25 July 2008

More on Diocesan Eremitism: Charism, Stability, Authenticity of Eremitical Life

The relationship between the Benedictine vow/value of stability and the diocesan charism of the canon 603 hermit brought some comments from a friend and diocesan hermit from New Zealand. Now, in her spirituality, she is Carmelite; she has a keen sense of the diocesan charism I have been mentioning in this blog and she reminded me of some basic facts about being a diocesan hermit that underscore this charism. Noting that diocesan hermits are built right into "the texture of their dioceses," she affirmed that while a diocesan hermit might live temporarily in another diocese for some good reason they couldn't simply pick up and go." Also, she noted that if a diocesan hermit wants to transfer to another diocese not only must she secure the permission of both Bishops involved in the move, but ordinarily the receiving diocese will demand a period of discernment before accepting her commitment or transfer. I have read in the past that the position of the diocesan hermit is akin to that of an incardinated priest, and I was aware of one hermit who had once transferred her vows to another diocese, but I was unaware of the details involved. They don't surprise me however. The canon 603 hermit (with these exceptions in mind) belongs to the diocese in which she makes her profession. After all, she has made those vows in the hands of a particular Bishop and his successors. As my friend noted, this was all something she thought Benedictine monasticism could really resonate with!! No doubt at all!! Benedictine stability understands this concept very well indeed.

At the same time my friend asked if I had written anywhere at greater length about the apparent oxymoron some think the term "(sub)urban hermit" is. In fact I have not. It is true I have mentioned the problem here a few times because some hermits really denigrate the idea of such an animal. They object that one must go off into the true (physical) wilderness apart from all others if one is to really embrace solitude and silence, prayer and penance in the way the desert fathers and mothers once did. I should point out that first of all the church disagrees with this position. More, the church is in touch with what Merton once referred to as the unnatural solitudes of the cities, and urban hermits themselves --- at least those I know --- are also very sensitive to these unnatural solitudes and the need to redeem them.

I think of the older people in my community who no longer drive, are often too infirm to get out much (sometimes even to church!), have lost spouses and sometimes all other family, whose incomes are fixed at barely subsistence levels quite often, and who struggle to come to terms with their lives and live them worthily despite their isolation. Can one really seriously suggest that they do not live in an unnatural solitude which is one an urban hermit can and should embrace? Would they be any more isolated in a desert or mountain wilderness? Do they really have more company and resources than did, for instance, the desert Fathers and Mothers in the "desert cities', Franciscan hermits who, with two or three other Friars fell under the care of a superior who acted in the role of "Mother," an anchorite nun shut up in a room in a convent who is supported by her Sisters, or hermit monks who depend upon their communities to support them in their vocations, provide food and shelter, participation in liturgy and the like? In fact, it seems to me they often have far fewer or less.

I have spoken in the past of diocesan hermits witnessing to the redemption and transfiguration of such "unnatural solitudes." I have also mentioned what Thomas Merton said about these and witnessing to what is possible for human beings when Divine Grace is allowed to work to transform their circumstances. I have spoken of the Benedictine value/vow of stability and the correlative commitment to find God in the ordinary circumstances of life, and how that affects me particularly as a diocesan hermit. I have also mentioned the true nature of human freedom and its relation to what Jung called "Fate" --- the power to be the persons we are called to be not only in spite of the non-negotiable elements of our lives, but through them as well. Finally, I have mentioned a number of times the fact that the eremitical life is motivated by love and solidarity with others, and that the contemplative life often (always!) drives a person back out of strict solitude to love their sisters and brothers in some concrete way, shape, or form. Christian love is never a mere abstraction. All of these are basic Christian values or dynamics, and the hermit is called upon to embrace and embody them. Wouldn't it be ironic if she could not do so unless she lived in a natural physical solitude?

It should go without saying that genuine solitude is an inner reality as well as an outer one. We cultivate it by cultivating a relationship with God that transforms our isolation and estrangement into singleness of heart and a burning love for God and all he cherishes. We cultivate it by allowing God to live fully in us not only as source and ground of all we are, but as goal as well. Does it help one to spend time in the natural solitudes our world offers in order to allow God to achieve this? Absolutely. But unnatural solitudes drive us within to seek God with a hunger and intensity I think is unrivalled even by natural solitudes. Grief, illness, poverty, loss, alienation, abuse, all these and many more are the caves and deserts occupied in our contemporary world. Do we really want to argue that God cannot be found in these places or embraced as fully as is the case in the physical desert or mountain? And while we must recognize the myriad ways one might distract oneself from genuine eremitical life in such a context, do we really want to say an authentic eremiticism can only be lived in natural solitudes? I don't think so. However, I personally have to do some more thinking about all this before I can write about it at length. It is a huge part of the charism of the diocesan hermit however; about that I am absolutely clear.

In raising some of this herself, and in commenting on my own personal work in translating a classically Franciscan vow formula into more strictly Benedictine terms, Sister ___(NZ) left me with the following thought and suggestion: [[perhaps (as) a diocesan hermit you can say that you dwell in that sacred space of solitude and apostolic love which is essential to and shared by all three traditions [(Camaldolese) Benedictine, Franciscan, Desert Fathers and Mothers] because the "heart" is the same: a solitary figure who is embraced and nurtured by the desert, in solidarity with all human beings.]] Well, Sister, I COULD say this, but, since I can't improve on your own formulation, I think I should just quote YOU!