23 October 2009

Anachoresis vs unhealthy Withdrawal

[[Dear Sister, could you say more about the terms "reactive withdrawal" and "responsive anachoresis" in your last post? I get the idea one is positive and the other negative, but why is one reactive and the other responsive?]]

Hi. I have written in the past about withdrawal as a negative reality and in those posts I offset this against the Greek term, anachoresis the state or act of retiring or withdrawing. Anachoresis is the form of withdrawal associated with monastics and hermits. From it we get the term anchorites: those who are connected to a local church or convent and practice an intense stability of place (living in a single room there off the altar, etc) while still remaining accessible to others in limited ways and degrees via use of a window or grill, etc. By extension anachoresis refers to the withdrawal of hermits and recluses, and not just to anchorites. As I understand this act of withdrawal it is a positive thing which is meant to serve communion with God and with others. Because of this, and particularly because it is a withdrawal which is done in obedience to the call of God in our lives, I have spoken of it as "responsive" rather than reactive.

Reactions and responses are different things after all! We react to stimuli in an immediate, relatively unmediated, and even unthinking or instinctive way. When we are acting up to our potential as human beings we respond to others in a thoughtful, loving, reasoned and generous way with not just some part of our nervous or limbic system dominating, but with our whole selves. Responsiveness can allow us to overcome merely self-protective or selfish impulses and lead to kenosis (self-emptying) and a life lived for others no matter the cost. Reactive "mechanisms" in our lives are more defensive and do not tend to involve the greater awareness of the needs of others (or sometimes the greater needs of our own selves) as human beings; they are, I think, more primitive --- a matter of the preservation of the organism we are and less a matter of attending to the demands of our humanity per se than genuine responses.

Because I recognize and appreciate this difference, I refer to "reactive withdrawal" as the kind of withdrawal from the environment which is defensive or the way we respond to the world when we are clinically depressed or perhaps ridden with anxiety and excessive fears (phobias) for instance. It is a reaction to stimuli, not a response of the whole person to the address and needs of God, another person or even our truest selves. Important as it can be in certain danger situations, apart from these it is less than worthy of the human person than is an obedient response, and this is especially true in the contemplative or the hermit. I distinguish the two this way precisely because while they can look the same superficially (they both involve withdrawal and physical solitude) they are radically different acts (that is, they differ at their very roots). What is difficult is the way they overlap in the lives of sinful human beings. Because they do, those who would be hermits have to learn to discern the difference and be sure their eremitical lives are governed by the responsiveness of a relatively mature and edifying anachoresis, not the reactivity of a more primitive and defensive withdrawal which is disedifying.

I hope this helps!