29 March 2009

Even More followup Questions on Becoming a Diocesan Hermit.

[[Sister, thank you for your posts on the time frame, and other matters regarding becoming a diocesan hermit. What I found surprising was the distinction you drew between solitary persons and hermits. I always thought the two things were the same. I also hadn't thought much before about genuine eremitical calls and illegitimate "calls". So, my questions: Can you define hermit for me as you use the word? Also, can you say more about the distinction between genuine and not-so-genuine eremitical vocations? Finally, if a person believes they are really called to be a hermit (not just "solitary persons") how do they go about getting the kind of formation they need if the diocese itself does not provide that?]]

The literal definition of hermit is "one who dwells in the desert ("desert dweller")" but, given all I have said up until now, perhaps that should be revised slightly to read, "one who lives primarily from the grace of God in the desert silence OF solitude." Physical solitude is important, essential in fact to the hermit, but more, it is the genuine communal solitude of the heart which defines her. It is the solitude of the heart (the silence OF solitude) where isolation has been transformed and transfigured at the service of love that is the defining characteristic of the hermit. Saying this reprises a number of themes I have touched on in the past couple of years here: the notion that the eremitical life is always motivated by love and not by selfishness, the idea that solitude itself is an inner reality more perhaps than it is an outer one -- as important as physical solitude remains, the notion that "stricter separation from the world" is as much or more about one's own openness to and communion with the sovereignty or reign of God than it is about closing one's door to the rest of his good creation, the notion that desert can be defined in terms of any environment or situation of relative "barrenness" which separates a person from others and not merely a physical wilderness, etc.

I am not sure what more can be said (or at least what more I can say!) about illegitimate and legitimate calls to eremitical life except that legitimate calls represent calls to wholeness, to humanity which is generous and other-centered, to lives which are marked by love (of God, oneself, and others) and reconciliation, to a life of the freedom of one who lives from the grace of God and not from illness, compulsion, or any other form of bondage. I think it is often clear when someone approaches a diocese because life has broken them in some sense and their very brokenness is the dominant reality in their lives. In such cases the person MAY ALSO (at some point) be called to eremitical life, but they have not yet heard or responded to that call; they have not yet allowed God to heal them or to define their lives in terms of wholeness, mercy, grace, or freedom. And in some cases, the essential wholeness, the foundational freedom I am talking about never becomes visible much less dominant. When that is the case, one is not (yet) dealing with a genuine call to eremitical life, and may not ever be.

In such cases, cases where brokenness is the dominant reality (whether temporarily or not), solitude is more about physical solitude and not a matter of the heart's own communion with God and all he cherishes. In such a case, physical solitude is really simply isolation, and this serves to protect one from others (or vice versa), from the demands of life and love, and sometimes, even the growth work one needs to do oneself simply to be well. But for the legitimate call to eremitical life, while brokenness may indeed always remain a subtext, a sort of drone or pedal tone beneath the music giving it a special timbre and depth, what stands out are these other characteristics I have spoken of: wholeness, freedom, love, the capacity to relate to others and to be compassionate in their regard, the sense that one is like others not different than they, the capacity for deep joy and gratitude --- characteristics which should be present in ways which define the hermit as profoundly touched by the mercy and grace of God, more profoundly and extensively than brokenness ever touched her. Further, her brokenness will now be the basis of a deep compassion with others, not something which effectively separates her as different from them. Her solitude will not be mainly about physical separation, though this will always exist, but about a Communion with God which then empowers an eremitical compassion, love for, and service of others. For those dealing with chronic illness which itself isolates and establishes one as "different" than most others, this sense that one is really the same as others, etc, is a central piece of growth I would be looking for in determining whether a vocation is authentic or not. I hope this is helpful, but if your question is more specific than this, please get back to me and clarify it for me.

Finally, your question about formation since dioceses are not about providing this: While I think that every case will be somewhat different in their needs for formation (both initial and ongoing, by the way), there are certain broad brush strokes one can suggest as necessary for most candidates for eremitical life:

1) ongoing and regular spiritual direction with a trained or gifted spiritual director who understands contemplative life. Such a person need not be A contemplative (in the sense of cloistered nun, etc), and certainly need not be a hermit, but she should be familiar with contemplative prayer and have an understanding of the basic elements of the eremitical life (the silence OF solitude, stricter separation from the world (rightly understood!), prayer and penance. It helps if this person is open to the surprising ways the Holy Spirit works in our lives --- and of course any good director is! Regular work with such a person for several years at least is necessary as a piece of eremitical discernment and initial formation; ongoing direction is simply a requirement for ongoing formation in the eremitical life.

2) Study. Here I mean primarily the study of theology and spirituality, but other disciplines as well may be helpful too (psychology, art , music, sciences, sociology). One of the greatest lacks I see in some who would like to be hermits is a lack of sound theological and spiritual training or education. Recently I wrote a couple of pieces about the specious division of reality into the temporal and mystical Catholic worlds. One needs enough theology to prevent such blatant errors, enough contact with models of good spirituality (including contemporary spirituality!!) that one reads classic works with an educated eye and heart, enough so that one can read Scripture (and first rate commentaries) with real intelligence and sophistication. This category would also include study on the nature of the vows, monastic and eremitical life per se, the history of the church, etc.

3) Personal growth work to supplement that of spiritual direction as necessary. This might include therapy to help work through and heal past hurts, or simply to understand oneself fully and profoundly in psychological as well as spiritual terms, etc.

4) formation in prayer and spiritual disciplines. One will, over time, come to learn to pray the Office, do lectio divina, journal, pray contemplatively (etc), live in silence and solitude (and the silence of solitude) effectively and faithfully and more, allow all these to assume their proper place in a genuinely contemplative life. Also, one will learn what penance is lifegiving and motivated by gratitude as opposed to that which is actually an expression of self-hatred, and one will build these into her life. Included here too are all the values and practices associated with the evangelical counsels. One may not be preparing for vows, but one still needs to live the values central to Christian discipleship. Finally one's spiritual life includes others. It is lived FOR others, so over time one needs to determine valid and lifegiving ways to relate to one's parish and other communities despite one's solitude. Learning to be sensitive to, as well as to balance the demands of solitude and community effectively are a piece of formation I think even if one continues to learn this the whole of one's eremitical life.

In order to get this kind of formation one really needs to seek out resources for it. It should be clear that dioceses would not provide this stuff, but every diocese will have resources available, and the internet opens up the world to hermits for all of this as well. One just needs to seek these out and do so in discernment with one's director re what one really needs to be a whole and well-developed person, as well as spiritually well-rounded and theologically sophisticated. (One need not have advanced degrees in theology to be well-rounded here, by the way.) In any case, if I were looking at candidates for profession and consecration, those are the basic areas I would be looking for evidence of strength in. Because of that I think formation needs to include these in one way and another depending on the individual involved.

Again, I hope this helps. If it does not, or raises more questions, please do get back to me.