24 March 2009

Life and the Grace of God: The Making of the Hermit

[[Dear Sister Laurel, why do you say that life and the grace of God creates hermits? Can't life alone make hermits? How about the grace of God alone? Thanks.]]

Well, first, yes, the grace of God alone can certainly create hermits. However, I have to say I am not sure I know anyone that falls into that category. I recently read about a Camaldolese monk or two, and know several others that make me think they might be hermits of this sort, but I really don't know enough about their situations to say much more than yes, it is possible. In the history of eremitical life, I can point to a number of hermits whose stories seem to be wholly the stories of the grace of God without the negativities of life being significant formative factors as well, so again, yes, it is possible, but I think it is especially rare today (and was likely always so despite the way hagiographies were written). My concern in these recent posts is with discerning eremitical vocations in those with more "mixed" or complicated vocations, and especially stressing that diocesan eremitical vocations are generally not formed by dioceses, etc.

However, as to the case of life alone creating hermits, I would have to say no, never, not as I am using the word hermit anyway. We have lots of examples of "hermits" in other senses however. The socially inept misanthrope, or wounded and embittered recluse are the more common versions of this notion of the term "hermit." Ted Kasczynski is one I mentioned a few weeks ago. All of us know people who are maladapted, unable to cope with the real world, unhappy loners who hate themselves and everyone else. Life has made them loners, solitary persons, incomplete, broken, and unfulfilled, and this is true of many living with families as well, by the way. Loners, etc, are not hermits in the true sense of the word. Some people who have been buffeted by life are not nearly so broken as this, but the circum-stances of life have isolated them, shifted the rhythms of their lives so they no longer match that of most others, and so forth: chronic illness, bereavement, other forms of loss or trauma, have caused this kind of dislocation. Of itself life tends to break us. It is the grace of God that brings wholeness out of such brokenness, authentic life out of death, meaning out of senselessness, and the like. Hemmingway once wrote that "The World breaks all of us, then some become strong in the broken places." What he probably should have said is, "The World breaks all of us, and the grace of God makes us strong in the broken places." For some, a relatively very few in fact, this grace may be the call to become a hermit whether lay or consecrated. For most it will not.

Above all then, the life of the hermit is the life of the grace of God, a life of essential and clearly recognizable wholeness. Brokenness may be an important subtext (as it is in all Christian life!), but it cannot be the primary message. Paul's more theologically nuanced version of Hemmingway's quotation is this: "God's power is perfected in weakness." As I have noted before it is a theological and christological statement first of all for Paul, but it is also autobiographical, and it is biographical of many (other) hermits as well. Many hermits find that they were prepared for this vocation to some extent by situations in life that wounded and even broke them -- leaving them profoundly hungry and thirsty and their lives relatively barren in one way and another.

However, it is without question the grace of God that allows eremitical life to grow even out of THIS desert. It is only the grace of the eternal and living God that can transfigure such isolation into genuine solitude and cause the dislocations of life to become the points of deeper connection and community. And, as we must always remind ourselves, the grace of God, "especially" when given as a call to eremitical life, is always a gift. The reason I quoted Merton's comment on the door to Solitude only opening from the inside was to underscore this whole dynamic. This is also the reason in the last several posts on becoming a diocesan hermit, especially on the time frame involved, I distinguished between being a solitary person and becoming/being a hermit in some essential way. Life creates solitary persons. Only life AND the grace of God creates HERMITS!

Hope this helps. Feel free to get back to me if it does not, or if it raises more questions.