03 May 2010

The Greatest Risk to the Eremitical Vocation?

[[Sister, what is the hardest thing for a new person becoming a hermit? You write about it as a risky vocation. What is the greatest risk do you think?]]

It seems to me that the hardest thing about becoming a hermit is making the transition from being a person who does things associated with being a hermit to actually being one in some essential sense. One approach to becoming a diocesan (or a lay) hermit seems to be that of adding in pious and devotional practices without changing one's general environment. In this approach silence and solitude, for instance, are treated as things one adds in to one's life rather than being embraced as the very environment in which one lives. But becoming a hermit is not simply about living more or less of this or that: more prayers, more silence, more time alone, less contact with family or friends, less (or no) TV, etc. It is about a life with God alone which humanizes one and makes of one's life a prophetic presence in a noisy world devoted to self, dissipation, and distraction. Nikos Kazantzakis once said that, "Solitude can be fatal for the soul that does not burn with a great passion." I think that the movement from doing the things a hermit does to being a true hermit --- and the danger of never making this transition --- is a piece of what is behind this quote.

The process of becoming a diocesan (or, for that matter, a lay) hermit involves a transition to being at home in an environment of the silence of solitude. It involves a transition from being a person who prays occasionally (or even often) to being a person who is prayer in some fundamental and conscious way. Because this transition is so all-encompassing, and because it cannot be engineered, the time frame for becoming a diocesan hermit is ordinarily lengthy and individualized. Negotiating this transition is one of the more difficult aspects of becoming a hermit, it seems to me --- particularly if one is not willing to let go of one's previous life, or, similarly, if one is trying to accommodate "hermiting" to a more normal parish or religious life. The call to eremitical life is different not simply in degree, but in kind; a candidate to diocesan eremitical life must understand and embrace this difference.

The greatest risk to eremitical life, in my estimation, is mediocrity because mediocrity is a form of inauthenticity. Because the life is so independent, because there is little direct oversight, it is easy to lose oneself in this or that distraction. No one but the hermit and God knows if the hermit lives her Rule or horarium. No one knows if she shows up for prayer or spends appropriate time in lectio or study. No one knows when legitimate recreation slides into more dangerous distraction and dissipation. And of course, even if she is dilligent in doing all the things she is obligated to in her Rule, she still may not be growing sufficiently in holiness, human maturity, and the capacity to love and serve others. This too can be a kind of mediocrity. Yes, she lives this life under the supervision of her Bishop and those he delegates to serve in this way. But in most ways these individuals cannot do other than take the hermit's word about the quality of the life she is living. (Directors and delegates can and do ask probing questions and challenge to ever-greater fidelity to God's call, but ultimately, they do not live with the hermit and cannot measure mediocrity. Only the hermit can do that.) Here Kazantzakis' quote also is helpful, for the hermit will be one with a great passion and that passion will not allow mediocrity.

This tremendous independence and inner directedness (development of a truly great passion) is also one of the reasons the period of discernment and formation for a diocesan hermit is often quite lengthy. Again,the person seeking to make and live this commitment needs to make the transition from "doing hermit things" to being a hermit in an essential way. They are persons who have come to terms with their own poverty and realized that communion with God is, for them, found only in silence and solitude. Human wholeness and the community necessary for that is for them a paradoxical reality realized in the silence OF solitude. For them the ability to love and serve others requires an unusual degree of silence and solitude, prayer, penance, personal work, etc, and they MUST be committed to that. That is, they must be embracing this vocation because they love, and are committed to loving more and more. Diocesan representatives, the person's spiritual director, et al, must come to assurance not only that all this is true for this person, but that the person is capable of living out this truth with self-discipline and integrity and that she has a track record of faithfulness to the Rule of Life which reflects the truth of her life with God.

By the way, there is no formula for what this faithfulness means in any given individual's life. Canon 603 defines the essential elements of the life but does not quantify these. It says this is a life of the silence of solitude, and that it is marked by assiduous prayer and penance, a living out of the evangelical counsels, and stricter separation from the world, all lived for the salvation of the world and according to the person's own Rule of Life. However, it does not indicate any single picture of what these things mean. Because of this one must find out what each of these terms will look like in her own call to eremitical life. Again, discovering this, building it into a life which genuinely loves and serves others, which leads one to genuine holiness, and which is also consistent with eremitical tradition takes time, discernment, and consistent and focused work.

The risk, of course, (and an ongoing, every day risk in fact) is that one will fail in some part of this challenge, whether that is by buying into a stereotype of eremitical (or contemplative) life which allows one to cease discerning how the life is to be lived lovingly and prophetically in this time and place, or whether it means convincing oneself that certain evasions and compromises are legitimate when they are not. Mediocrity can take many forms and wear many guises (some of them quite dramatic or extreme in normal terms) even once one has made the transition from doing hermit things to being a hermit in an essential sense. It has a number of roots as well: failure to love, disobedience, selfishness, various forms of fear or resistance, arrogance, complacency, etc. In any case, while it is important to deal with each of these roots, I think mediocrity itself is really the greatest overall risk that faces someone trying to live an eremitical life.