10 April 2008

Why isn't it enough. . .???

I received the following question via email: [[How does one determine one is called to an eremitical vocation? Why isn't it enough to be uncomfortable with the world or to desire to avoid it, and to wish to retire to solitude? Is this at least a sign of a genuine eremitical vocation?]]

In order to answer this (or at least the second part of the question, because I will need to answer the first part separately), I want to first reprise what I wrote in an earlier post (cf Post on January 14, 2008, The Unique Charism of the Diocesan Hermit) : [[One embraces eremitical silence, solitude, prayer, penance and greater separation from the world in order to spend one's life for others in this specific way. Whatever FIRST brings one to the desert (illness, loss, temperament, curiosity, etc) unless one learns to love God, oneself, and one's brothers and sisters genuinely and profoundly, and allows this to be the motivation for one's life, I don't think one has yet discerned, much less embraced, a call to diocesan (Canon 603) eremitism.

[[. . . let me say something here about the phrase "the world" in the above answers. Greater separation from the World implies physical separation, but not merely physical separation. Doesn't this conflict with what I said about the unique charism of the diocesan hermit? No, I don't think so. First of all, "the world" does NOT mean "the entire physical reality except for the hermitage or cell"! Instead, "the world" refers to those structures, realities, things, positions, values, etc which PROMISE FULFILLMENT or personal [dignity and] completion APART FROM GOD. Anything, including some forms of religion and piety can represent "the world" given this definition. "The world" tends to represent escape from self and God, and also escape from the deep demands and legitimate expectations others have a right to make of us as Christians. Given this understanding, some forms of "eremitism" may not represent so much greater separation from the world as they do unusually embodied capitulations to it. (Here is one of the places an individual can fool themselves and so, needs the assistance of the church to carry out an adequate and accurate discernment of a DIVINE vocation to eremitical life.)

reprise continues:

[[Not everything out in the physical world is "the World" hermits are called to greater separation from. Granted, physical separation from much of the physical world is an element of genuine solitude which makes discerning the difference easier. Still, I have seen non diocesan hermits who, in the name of "eremitical hiddenness" run from responsibilities, relationships, anything at all which could conceivably be called secular or even simply natural (as opposed to what is sometimes mistakenly called the supernatural). This is misguided, I believe, and is often more apt to point to the lack of an eremitical vocation at the present time than the presence of one.]]

The simple answer in light of what I have said before, then, is no, it is not nearly enough. We are speaking of a religious (and, in fact, Christian) hermit --- one for for whom the heart of her vocation is love, not only of God, but of all that God cherishes as well. I am interpreting your question to mean that avoidance of the world (in this case I mean the whole of reality outside the hermitage) is the dominating, even sole reason for embracing an eremitical life, that no other reason even comes close. Even if one finds oneself out of step with that world, determines she cannot fathom it, is misunderstood herself by it, and desires nothing more than to retreat from it, this is NOT the basis for an eremitical life, nor is it, all by itself, a sign of a genuine vocation. In fact, it is more likely a sign one is NOT called to such a vocation. This is especially true if one who is a novice to spirituality and eremitism takes one's sense of being out of step with the world, misunderstood by and unable to fathom it, as a sign one is radically different than it.

It is true because it neglects the simple fact that we are each and all of us part of the world, shaped and formed by it, and so, to greater and lesser extents, carry it deeply in our own hearts, minds, and limbs. This is true whether one is speaking of the world as all of reality outside the hermitage, or "the world" in the strict monastic sense of "contemptus mundi" --- that which promises fulfillment apart from God. We carry the world within us in both senses, and of course, are called to love, transform and heal the world (in both senses) outside of the hermitage. In the negative or monastic sense of the term (that which promises fulfillment apart from God) we bring this to the hermitage in order to deal with it, to subject it to God's love and healing touch. We bring it to the hermitage not because we cannot understand it --- or it us, but because we understand it all too well and know that God's love is the only alternative to our own personal enmeshment in it. The dynamic you described is of a person running from this reality (and, in fact, from the whole of God's world), but the hermitage cannot be used to run FROM ONESELF, nor from God's good creation; it cannot be used as a place of escape, but must instead be a place of confrontation and transformation, of love and healing.

To attempt to escape from the demands of the physical world outside the "hermitage" is really to actually transform the "hermitage" into an outpost of what monasticism calls "the world." This is so because one of the signal qualities of "the world" in the monastic sense is a refusal to face reality, and thus will also involve an inability to love it into wholeness. Thus, if the "hermitage" is merely or even mainly a refuge from all that one cannot face, understand, or deal adequately with, it has ceased to be a genuine hermitage in any Christian sense and instead is predicated on the very values of distraction, avoidance, escape, and inability to face forthrightly or love truly or deeply that which constitutes "the world". It is itself an instance of that world, an outpost of it and no true hermitage. To bring "the world" into the hermitage in this sense is far and away more dangerous and destructive than bringing in aspects of it openly and cautiously like TV, movies, news programs, computer, etc --- and we know how assiduously careful we must be about (and even generally resistant to) these latter inclusions!

There is a reason hermitages have been characterized as places of battle, as crucibles as well as oases of God's peace. Above all they are the places where, in the clear light of God's truth and love, one is asked to confront the demons one carrries within oneself. Thomas Merton once wrote that the purpose of the hermitage was to allow a hermit to face the falseness, and distortions in oneself: "the first function of the hermitage is to relax and heal and to smooth out one's distortions and inhumanities." This is true, he says, because the mission of the solitary in the world is, "first the full recovery of man's natural and human measure." The hermit "reminds (others) 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." However, Merton knew all too well that the battle is waged inside the hermitage as well. One cannot witness to a world one refuses to understand as though one were really all that different from it. One cannot do so because one has not dealt with "the world" one carries deep within oneself, and which, in fact, one IS until one has been completely remade by God's love.

By the way, it is, of course, true that the hermit comes to love the solitude and silence of her hermitage, and she desires to be there, to go about her daily routine, to do all the small and large tasks and chores that come as part of the life there. A certain degree of discomfort with the world outside the hermitage will exist since she wants always to get back to the sacred space of silence and solitude which is her cell. However, and I cannot emphasize this enough, when she is outside the hermitage, she is completely capable of relating empathetically to others and so, understanding them and what drives them; she is able to delight in this world to the extent it is evidence of God's creativity and wonder, and to care deeply for it when it falls short of that glory. These people, places, and things are given her to love, to cherish in so far as they are God's own, and in so far as they possess the potential, no matter how yet-profoundly-unrealized, to mediate God's presence and love. This is a world the hermit knows to be very like herself in every way. Her vocation may be unique, but she is not. To the degree she is really a hermit she carries these persons, places, and things with her back to the hermitage to continue to love them, to pray for them, and also to let them love and shape her own life to the degree that is appropriate.

In NO WAY is the hermitage an escape from the world in this sense. It is the place from which the hermit lives to allow God's presence greater intensity and scope so that he might one day be "all in all" as the Pauline phrase goes. Again, this all gets back to what I said at the beginning: The basis for the eremitical life must be love; it cannot be escape. We are called to greater separation from the world only because love requires distance as well as closeness. But we embrace this separation in order that we may allow God's love full rein and scope, first in our own lives, and then, in the lives of all those others for whom we live.

I hope this answers the second part of your question! Please let me know if it does not, or if it raises more questions. In the meantime, all my best.