02 January 2009

Balancing the Cenobitical (Communal) and Solitary dimensions of Diocesan (and Camaldolese) Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister Laurel, how is it you balance the two aspects of Camaldolese life? I am asking in light of the goals or resolutions you wrote about yesterday. Doesn't your Rule simply tell you what you may and may not do? Thanks.]]

Speaking as a diocesan (solitary canonical) hermit who is also Camaldolese (an oblate), let me begin by saying that discerning what is necessary and what is unnecessary, or what is the apropriate balance between cenobitical and strictly solitary dimensions is first of all, not always easy to achieve. (I read recently that one young monk at a Camaldolese house pronounced it an impossible task!), Also, it is not a solution which is set in stone for all time. That is to say, it is a "balance" which is fluid and dynamic and what works for some time may not work at other periods. Bearing this in mind, I suppose there are two basic approaches one might adopt: the first is to begin with the communal demands and dimensions of one's life and then be sure to build in lots of solitude to counterbalance it. This would be the approach taken by those who treat "solitary life" as a part-time vocation, something married folks could undertake, for instance. More legitimately to my mind, it would also be the basic approach taken by apostolic or active religious in insuring that ministry does not swallow up an inner life. In my own experience however, helpful as this may be in some situations, it does not result in essentially solitary or eremitical life and is not the way to go (for the hermit, that is) except as one needs to intensify the more strictly solitary dimension of one's life because solitude itself calls one to this. (How cenobites should or do approach these matters is another question.)

The second basic approach is to begin with what is called by many hermits, "custody of the cell" and faithfulness to that, modifying it with the communal demands and dimensions necessary for a healthy psycho-spiritual life, as well as to those which one's Rule binds one in obedience (ideally these are largely synonymous). Personally I think this is the better approach since it demands faithfulness to an essentially solitary life, but respects the ways in which that must be modified because of 1) external demands (parish, community, limited ministry, directives of superiors, etc), and 2) internal demands the hermit herself requires either for well-being or as a natural outgrowth of solitude. This latter point (internal demands) is an important one, however, because I think it is the internal demands which must ultimately govern the external ones. What I mean by this is that one cannot really just do a quick (or even complex) calculation of solitary vs communal demands and give 60% (or 75% or 50%) to one and 40% (or 25% or 50%) to the other, for instance. Instead one must look at the reality that defines one primarily (in the life of a hermit it will always be faithfulness to, or perserverence in cell with all that implies re personal encounter with God and personal growth, growth work, etc), and then work out the ways one is called BECAUSE OF THAT FIDELITY, to communal expression and sharing of the fruit of one's solitude.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. In my own life I can draw up a balance sheet between the things which occur outside of the hermitage and the things which occur within it. (In fact, this can come in handy when someone objects that you spend a lot of time outside the hermitage, but when statistically it really adds up to a day or two out of each month. I recently resorted to this as the result of one person's objections to the degree of contact I SEEMED to her to have with others. it put things into new perspective nicely.) But this is only helpful to this very limited degree, and is not a method I ordinarily use. Thus, a few months ago when I decided to take one week per month of strict reclusion, and then eventually changed that (experimentally and temporarily) to ten days per month, it was not a matter of adding up the hours spent in and out of the hermitage and tinkering with those that assisted me. Instead, solitude itself was demanding more time alone with God; my prayer life was demanding it; my time with others and capacity for loving them was demanding it and these demands had to be accommodated.

Similarly, as my life in the parish changes and intensifies, I am faced with various choices (not given in any order of preference but merely to indicate some of the major choices I would need to consider): 1) Do I drop or further limit direction clients in order to meet the challenges coming from the parish ? 2) do I drop other major activities (orchestra, quartets), or 3) Do I cut back on my involvement in the parish or refuse further (more extensive and intensive) involvement? Alternately, do I continue as I am or, do I increase this where asked and/or appropriate? 4) Do I enlist parishioners' aid in meeting needs which take me outside the hermitage regularly, and if so, how often and to what extent? How would I determine such things since most of these activities in varying degrees and ways, are life-giving to me and tend to involve personal commitments which are significant? (I admit having friends/parishioners run errands for me because this is a somewhat difficult part of my life is attractive, but for that very reason, I am not apt to request it unless it is clear this is done BECAUSE the combination of solitude AND life in the parish requires it.)

It seems to me that the way to discern what steps should be taken therefore involve first, being sure that I am completely faithful to "the discipline of the cell" (custody of the cell) apart from these things, and then, determining which of these, and in what way and degree contribute to that, flow from it, or mitigate and disrupt it, etc.
Discernment would ALSO include a look at the various ways each of these things challenges and enriches me since it would be possible to choose to drop one thing simply because it was more challenging personally, or more uncomfortable, or simply more difficult to harmonize with some merely exterior idea of eremitical life. While that last criterion might be a telling and genuinely significant one, it also might cause me to let go of something which would be the occasion of greater growth rather than less, so discernment is necessary. (And of course, these are not the only questions I ask in discernment, but they are two of the basic thrusts of my questions.) One of the things which is assumed but not explained here in any depth is the notion of custody of the cell. I can say more about that at another point if you wish. For now let me merely point out that as an instance of Benedictine stability it is not simply about place and commitment to place, but about love of God (and those he cherishes) and obedience to him within the context of this place. In its own way it is as much an interpersonal term as is Benedictine stability.)

As for your second question, I wrote here in the recent past that a Rule was not a list of things to do and not do, and that while such a document is legislative (that is, while it has the force of law), it is more essentially inspirational. Thus the short answer is that generally, no, my Rule does NOT SIMPLY tell me what I must or must not do (especially the latter!) in detailed ways. The above considerations relate directly to this observation. Part of maintaining "balance", as your first question put it, involves reflecting on my Rule and what it calls for, but in discerning what my Rule allows and what I am called to do in regard to it beyond the general requirements of liturgical prayer, lectio, and the like, it is in rereading the sections of it (and by reading I mean lectio or prayerful reading!!) which describe the essence of solitary life for me, and especially the Scriptures or other texts which moved me to embrace this life in the first place that are most helpful.

For instance, it is in reflecting anew on the story of Jesus' post-baptismal sojourn in the desert, what occured there, what led there, and where that led him subsequently that assists me in determining where God is calling me at this point in terms of the two poles of Camaldolese life. Remembering that the Spirit lead him to the desert where he worked to consolidate his baptismal experience and new appreciation of Sonship, and only thereafter moved back into community to minister from this new vantage point is really helpful to me. Likewise, remembering that in all things he was obedient to the Spirit, including in his ministry to others and his returns to solitude, is really helpful. It is not that it tells me precisely what to do in a given situation, but rather it inspires me that the pattern and priorities of my life represent authentic eremitical life and encourages me always to put Daughtership in Christ and growth in that personal identity/being first. Thus, this story is a fundamental and primary part of my Rule of Life, and it functions far better for me than a list of "can's" and "can't's" ever could.

Other parts of my Rule (theology of the eremitical life, place of silence, theology of the vows, etc) function similarly despite there being very few statements of what is or is not allowed me. (This is not to say that a few can's and can't's are not helpful, but only that my own Rule is not generally composed in that way, and functions more to inspire rather than to legislate. There are sections which include concrete guidelines and goals, but again, not lists of things which cannot be done. I think this is a fairly good rule of thumb for all Rules of Life. Constitutions and Statutes, which are necessary for congregations but not for solitary hermits, are a different matter.)

In the same way St Romuald's brief Rule becomes more and more important to me as well, not as a legislative text (though I recognize and respect this dimension of it), but because it is clear Romuald has captured the very essence of eremitical life in this short passage, and that to the degree I am doing what he advises here, discerning what else is legitimate and spirit-driven for me will be much easier. What I am saying here is that St Romuald, despite the fact that he mainly did not LOOK like most people's idea of a hermit for much of his life, lived this Rule profoundly and thus was able to discern what the Spirit wanted from him which flowed FROM this Rule, even if it SEEMED to conflict with it. I trust this Rule and it inspires me (empowers me with a vision of who I am called to be) more than it sets up a legislative calculus of some sort. (See below for a copy of Romuald's Brief Rule.)

One thing I must say about discernment in this matter of balance is that one of the the most basic things I can say about the eremitical life is that it is one of love, love first of all for God, and secondly and integrally, for all that he cherishes. For some it is possible to love God mainly (though not only) through loving others. For the hermit, the truth is the other way around: one loves God first and foremost and to the degree one does this (and allows him to really love us), this love will, in one way and another, spill over to others, demand others and service to them, be called by others, etc. If these demands lead away from the hermitage (and here, assuming a definitive commitment and vocation to eremitical life, I mean more than occasionally and in a way which doesn't lead right BACK to the hermitage as well), or from "custody of the cell" with its personal and interpersonal demands for growth, then something has gone seriously awry and one has made a mistake somewhere along the line. Perhaps then, "balance" is not the best way of describing this matter (though I have used the term myself a number of times). It is perhaps not so much a matter of balance as a creative and dynamic tension between two dimensions which mutually reinforce and call for one another. If one dimension dies, so, perforce, will the other.

You may want a more concrete answer to parts of your questions. Please let me know if this is the case, or if what I have written is less than helpful to you. Meanwhile, here is Romuald's Brief Rule:

Sit in your cell as in paradise.
Put the whole world behind you and forget it.
Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish.
The path you must follow is the psalms --- never leave it.
If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you can to sing the psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind.

And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.

Realize above all that you are in the presence of God, and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor.
Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his Mother brings him.