I REALLY struggled to engage with this book, which, I suspect, has more to do with me than with Mario Aguilar, because in many ways I agree with him and think his central theme is important, and his approach to it helpful, generous, and sturdily practical.
Aguilar is taking forward the work and thinking of Bede Griffiths and his companions — basically, that Buddhism and Christianity have a great deal to share — and in particular the deep Eastern practice and discipline of “silent meditation” (or contemplation or apophatic prayer or whatever you choose to call it) — that attentive sitting in the presence of God can both transcend and undercut doctrinal blether and allow us to share the insight into the divine in a meeting that is good for us and good in itself.
So, what was my problem? In the first place, I realise that I am deeply anti-syncretic; Aguilar is clearly able to “be” a Christian and a Hindu and a Buddhist and a Jew and a Muslim, but I am not. And, while I can at least imagine and even desire a place of silence where I could be indifferent to the differences (indeed, the contradictions), I cannot find a way to move on from that into shared liturgical prayer, for example. I do not think I even want to: for me, a part of faith is intellectual and credal, based on a particular story, and a eucharistic service that is simultaneously a Buddhist liturgy (for example) feels to me too much like having Cinderella eaten by a wolf while Little Red Riding Hood fits on some glass slippers — they are both great stories, but they are different stories.
In the second place, I really do feel that there are limits to how far you can push the meaning of a word. I simply do not understand what it means to be a “hermit” who has two hermitages in two different continents; who has a senior academic job; and who has a “life companion”.
I do believe, rather strongly, that part of the task or job of any hermit is to work out what it means to be a hermit, and, as the silence and honey-cakes story about Abbas Arsenius and Moses demonstrates, there are lots of answers. But it would really have helped me if Aguilar had either chosen a different title or — better still — explained his personal interpretation of the word.
Sara Maitland is a novelist. She is the author of A Book of Silence (Granta, 2009) and Gossip from the Forest (Granta, 2013).
The Way of the Hermit: Interfaith encounters in silence and prayer
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