01 April 2009

On Lemons and Lemonade

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, is your idea of the eremitical life a case of taking the lemons life gives us and making lemonade out of them? So, the Church actually professes and consecrates people whose claim to have a vocation is that they have managed to find a way to make lemonade out of lemons? Seems like a pretty negative or undignified way of receiving an actual vocation from God!]]

LOL! Well, let me apologize if the idea that life creates solitary persons and the grace of God creates hermits sounds a bit like a negative or undignified idea of vocation. Honestly, to me it sounds like the story of sin and redemption, the healing and transformation of the broken and unworthy into something reflecting and revealing the power and presence of God --- hardly a negative dynamic as I understand it. But let me enlarge on and perhaps extend your metaphor in order to try and be clear about what I am saying about the nature of and way a person generally becomes a hermit, and in particular, a diocesan hermit.

First, the general truth of your metaphor: Yes, I have said that life tends to break us, and that it is only the grace of God which can bring wholeness out of that. Sometimes, rarely, this grace is received as a call to eremitical solitude for the whole of one's life. (For some it may be an eremitical vocation for a shorter period of time, a period of transition, for instance -- thus the place of lay eremitism in some instances, or temporary vows which are not renewed or do not lead to perpetual profession. Note here that I believe all vows are made with the sense that they are for life, even "temporary" vows, but sometimes it simply does not work out that way.) I personally think that the notion that there may be a call for the whole of a person's life (meaning as something more than a transitional period) is especially true in the case persons with chronic illness, and also for some who are older and single and/or bereaved, but obviously it can happen to anyone, and in such cases it may be a call to either lay or consecrated eremitical life.

Please realize I am not simply saying that eremitical solitude is the reasonable expedient in such a case, the avenue a merely clever person could seize on without a genuine call. It might serve in that way in the short term (especially the very short term), but I (and those who really live solitude full time) honestly believe that a person must find they are truly called to solitude by God or their lives will not be fruitful, they will really be frustrated and reflect the lack of life, the resentment, hopelessness, and so forth that is always associated with a life which is crippled and unable to reach its true and full purpose. More bluntly, as I put the matter earlier, solitude will chew them up and spit them out, or as Merton described it,either it will invite them in or it will drive them nuts.

But vocations come to us in the midst of life's realities. God speaks to and calls us forth in ways which transform and transfigure them, and in ways which allow them to take on a genuinely sacramental character. The realities themselves may seem unworthy, and --- as in yesterday's readings with regard either to the serpents, the serpent on a staff, or the manna in the desert --- even be disgusting or repugnant in themselves; still, it is the nature of God's grace to render them sacramental. God's call is always to life --- life in the midst of death, wholeness out of and in the midst of brokenness, righteousness out of and in the midst of sin, etc. The experience of being called is not usually dramatic and extraordinary. Instead it comes over time with moments of quiet with increasing joy, greater clarity and meaning, fuller life, greater capacity for loving oneself and others, etc. It is a fact that vocations are the path by which a life that would be relatively meaningless otherwise, comes to make an almost infinite sense, not only for oneself alone, but for the world one inhabits as well. There is no lack of dignity in such a call.

But as I just suggested, diocesan hermits go one step further than the lemons/lemonade metaphor you supplied. It is not enough for them to take the lemons life hands them and find ways to make lemonade out of them. God must do this, of course, for we alone are unable. But even more, the diocesan hermit is also deeply convinced that the world is desperately thirsty for this very lemonade; she becomes a hermit not ONLY because this solitude is a way of transforming the lemons life gave her, but because God, the church, and the world needs her to do this in THIS SPECIFIC way. And in this way she will allow the grace of God to transform her life as well as empower her to pour it out for others in a way few others will be able to do. I think all these components must be present in an authentic eremitical vocation, and I don't find anything in this essentially negative or lacking in dignity. As I understand it, it is really something quite awesome --- that God could (and WOULD!) take the brokenness of my life and fashion it into a drink for a thirsting world is pretty amazing, and the essence of Catholic Sacramental and vocational theology.