31 July 2008

The Unique Charism of the Diocesan Hermit: Another look at Aspects of Desert and Benedictine Stability

Throughout its history monasticism has recognized several kinds of stability. Augustine Roberts, OCSO, in his work, Centered on Christ, A Guide to Monastic Profession lists five different forms: 1) stability in cell,(this form was made famous by the Desert Fathers and Mothers) 2) stability under an Abbott (who might be the spiritual Father of several monasteries), and associated with Cistercians of the 12-13th centuries; 3)Stability on the pillar (associated with Simeon the Stylite, certain hermits, anchorites, and recluses who were closed up, walled off, or chained to walls); 4) stability of a traveller, which may seem like an oxymoron, especially given Benedict's comments on gyrovagues, but which allowed temporary movement to another monastery; and 5) stability in (the) community, which is Benedict's interpretation of the value, and which involves stability in the community of profession.

It seems to me that the diocesan hermit is asked to embrace implicitly (if not explicitly by vow) the fifth and first forms. (Non-diocesan hermits (that is non-canon 603 hermits) may be called primarily to that stability associated with the desert Fathers and Mothers, but are not called to stability in the community in the same sense the diocesan hermit is. If they live in a laura or monastery, they would certainly be called to stability in community, but not in the same way a diocesan hermit with her commitment to diocese and parish.) I think everyone is used to thinking of a call to stability of the cell; who has not heard the comment, "Remain in your cell and your cell will teach you everything"? But, the notion of a "stability in community" which binds the diocesan hermit in a particular way is less familiar, I suspect.

During the rite of my solemn profession last year, Marietta Fahey, shf (rather than a Deacon) did the formal "calling forth" on behalf of the diocese. Since the profession liturgy involves the literal mediation of God's call to the hermit as well as her response, and since the rite of calling forth is a direct expression of this, the formula we used was, "On behalf of the Church of the Diocese of Oakland and the Faith Community of St Perpetua('s Catholic Church), I call forth Sister Laurel O'Neal." At the time I was clear that diocesan status bound me to the diocese itself, but I had not considered as much the parish dimension of my commitment. And yet, I was clear that I was being called out of this specific assembly, this specific faith community and also as I have written before, it is this specific community which supports me in my vocation on a daily basis. Yet, it seems clear that the rite of profession itself prepared for my own reflection on the unique charism of the diocesan hermit and its relation to Benedictine stability; it (the rite) was also informed by it and became an expression of it.

But another thing this particular piece of my profession rite underscores is the personal nature of that stability. While it is true stability generally binds one to a place, it is far more fundamentally communal or relational. As Roberts affirms, [[Stability is personal. It is interpersonal communion, or, more precisely, it is perseverence in this communion.]] In embracing Benedictine stability as a diocesan hermit one commits oneself to a community, first (or more generally) to a diocese, and then (or more immediately) to a parish. For the diocesan hermit this is the community in which one's profession is made and in which it is lived out. While for truly legitimate reasons one might change one's stability, it seems to me that a diocesan hermit considering the unique charism of their vocation would need to discern these with the same seriousness a Benedictine monk or nun in a monastery discerns such things.

If the vow or value of stability is essentially personal or interpersonal, what are its most fundamental values for the hermit, especially compared to other Benedictine values, for instance? Both forms, stability in cell and stability in community have them and they are very high values indeed. The first would be communion or koinonia I think. The hermits is, for all her solitude, still a community builder and nurturer. Certainly that happens through her prayer, but it also happens as she brings an essentially contemplative presence into her contacts with the parish. It happens as she learns to love in this context more fully and exhaustively not only because stability binds her here, but because it is the logical outgrowth of her vows of celibate love/chastity. Of course, koinonia is built on charity, and especially one's love relationship with God. It is stability though which helps assure that one's commitment to loving others in God is not some abstract, intellectualized form of "loving" in which no one is really touched or nourished or healed. And of course, it is stability which ensures the hermit grows personally. We do not grow in isolation from others, nor when we run from situations, conflicts, challenges, and the like (an important reason eremiticism cannot be built on the desire to escape the demands of human society), but only in communion with others, and especially in faithful communion --- whatever the form that takes.

A second value of stability it seems to me is hope. Hope is rooted in the certainty that God can work to the good in all situations in one (or in those) who love him and therefore allow him to love them. Stability very much addresses this virtue because it underscores the need (and ability) to find God where one is, to come to holiness in the limited and conditioning circumstances in which one finds oneself. Stability is the value that underscores the incarnational essence of Christianity, the fact that our God comes to us in weakness, in the unexpected, even shameful events of our day to day lives. Ours is the God who dwells and remains with us in all of life's moments and moods; He calls us to remain with him in the same way. Prayer happens not in idealized situations (though it happens in ideal ones), but more usually in the situations that are far from ideal and often apparently adequate for nothing else! Stability commits us to lives of holiness and prayer wherever we find ourselves. For the diocesan hermit who often lives as an urban hermit, stability is the value that reminds us all that it is the nitty gritty pressures and irritations of everyday life that become the womb of the pearl of great price. Contemplative life need not be lived in the literal desert or mountain environment, but it must be lived in the solitude and communion of the heart of God, and THAT reality is available to us wherever God is found if only we will "remain in him." (John 15)

A related value of stability is perseverance. In the Rule Of Saint Benedict they are synonyms. Our society or culture is not particularly committed to this. It is instead a culture of quick fixes, and when that is not possible, quick escapes. We run out on marriages, children, relationships where the going gets demanding, courses of study, jobs, our employees and employers, parishes, particular church denominations, etc, etc. You name it and we ordinarily look for the easy way out, the place or situation where the "grass is supposedly greener," or where we face less difficulty and need to be less concerned with doing right in difficult circumstances, acting with patience, sustained courage, integrity, or loving profoundly and faithfully. This disvalue is personal, yes, but it is also interpersonal and affects negatively our culture and society. Meanwhile, its opposite, perseverance/stability cuts the heart out of our tendency to look for quick fixes and escapes; it commits us to giving each situation, each person, each set of circumstances all the time, prayer, effort, and work needed to allow the seeds of life, growth, wholeness, and indeed, holiness, to take root and grow to maturity. In this sense it is the parable of the wheat and the tares that remind us of the value of and need for stability.

In any case, it seems to me that the diocesan hermit is called upon to embody these values in unique and intense ways. Yes, she is to remain in her cell and allow it to teach her all things. Even this can be a witness to others simply in their knowing it is happening somewhere in their midst (which, as noted in other places on this blog, is a central reason for public profession and consecration). But a diocesan hermit is also called to stability in community. She is able to catalyze or otherwise contribute to the growth of community in hidden and not so hidden ways --- and she has an obligation to do this as part of the eremitical life and mission! Most particularly she will do so on the parish level, and in a day when sensitivity to the vitality and importance of local churches and base communities remains quite high, this is a significant aspect of her unique gift/charism to church and world. Stability is rooted in other personal and interpersonal or communal values as well. Perhaps I can say more about those in another post. [Permanent link for this post: Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Desert and Benedictine Stability]