01 June 2008

On the Essential Hiddenness of the Eremitic Life

Ah, well, I received another set of questions which, despite seeming a little confrontational, are really good questions and deserve an answer --- or the beginnings of an answer which I can enlarge on over time.

[[Okay, so why would one want people to know they are a hermit unless they want notoriety or recognition of that? You have referred to the essential hiddenness of the vocation, but you also write that people in your parish might think you are just a contemplative sister without the cowl and other trappings. So, what do you really want, to be hidden or to be known? Isn't this, along with the emphasis on active participation in the parish, kind of hypocritical or at least inconsistent?]]

First, let me point out I referred to "merely" a contempla- tive sister (with merely in quotes) so that, hopefully, I indicated that I think very highly of such a vocation. My point was simply that that is not all I am. I also think it is desirable to have others recognize at least the general nature of a vocation which someone was called to out of their midst and on their behalf (as happens in the call at the beginning of the rite of perpetual profession). However, that aside for the moment, the eremitical vocation is both ancient and relatively new in the church. The existence of hermits remains quite rare, and despite a modest increase in numbers (and a larger increase in those who have climbed on what is a faddist bandwagon but will never actually be true hermits [see note at bottom]), it will, I suspect, always remain quite rare.

What is not rare in today's world though, is the alienation, estrangement, and isolation which affects and afflicts so many --- especially the single elderly, the chronically ill and disabled, the isolated poor living in the unnatural solitudes of blighted urban areas, those working day in and day out in an "ordinariness" which leads to the questioning of their own value or that of their lives, etc. It is to these people especially I think the hermit can speak in a special and powerful way, for the hermit says with her life that isolation can be transformed with the grace of God into something far more meaningful and fruitful, namely a solitude which witnesses with special vividness to the Gospel of God in Christ.

By the way, recognition is not necessarily a bad thing. What God does in our midst deserves to be made known in one way and another. This does not necessarily conflict with what I have called the essential hiddenness of the vocation either (which is defined by Canon Law as a greater or stricter separation from the world, rather than as absolute separation or reclusion). The identity of the canonical hermit is a public one in the legal sense of that term. So, the canonical hermit lives out the witness of the core of her vocation, namely that God alone is sufficient for us, that he will always work to bring life out of death, light out of darkness, meaning out of meaninglessness, and wholeness out of brokenness. She says this with her life, and this is the case whether she has been brought to eremitic life through illness (or other challenges) herself or not. She also clearly says that any person is made for communion with God, that God lives at the heart of each person and wills to love them exhaustively, just as he wills them to return this love as exhaustively as they can. To live a serious prayer life, and in fact to be God's own prayers in this world is the essential vocation of every person, and the hermit lives as a reminder of this. I personally believe my life bears witness to much of this, and I seek to do so more profoundly and extensively.

As for what I want, well that is fairly simple and straightforward: I want to do what God wills for me, by living my Rule of Life, the Camaldolese charism, the unique charism of the diocesan hermit, according to the discernment I come to with the help of my director, pastor, Bishop, and others. The Camaldolese charism is particularly significant here since it involves a three-fold set of dimensions or "goods": 1) the cenobitic (communal), 2) the eremitical (solitary), and 3) the evangelical (the dimension of proclaiming or witnessing to the Gospel whether this be through hospitality, spiritual direction, writing, painting, etc). The Camaldolese charism itself justifies my limited active participation in the life of my parish community, but so does, I believe, the charism of diocesan eremitism. While it is true my life is lived with and for God alone, that is expressed in a concrete commitment to those he cherishes, particularly my diocese and parish. On the other hand, what is also true is that the majority of this commitment is lived out "in cell," not in direct participation in the events and activities of the parish. My limited participation enlivens and concretizes what happens within the hermitage, while what happens in the hermitage deepens and universalizes what is celebrated in the events and activities of the parish.

While it is common to think and question in sort of black and white, either/or terms and queries, the truth is that quite often Christian discipleship (of which eremitism is one expression) must be lived out in paradoxical ways, not either/or, but both/and. As I have said before, one must be careful not to fool oneself --- and we are all more than a little capable of rationalizing behavior which runs counter to that we are truly called to --- but once one determines the Holy Spirit is behind a certain impulse, etc, one must go with that. By the way, perhaps you are envisioning more than what I am envisioning when I use the phrase "active participation" in the parish. I have described this other places so I won't do that again here, but I will say that it is not an "emphasis" in my life (real though it may be) and is truly minimal when I consider what is actually possible for me.

This brings us back to the question of the nature of the hiddenness which is the hermit's. What is this essential hiddenness I have spoken of, and others have also written about? Well, it has to do with who I really am, where my "real work" takes place, and just what that separates me from. For instance despite your reading of my blog, you really have very little sense of my day to day life. People who see me daily at Mass or at an occasional parish event do not see me in the hermitage, tend not to be able to imagine what the shape of my days are like, etc. The hermit's life really is essentially hidden, and most specifically, hidden in the cell where the largest part of her life actually takes place. It is hidden in God, hidden in prayer, hidden from the eyes of those who might want to see inside, hidden even from the Church who commissions the hermit to withdraw (from the Gk, anachoresis) in this way.

Yes, she can list the various things she does: Office, lectio, quiet prayer, personal work, ordinary chores, study, writing, direction, but really, what does this actually reveal? As far as I can tell, it leaves the essential mystery of the life intact. No, the life is one of essential hiddenness even if one does not remain completely anonymous, leaves the hermitage on occasion, wears a recognizable habit, or participates in the occasional parish or other activity. (And of course, non-parishioners don't know any of this at all; they see a sister -- no more nor less.) As you can tell, I don't think there is necessarily any real contradiction or hypocrisy involved so long as one is very clear where one's real life and ministry lie and does not allow that to be compromised. I hope this helps clarify matters.

[note: my reference to the faddist bandwagon was not directed to non-canonical hermits who live a truly eremitical life. The church clearly recognizes these hermits as a serious eremitical expression. It is directed, however, to those persons who think they can be hermits "on the weekends," or something similar. There are many "wannabes" out there in this as in any field or vocation, but most will never really embrace true solitude, nor will they therefore be able to witness to those people who cannot CHOOSE their (physical) solitude but need to hear it can be transformed with God's grace.]