13 April 2008

Followup Question on the Eremitic Vocation and Contemptus Mundi


It seems my last answer on the idea of hermits being motivated by the need to escape the world raised further questions. Here is the followup:

[[ Okay. I get what you are saying about the hermit needing to be motivated by love, not the desire to escape the world in both senses you used the term. But couldn't a desire to escape from the world, or a refusal to understand it, be a form of genuine holiness, or a kind of rarified eremitical vocation? Don't we hear a lot about the idea of "hating" the world in spiritual writing? Are you saying none of this is legitimate?]]

In my earlier post I wrote that the motivation for the eremitical vocation HAD TO BE love, not a desire to escape from reality. I maintain that is still the bottom line, and that a person who chooses to retreat to a "hermitage" because she cannot relate well to people, cannot delight in the world outside the hermitage, cannot (or does not desire to) understand that reality and sees herself as wholly different than it rather than an instance of it, is not a hermit in the Christian sense of that word. I would go somewhat further and affirm that she is unlikely to be genuinely called to eremitical life (especially diocesan eremitism) so long as this remains her orientation and attitude towards that world.

It is not the case that eremitism is a refuge for those who cannot relate well to the world outside the hermitage. It is a refuge, yes, but the genuinely holy space of the hermitage is meant to act as leaven, an instance of the coming Kingdom of God penetrating and transforming God's good creation. Everything within the hermitage is meant to be at the service of this process and this world, beginning with the hermit's own heart, and spilling over from there. In terms of the monastic concept of "contempt for the world", yes, that is valid, but only when we have defined "world" in the narrower sense of "that which promises fulfillment apart from God," and understand deeply that the world outside the hermitage is fundamentally good and MEANT TO BECOME part of what the Scriptures refer to as the new heaven and new earth.

It is completely appropriate to reject elements of the world outside the hermitage, and to refuse to understand them or seek to "know them" in the more intimate biblical sense of that term. But the idea that the hermit should not understand or wish to understand the very things that drive her neighbors, brothers, and sisters away from their own calls to holiness, or which wound and distort them in the name of this or that kind of fulfillment is something I cannot agree with. Again, hermits are called to love these persons, and I don't know how one can do so without a profound sense of solidarity with them which implies deep understanding. Let me be clear: I am not saying one must embrace the sin one finds in the world in order to love the world, just the opposite in fact. Neither, therefore, am I saying that one understands the world BY embracing its distortions and sinfulness. In fact, one does so mainly by a careful and discerning rejection of them. But, one cannot turn from the task of genuinely KNOWING these things and understanding them (first of all in oneself, and secondly in those one meets, etc) in the name of some supposedly rarified vocation to eremitical life. (Please note that rare --- which the hermit vocation is --- and rarified are not precisely the same terms.)

Thomas Merton once asked, [[ Do we really renounce ourselves and the world in order to find Christ, or do we renounce our alienated and false selves in order to choose our own deepest truth in choosing both the world and Christ at the same time?]] He continued: [[If the deepest ground of my being is love, then in that very love, and nowhere else will I find myself, and my brother and sister in Christ. It is not a question of either-or but of all-in-one. It is not a matter of exclusivity and "purity" but of wholeness, whole-heartedness, unity, and of Meister Eckhart's gleichheit (equality) which finds the same ground of love in everything.]]

I think here is a major part of the answer to your questions. There is a paradox, indeed a series of paradoxes involved in the eremitic life. To name a couple, we leave the world to a greater extent than most in order to love the One who grounds its existence, and to love all that he loves as well. We become contemplatives not to escape from the world, but to confront it and transform it, to bring it to wholeness and fullness of life --- though I grant you this confrontation is different than most would ordinarily conceive. Still, what is true is that eremitic life is a life of profound engagement with the world and its God (or, better said, perhaps, with God on behalf of and in solidarity with that world). One may shut the door of one's hermitage, but not to close out the world (if by this we also mean turning our backs on it in self-centered introspection); instead, one does so to relate to it more honestly and lovingly. One point I think is that engagement does not imply enmeshment, just as escape from the world outside the hermitage does not equal monastic "contemptus mundi". Solidarity does not mean complete agreement; indeed genuine solidarity can be profoundly critical and SHOULD BE deeply challenging even while it remains radically supportive. Conversely, the witness of the hermit is meant to challenge the world outside the hermitage, but that presupposes a significant degree of solidarity with it as well.

So, my answer to your questions (except to the last one) amount to a yes, with serious clarifications and qualification. I have seen persons who desire to be hermits speak of their hermitages as places of retreat from a world they claim openly to neither understand nor wish to understand. In these same instances I have heard descriptions of not relating well to others, being estranged from and disliked by them, out of step in normal social situations, constantly at the center of misunderstandings and crises, and the like. In such cases these persons seem to want to get back to the hermitage that makes relatively few personal demands on them in terms of others. The "loving" described" by these persons, when it is mentioned at all, is a safe, abstract, personally-undemanding love which involves little giving of self and no real death to self in Christ. (This is so because, in fact, there is a failure or refusal to recognize the self as at least a partial source of many of the problems described. There is a failure to see "the world" which one carries within oneself, or to confront and seek sanctification and healing of that reality.) These particular retreats from the world are exercises in illegitimate escape, NOT engagement. They represent misanthropy, not eremitism. Such retreat is capitulation to the very world one seeks to reject, not a matter of contemplative engagement or the legitimate "greater separation from the world" mentioned in canon 603.

I suppose one thing I have not emphasized enough in this post is the fact that "greater separation from the world" in the canon which governs eremitical life in the Roman Catholic Church implies first of all, rejection of that reality in oneself. If one speaks of the world as something merely "out there" and runs to the hermitage to escape from that reality, instead one will find that it has been locked inside the hermitage with one --- and it will devour the one who does not recognize and confront it. Too often people have spoken of "the world" as something which exists merely outside themselves, something which can be escaped by shutting the door and refusing to go out. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I read your question, I took it as describing this kind of situation, so feel free to correct me or clarify further if I was mistaken in my reading.