19 October 2009

Question on Chronic Illness and Urban Eremitical Vocations

[[I have degenerative disc disease, diabetes and asthma. I spend most of my time at home (alone) and use a wheelchair when I go out. Could you please elaborate on the relationship between chronic illness and the life of an urban hermit?]]

Thanks for the question. Please do look up earlier posts on this topic, especially the original article published in Review For Religious. I think those will really help you. You can do that by looking at the labels listed in the upper right sidebar and clicking on the appropriate links. Those posts will flesh out the brief response below.

For most people chronic illness results in some degree of dislocation and isolation. Sometimes this is extreme, sometimes not, but the basic root of the problem is the same in any case: the rest of the world simply does not move to the same tempo or rhythm nor do they share the same concerns or limitations. Further we live in a world in which worth is measured by productivity, what we do, what we earn, how successful in these terms we are, how educated, how active in civic and church affairs, et cetera. Because a person with chronic illness often simply cannot measure her life in these terms (or does so and comes up only with "failure" as the mark received) this also is especially isolating.

Now, isolation is not the same as solitude but it does call for redemption. It is meant to be transformed (at least in many cases and in the life of the hermit) into solitude. What I mean by this is that one central reality that remains to all of us when life robs us of other values, abilities, activities, relationships, and so forth is our God and the possibility of a relationship with him. That relationship is capable of redeeming all other loss and completing us as human beings; it is, afterall what we are made for. If we enter into that relationship wholeheartedly what was isolation becomes transfigured into solitude. Solitude is an expression of communion with God and eremitical solitude (a solitude which is more radical and extensive) is something that chronic illness can predispose us to embracing.

Likewise, the gospel gives us a set of values which are countercultural. Not only does Scripture teach us that we are precious to God no matter our success or failure in worldly terms, but discipleship is marked by "the great reversal" --- that is, what the world values is not the same as what is valued in the Kingdom of God. Success in the Reign of God is measured differently and not in terms of productivity, earnings, power, prestige, etc, as it is meaured instead in terms of self-emptying and one's faithfulness to God's call. Even more it is measured in terms of God's grace, freely given and received. The first shall be last, the last first. Those who allow themselves to be gifted by God will be first and richer than those reject God's gifts and attempt instead to wrest things from God's hands by the measure and tools of the world's judgment and success. Few people are in a better position to give the countercultural witness of the disciple of Christ than the chronically ill are.

What I am talking about here is not eremitical life, however. It is a vocation to be chronically ill within the church and world, a prophetic witness that human beings are precious for who they are, not for what they do, how much money they make, how much power they accumulate or exercise, etc. I believe that all chronically ill are called upon to give this kind of witness and that they can do it with a vividness and depth which few others can match. However, of these people who are chronically ill, SOME will also be called to eremitical life. These persons will, in their relationship with God, allow isolation to be transfigured and transformed into genuine solitude and the silence of solitude which serve as the context, goal, and charism of their lives. They will witness to all the things any person with a vocation to chronic illness with witness to and additionally they will say with their lives that "God alone is enough for us." They will witness to the essential wholeness and abundant life that comes from communion with God in Christ, and they will remind the rest of the church and world with a special clarity and power that we are all on a journey towards something far more lasting and fulfilling than this world with all its seductions and false promises --- and also, of course, that this reality is present and accessible to some extent right now interpenetrating our world with its presence.

Chronic illness is not ordinarily part of the eremitical life per se but for a relative few I believe that chronic illness will point to and predispose a person to embrace an eremitical call. In terms of urban eremitism this will specifically be a call to witness to the redemption of those unnatural solitudes which so characterize life in cities, the life of illness, bereavement, and old age marked by separation and lack of connectedness. Urban hermits (whether lay or consecrated) will witness to the redemption of such unnatural solitudes generally, but the hermit who is also chronically ill will do so, again, with a greater vividness and depth.

I apologize for the brevity for this response. It is more an introduction than anything else. Still, I hope it does help and even that it will raise more questions for you!