28 September 2010

The Silence of Solitude and the Redemption of Isolation (#7)

[[ Sr. Laurel, Could you please say something more about the distinction between "validating one's isolation" and redeeming it? I don't really get the first part of that at all even if I see where the change from isolation to solitude is a positive thing.]]

Yes, sorry, I should have explained that better. What I mean is that many of us (and many who are called to the eremitical "silence of solitude") begin with situations which marginalize and even isolate us. Chronic illness is the most common situation I know of and it is the one I am personally familiar with. Chronic illness, as I have written here before isolates and causes various forms of dislocation. The rhythm and tempo of one's life is simply different than that of most people, and depending on the illness involved one may be unable to drive or even use public transportation easily in ways which allow one to be more independent. Ordinarily poverty accompanies serious illness or disability, due to the inability to work, study (perhaps), etc. One is dependent upon others' assistance more than usual and the relationships may be unequal and not those of peers. In terms of the Church those with serious illness may be ministered to but are rarely seen as a source of ministry themselves. Certainly they cannot usually become religious if they feel such a call, and as lay persons, their lives are also often undervalued. One finds that with every scale we ordinarily use, except that of the Gospel, the chronically ill are invalided and invalidated.

Canon 603, the Canon which governs the solitary eremitical vocation in the Church can seem like a way of validating this isolation. Here I mean that it may seem that this is a context for making this isolated life valid or worth something again. (Think of a parking lot ticket as an analogy for the sense in which I am using "validate" here. It can be validated during a visit to a nearby store or doctor's office, for instance. Unless it is stamped, approved, "validated" it is seen as being without value. Once this occurs it become worth something it was not worth before.) When I first began considering the place of Canon 603 and the nature of the life it outlined I sensed that perhaps this would be a perfect context which allowed all the elements of my own life to make sense: my gifts, talents, education, yearning for God and commitment to a vowed life, as well as my deficiencies, weaknesses, and brokenness. This is actually not a bad reason to begin discerning whether one is called to eremitical life, but it is a far cry from actually doing so, and even further from living such a life! Here one's solitariness is more a form of isolation and alienation. Even if one were prematurely allowed to make vows according to this canon, one would not YET have discerned a true eremitical vocation nor become a hermit as the Canon itself defines her. Something else must take place first.

That "event", that thing which must happen first is the redemption of one's isolation and the transformation of it into genuine solitude. It is this that allows a person to look around at what once was an apart-ment in both the usual and literal senses and say, "this is a hermitage and I am a hermit living in, from, and for communion with God!" It is this that makes of illness a subtext in one's life rather than its theme song! It is this transformation that makes of what was --- in worldly terms --- an absurd, merely tragic, or even meaningless life instead something of inestimable worth (not simply because every person has such dignity in the eyes of God) but because now this life, this way of being limited and marginalized, with all its weakness, brokenness, inability, etc is actually an effective and significant gift of the Holy Spirit to both Church and World. The accomplishment of this transformation is something only the grace of God can do. Thus, my other blog articles on "Lemons and Lemonade" or (a la Merton) the door to solitude ONLY being opened from within (by solitude itself), and thus too a part of the reason for my insistence that a candidate for diocesan eremitical life who wishes to make profession of vows in order to accept the public rights and responsibilities of this life must be, in some essential way, a hermit already.

What one must do is move from a life dominated by external silence and aloneness which are defined in terms of absence, alienation, and isolation, to a life where these serve and reflect the deeper and graced reality of "the silence OF solitude." Isolation must be redeemed or transformed into authentic (dialogical or relational) solitude, and this only occurs by the grace (i.e., the powerful presence and action) of God. One must, in some way move (and be moved) from the silence of voicelessness or the inarticulateness of a scream to the freedom and articulateness of what the New Testament calls parrhesia, an empowered and empowering speech --- even if this voice is rarely heard by the world at large. Further, those in the Church whose job it is to discern and profess those truly called to Canon 603 vocations must be clear on this distinction and affirm that the transition and transformation has been negotiated before temporary profession --- even if it still needs consolidation and internalization in more profound and extensive ways.

Again, this is one of the places where the distinction between "silence and solitude" and "the silence OF solitude" is crucially important. I suspect that this particular defining element of Canon 603 is NOT well enough understood --- not by chanceries, not by candidates or aspirants for profession, and not even by some diocesan hermits! (I say this because I myself wrote a Rule of Life which substituted "silence and solitude" for the accurate canonical phrase, "the silence of solitude" and that was only 5 or 6 years ago! I say it also because I think every diocesan hermit I have spoken to in the past several years has done the same thing at one time or another -- sometimes consistently -- despite the fact that available commentary on the Canon is clear about the special significance of this term!)

Validating one's isolation in the negative sense I am using the term involves applying a term to it which makes it seem more acceptable. It falls short of really giving meaning to something in a way which truly transforms it and makes it of great worth. We can call a loner or a chronically il;l person, for instance, a hermit and "validate" (try to make "valid" or meaningful) their isolation. Those who are isolated in some sense may seek to use Canon 603 in this way. This, of itself, does not change their isolation though it does appear to make it less worthless, tragic, or absurd. Of course, in the process it also effectively makes eremitical life itself essentially about isolation and alienation rather than authentic solitude --- only now we have sugar coated this with a bit of a lie (in the form of a stereotype or caricature) so the real bitterness is easier for everyone to swallow. Well-meaning as this might be it is a practice which empties the term ("eremitical") of real meaning and makes the life (both generally and specifically) incredible or unable to be believed or appreciated in the process. This will be true not only for the Church (meaning the whole People of God) and world who will recognize the fraud being perpetrated here at least enough to ridicule it or consider it unworthy of affirmation, but by the putative hermit as well --- who will know her "eremitical life" is a lie even (and perhaps especially) if she really is called to such a vocation.

(Thus it may be tempting for dioceses, in a misguided attempt to be pastoral, to profess anyone under Canon 603 who is chronically ill (or whatever the source of their isolation) and requests this, but it would be wrongheaded and destructive --- not only for the vocation to eremitical life itself, but for the individual professed in this way without an authentic vocation. Canon 603 is not a refuge for those without legitimate religious vocations or other access to public profession/consecration, or who are seeking to make isolation or simply being a loner legitimate or valid ways of living. Instead it is the way for the solitary hermit to assume the public rights and responsibilities of diocesan eremitical life; it is the way to profess one whose isolation and voicelessness has been redeemed and transformed by God into the solitary prophetic word of one dwelling consciously and responsibly in the heart of reality.)

Redeeming one's isolation, then, is a very different matter than merely validating (or trying to validate) one's isolation. Here the message of one's life is vastly different than it once was, for such a life attests to the power of God to bring meaning out of absurdity, life out of death, hope out of hopelessness, power and authority out of powerlessness and futility. Isolation is no longer that although superficially things may look similar. What replaces isolation is communion and community which is lived out as "inner" rather than merely external solitude, first of all with God and with oneself as one comes to accept one's whole self, and then with all others who are grounded in and linked to one through God. Illness (or whatever the situation that isolates one) may not change substantially but it is no longer the dominant reality in one's life. If one is in intractable and chronic pain, then the main message of one's life is what God does in spite of that --- and that is a joyful thing; it is evangelion or gospel in the truest sense. Will one struggle with illness and pain, in whatever forms they occur? Of course. But one does not struggle alone, nor is the struggle worthless to the broader Church and world. Still, it is not the struggle per se that is the first word the hermit articulates with her life, but the victory God has achieved in transforming isolation into the silence ,and so, into the song of solitude!

As always, I hope this helps but if it raises more questions or is unclear in some way, please get back to me. (I know, after today at least, that you don't need to be told that really, but the statement is for others as well!) All good wishes!