02 April 2009

More Followup Questions, "On Lemons and Lemonade"

[[Dear Sister O'Neal,
Again, thank you for your responses to my questions on vocation about taking lemons and making lemonade. I do understand the benefits of some of what you are saying, but a lot of it seems to conflict with the idea that the eremitical vocation is the highest form of a monastic vocation or that one needs to live a monastic life for years before being allowed to live as a hermit. It sounds to me like you believe just anyone can become a hermit and should if life has knocked them around a bit and created isolation and dislocation. Even if we are more careful than this about accepting people to become hermits doesn't this idea of the vocation have less dignity than the one which is more traditional in monastic life and church history?]]

Hello again. First let me respond to the overstatement you made regarding what I believe about the eremitical vocation. I don't think we will get anywhere so long as you believe this is what I am saying. No, I emphatically do not believe just anyone can become a hermit, nor should they simply because life has knocked them about and created isolation and dislocation. By far and away the majority of folks in such situations will be called by God to remain "in the world" reconnecting with people and serving both church and world from this vantage point. A relatively few people will rightly discern that they are called to be lay hermits, and a far fewer number will discern a call to diocesan eremitism or a community of hermits. While I DO believe there are some segments of the population who might have greater numbers of vocations to lay or diocesan eremitical life than others (chronically ill or single elderly in particular), the relative incidence of these vocations will ALWAYS be rare. I admit to being really surprised you thought I believed JUST anyone should become a hermit because I have actually been concerned that my posts are discouraging or overly cautious about this matter, and perhaps even elitist sounding. I would never have thought I was giving the opposite impression, but in a way, that is also reassuring.

Now, onto your real question. It is absolutely the case that eremitical life has been seen as the highest form of monastic life throughout much of the history of the church. This is true despite the origins of the vocation which pre-dated cenobitical monastic life altogether. By recognizing or allowing for the possibility that a number of people come to eremitical life without this formal monastic background and formation do we really diminish the dignity of the vocation itself? This question prompts others: Do we change the vocation's character in doing this? Is it wrong to admit lay persons to eremitical profession and consecration without this specific foundation, for instance? In doing so don't we detract from the idea given to monastery monastics that eremitical life is the highest form of monastic life?

Although I think your initial question raises all these additional ones, I am not sure I can answer them all, and certainly not right here. However, I can answer your original question about the dignity of the vocation, and my answer is really pretty simple: the vocation has dignity because and to the extent it is a call from God, not to the extent it measures on some scale of vocations in human terms. I believe that all eremitical vocations are essentially monastic because the heart of the term monastic really means "one" or "solitary." True inner solitude is developed over time, and it is in this regard especially (though not only) that eremitical life can be seen as the apex of monastic life. I also believe that some degree of monastic or religious formation is important to live this life, however, this does not mean one needs to get that formation IN a monastery or as a monastery monastic. Neither does it mean that monastics look at "graduating" to eremitical life as a goal any more than hermits per se think of entering reclusion as "graduating" or see this as the goal of either the eremite or the cenobite. While it is true that only a few monastics will ever hear a call to eremitical solitude, and even fewer to reclusion, and while it is true that eremitical life has in some ways rightly been seen as the epitome of monastic life, none of this can constrain the Holy Spirit from calling whomever s/he will and from whatever situation life creates.

Early on, in the days of the desert Fathers and Mothers, as you probably know, hermits were drawn from laity. It is probably true that as intriguing as this way of life was for thousands of folks, not all of them had calls to strict eremitical life. We would likely not have seen the development of cities in the desert or actual monasteries had all of these people been called to be hermits in the sense we use the word today, or in the sense of the desert Fathers and Mothers were who were called to the greater or inner deserts. Still, eremitical life was the life of a committed and devout laity. The process of becoming a hermit was individualized and much simpler than it is today: an elder in the life would take in the person to mentor, grant them the habit, and teach them all they needed to know by some direct instruction and insistence on the discipline or custody of the cell. To some extent, what we are seeing today is the resurgence and reappropriation of elements of this original calling.

What my posts have actually been calling for is the best of both worlds: the original call to the desert of the days of the desert Fathers and Mothers, and the formation, experience, focus and disciplines of monastic life itself. IF Bishops were to admit people to profession willy nilly, without sufficient formation (formal or informal), insufficient life experience, education (theological and spiritual), psychological health, and the ability to articulate clearly how it is God is calling them to a vocation which is grounded in love and is at once solitary and communal, then yes, there is a distinct danger that the eremitical vocation will be diminished in the process. So long as Bishops take care in these matters and with regard to the forms of consecrated life entrusted to them in Canon 605 I don't think the danger is very great. Education is needed, of course. Even Bishops need to read up on eremitism and especially contemporary diocesan eremitism. Meanwhile the lay eremitical vocation also needs to be made more well-known. All this will help with the concerns you raise.

The bottom line remains though, that the dignity of a vocation is a function of the divine call involved. So long as people take care to truly discern that action of God in people's lives, the vocation they discover will be divine and of infinite dignity --- whether it is also the epitome of monastic life or not. Such vocations should be treated with care, nurtured, cultivated, formed, but it is without question that the flower that sprouts from between the cracks of a residential sidewalk is of no less worth or validity than is the bloom that has been nurtured from seedlings in a monastery hothouse. Similarly, the flower that gives joy to those who see it springing from the cracks in the sidewalk has achieved its end and goal no less than the one decorating the church at Easter. Both are and are doing precisely what God has created them to be and do.

Again, I wish you peace, and a wonderful Holy Week.