Monday, May 4, 2009

Internal Exile

In my last post (“Dante in Exile”) I discussed the crisis of identity provoked by exile. In that post I focused on exile in the strictest sense of the word: when a man is expelled from his native country for a political offense. Today, though, I want to discuss something to which Aaron alluded in his comment: internal exiles.
An internal exile is someone who is not forced to leave his country, but rather voluntarily withdraws from public life while remaining at home. There are many possible motives for such a retreat, but I think they can be reduced to three basic categories.

First, many an internal exile is no doubt driven primarily by fear. Lurking behind this fear, I suspect in many cases, is a complete disillusionment with public affairs. The internal exile begins his life intensely interested in public life, though he is perhaps a bit naïve. He has good ideals, but once he runs into resistance in his attempt to achieve those goals, he easily loses hope; he never learns the virtue of persistence. Not being humble enough to realize that he never could save the world, he gives the world up for lost. This first type of internal exile is essentially a quietist.

Second, some internal exiles are merely taking cover while they wait for the storm to blow over. They are much more reluctant than the first group to withdraw from public life. However, they ultimately decide that it would be more prudent to retreat for a while and do good later, rather than face near certain death now. If the pressure which forces them to withdraw from public life is like a storm, their position is that there’s no good to be gained from challenging the lightning to a duel. They foresee the end of the storm, and so they wait it out, trusting that they will be able to undo the damage. They gather their strength in exile, and are eager to put that strength to the test at the first opportunity.

Third, the rarest type of internal exile retreats from public life, but out of a pure affirmation of life. The prototype of this last exile, as Aaron suggested, is the hermit. Few are called to such a vocation, but for those who are solitude is the environment in which they come ever closer to the source of life. They devote themselves to contemplation, but they are also zealous in handing on the knowledge and love they acquire in contemplation (contemplata aliis tradere, as the Dominicans say). These exiles are the people to whom other exiles turn when they need the strength to persist, and that is the proof of their love for life.

The important thing about the second and third categories of internal exile, and what preserves them from the danger of quietism, is their love of life (which is perfectly compatible with asceticism). The impatient man of action who must wait to act, and the genuine contemplative—both renounce the world, but they do so in affirmation of the goodness with which God endowed it. I wish I could explain this more, but I’m already in over my head.

Photo credit: Albrecht Dürer’s 1495 painting, St. Jerome in the Wilderness
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