10 September 2007

Eremitism: Call to the Chronically Ill and Disabled

(First published in Review For Religious @ 1986. Reprints available in "Best of the Review #8, Dwelling in the House of the Lord, Catholic Laity and Spiritual Tradition, or through Ravensbread Newsletter for hermits)

While applauding the end of a long period of narcissistic privatism in the church, Thomas Merton in his posthumously published, Contemplation in a World of Action makes an important case for the eremitism (that is, the lifestyle of anchorites and hermits) as a significant monastic lifestyle. Almost twelve years later in the 1983 Revised Code of Canon Law makes room explicitly for the inclusion of "nonmonastic" (that is, not associated with monasteries per se) forms of eremitism through canon 603, which outlines a life "in which Christian faithful withdraw further from the world and devote their lives to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through assiduous prayer and penance." Despite this attention, this little-known and mostly ill-regarded vocation has been ignored for far too long, and it is time to ask what vision Thomas Merton, perhaps the best-known of contemporary hermits, had of the eremitical life, and what vision others have of the nature and significance of this vocation in a contemporary church. In particular, with regard to this latter vision, I would like to explore the idea that the chronically ill and disabled may represent a specific instance of the eremitic life today.

At a time when religious and consecrated persons are described within their communities and the church as Poets, Prophets, and Pragmatists, the solitary vocation has achieved new vigor and significance. In some senses the eremitic vocation has always served to challenge society and the institutional church. Always hermits find themselves on the margin of society. Always they live at extremities which, whether gently or harshly, confront and challenge others in the mainstream of things. Unfortunately, the extreme marginal position has not always been one of marked sanity. Often hermits have justifiably earned and borne the label of lunatic, eccentric, rebel, heretic, or fanatic. But truly, whether the individual hermit functions as a prophet or as poet, the vocation is an eminently pragmatic one marked by sanity and profound sense, and is often possessed of a deep and significant conservatism. In fact, the vocation of the hermit today is seen by some as preeminently a vocation of healing, wholeness, and essential well-being in a society characterized by the sickness and disorder of alienation and disaffection.

Both theoretically and practically Merton has prepared the way for this understanding, while others, mostly in the Anglican confession, have confirmed it in their own living. Contemporary hermits live on the margins of society, but they neither remain on nor belong to its periphery. Instead, through simple and uncomplicated lives of prayer and penance, lives essentially free from the "myths and fixations" (Merton) imposed by and inordinately artificial society, they occupy a central role in calling a fragmented and alienated world back to truly human values and life. Above all, it is eremitism's characteristic and conservative witness to wholeness and spiritual sanity (sanctity) which is so very vital to a contemporary church and society.

Solitude is, after all, the most universal of vocations, and a specifically eremitic vocation to solitude serves to remind us of its basic importance in the life of every person, not only as existential predicament, but, as Christian value, challenge, and call. All of us struggle to maintain an appropriate tension between independence and committedness to others which is characteristic of truly human solitude. At the same time, all of us are, in some way, part of the societal problem of alienation, whether we are members of the affluent who contribute materially to the alienation of the poor even while struggling perhaps to do otherwise, or whether we are members of the impoverished who are consigned to what Merton refers to as "the tragically unnatural solitudes" of city slums and ghettos. It is to the church in and of this society that the hermit speaks as prophetic witness. In fact, it is as prophetic witness that the contemporary hermit is part of the answer to society's problems, and it is to that answer that we now turn.

Two dominant scriptural themes are absolutely central to the eremitic vocation. The first is that of wilderness, and the second, and related motif, is that of pilgrimage or sojourn. Together these make up the desert spirituality that is characteristic of eremitism, and constitute the major elements of the powerful criticism of the world of which it is a part. Additionally, in a world which is truly more characteristically "rite of passage" than anything else, these two themes and the life of religious poverty and consecrated celibacy which they attend provide a deeply apologetic spirituality which is an effective answer to lives marked and marred by the affectation, artificiality, estrangement, futility, and emptiness of our contemporary consumerist society. Perceptively, the church today recognizes that she is made up of a "pilgrim people." Hermits are quite simply individuals who choose to stand on the edge of society as persons with no fixed place and witness to this identity with absolutely no resources but those they find within themselves and those they receive through the grace of God. Further, they attest to the fact that these elements alone are indeed sufficient for a genuinely rich and meaningful life. Above all, in a world whose central value seems to be acquisitiveness, whether of goods, status, or of persons, the hermit lives and affirms the intrinsic wholeness and humanity of a life that says, "God is enough."

Even the hermitage itself testifies to the eminent sanity of the hermit’s vocation. As Merton observed, the first function of the contemporary hermitage is “to relax and heal and to smooth out one’s distortions and inhumanities.” This is so, he contends, because the mission of the solitary in the world is, “first the full recovery of man’s natural and human measure.” He continues, “Not that the solitary merely recalls the rest of men to some impossible Eden. [Rather] he reminds them of what is theirs to use if they can manage to extricate themselves from the web of myths and fixations which a highly artificial society has imposed on them.” Above all, as Merton concludes, “the Christian solitary today should bear witness to the fact that certain basic claims about solitude and peace are in fact true, [for] in doing this, [they] will restore people’s confidence first in their own humanity and beyond that in God’s grace.” The hermitage represents for the individual and society that place where the hermit “can create a new pattern which will fulfill (her) special needs for growth. . .and confront the triple specters of ”boredom, futility, and unfulfillment, which so terrify the modern American.”

One group of people are prepared better than most to assume this prophetic role in our world,and I think may represent a long-disregarded instance of the eremitic call to solitude. These persons are members of the chronically ill and disabled, and in fact the prophetic witness they are prepared to give is far more radical than that already suggested. The idea of a vocation to illness is a relatively new one, stemming as it does from renewed reflection on the meaning of illness and the place of the sacrament of anointing in the life of the church. But in fact the idea that the ill might be called to solitude rather than the cenobium dates back at least to the Council of Vannes (463) in a phrase reading "propter infirmitatis necessitatem." If no more than a suggestion, there is at least a similarity between this older notion and the one I am presenting here. The difference, however, stems from the fact that, far from suggesting a somehow inferior cenobitic religious life which must be accommodated by extraordinary provisions for solitude, I believe the call to chronic illness is itself, at least for some, an eremitic vocation to "being sick within the church" as a solitary whose witness value is potentially more profound because such a person is generally more severely tyrannized by our capitalistic and materialistic world.

In the first place, the chronically ill, whose physical solitude is not so much clearly chosen as it is accepted, testify to the poverty of images of human wellness and wealth that are based upon the productivity of the individual in society. They are able to clearly challenge such images and testify further to the dual truth of the human being's poverty and genuine human possibilities. Humanity possesses not only great richness, but an innate poverty as well, which is both ineluctable and inescapable --- a poverty in the face of which one must either find that God is enough or despair. It is a poverty that cannot be changed by a life of busy productivity or by any infusion of accomplishment, and it is a poverty that points to the essentially paradoxical "unworthwhileness" and simultaneous infinite value of the human life. The chronically ill and disabled live this "poverty of worthwhileness" and yet witness to the fact that their lives are of immeasurable value not because of "who" they are (Status) or what they do, but because God himself regards them as precious.

In the second place, the chronically ill person who accepts his or her illness as a vocation to solitude is capable of proclaiming to the world that human sinfulness (existential brokenness and alienation) can and will be overcome by the powerful and loving grace of God. Once again this is a radical witness to the simple fact of divine sufficiency, and it is a witness that is sharpened by the reintegration achieved in the recontextualization of one's illness.

In this recontextualization, illness assumes its rightful position as rite of passage, which, although difficult, need be neither devastating nor meaningless, and it appears clearly as a liminal (or boundary) experience which testifies to transcendence. In accepting this as a call to solitude, the chronically ill person is freed from the false sense of self provided by society, and, in the wilderness of the hermitage, assumes the identity which God himself individually bestows. And finally, the chronically ill solitary says clearly that every person, at whatever stage in his or her own life, can do the same thing --- a task and challenge which eventually eludes none of us.

Today the church has moved to appropriate more completely a lifestyle that has been part of her life since the 3rd century, and one which is rooted in her Old Testament ancestry. It is my hope that those doing spiritual direction, hospital chaplaincy, and so forth, will familiarize themselves further with the spirituality which undergirds this significant way of life, and, whether dealing with the chronically ill or not, maintain an attitude of openness and even of encouragement to their clients' exploration of eremitism as a possible vocation. This is particularly true with regard to those whose vocation "to be sick within the church" may represent a vocation to eremitical solitude. As Merton concludes, in a society fraught with dishonesty and exploitation of human integrity, the Christian solitary stands on the margin and,

[[in his prayer and silence, explores the existential depths and possibilities of his own life by entering the mystery of Christ's prayer and temptation in the desert, Christ's nights alone on the mountain, Christ's agony in the garden, Christ's Transfiguration and Ascension. This is a dramatic way of saying that the Christian solitary is left alone with God to fight out the question of who he really is, to get rid of the impersonation, if any, that has followed him to the woods.]]

Breaking away from the exorbitant claims and empty promises of contemporary society is crucial for each of us. The solitary, and especially the chronically ill solitary, fulfills this challenge with special vividness.