me to imagine it. What we have to appreciate, however, is Rohr was probably not expecting to see any other living human being. It is not like those rolling, wooded areas have a bunch of people out for a hike.
Rohr continues by saying, “Not wanting to interfere, I bowed my head and moved to the side of the path, intending to walk past him. But as we neared each other, he said, ‘Richard!’ That surprised me. He was supposed to be a recluse. How did he know I was there? Or who I was?” This makes me laugh. It is a version of spiritual spookiness! I can imagine being out there on the path and seeing this guy who suddenly calls me by name. Spiritual shock!
We close out Rohr’s story with words from the recluse. “He said, ‘Richard, you get chances to preach and I don’t. When you’re preaching, just tell the people one thing: God is not ‘out there’! God bless you.’ And he abruptly continued down the path. Now I have just told you what he ordered me to do. God is not out there!”
That is such a simple message. I am sure that is what happens to a person who chooses to be monk, who then grows deep enough spiritually to be called to become a hermit. And then the hermit continues this deepening process to the point they want to be deeper into silence and meditation as a hermit. They want only to be with God and themselves. In the process they continue simplifying until their faith and spirituality is utterly simple.
It is from this utter simplicity the recluse can say that God is not out there. I could not agree more. Rohr uses this simple statement to make the case for the incarnation. I also think the incarnation is the key spiritual good news for me. Simply stated, the incarnation is the fancy theological word that announces God has become human. Within the Christian story Jesus is the means by which God becomes human. That is how we begin to understand that God is not out there; rather God is in here.
The “in here” aspect of that affirmation is the human heart---the entire human person. The theology with which too many of us grow up with seems to say God was out there---or maybe more often “up there.” Perhaps this makes sense as a kid. But when we grow up and learn something scientifically about out world, that kind of God makes no sense---to me at least.
Rather God is in here. In its radical version, however, the “in here” is everywhere. God is in here for every human being and for every living corner of our lives and our world. I think the radical Christian claim is the claim that God not only came into the world as a human, but God continues coming into our world as humans---as me and as you.
I am confident that is the truth the recluse wanted Rohr to preach about and to teach about. We all need to know we are potential carriers of the Divinity. God wants us to become habitats for the Holy. Like a holy virus, we are to infect the world with love and peace. We are to provide so much joy, it will become impossible not to enjoy life and each other. Just remember: God is not out there…God is in here.