05 October 2010

Charism, Counterfeits, and Canon 603

I was drawn to a headline online about the growth of the number of hermits in Britain. The story was a huge disappointment, however, and it was annoying and frustrating to boot. With a subtext of genuine and rightful concern for an aging population in Britain, the reporter told two stories, one of which was the following:

[[Tom Leppard is by no means an ornamental hermit. I interviewed him . . . for my book on English eccentrics. After a brutal convent education, and retired from the armed forces, Tom Leppard moved to London, which he loathed. It made him realise that every time in his life he'd been unhappy people had been involved. So Leppard vowed to become a hermit and moved to a remote part of the Isle of Skye. Before leaving London he had 99.2 per cent of his flesh tattooed with leopard spots, projecting his acute sense of apartness on to his skin.

That was more than 20 years ago. Tom is 73 now and – when we finally meet, after I track him down in his remote lair with the help of a local fisherman – he is wearing a woolly hat, a fleece with a flap that covers his groin, and very little else. His home, Paradise, as he calls it, is very neat. Most of his daily chores are aimed at keeping it that way. At the heart of his encampment is a cave made from the remains of a sheep pen and bits of timber from nearby beaches. He survives on tins of food he buys with the pension he picks up when he kayaks over to the mainland.

Before we can chat, he has to find his dentures. "Haven't spoken to anyone in a while, see," he explains. Leppard says he was lonely in London but never gets lonely now. But why choose such an extreme path? Leppard puts it simply: "I'm selfish. I've got all this," he nods at the view that sweeps past a flank of Scottish scarp. "And I want to keep it. I don't want to share it with anybody." As well as reminding us that it's possible to live without material possessions, by their example Woodcock and Leppard remind us not to confuse the words "alone" and "lonely". Companionship is not always a prerequisite to fulfilment. As our population gets older and we grow increasingly fond of living on our own, this is more relevant now than ever before.]

Despite the humor (and the pathos) of the portrait it is one which causes authentic diocesan, lay, or religious hermits to cringe. It is a perfect example (though not as subtle as some) of the attempt to validate one's isolation by applying the term "hermit." I have to say I am surprised that --- important as are the concern for isolated elderly in Britain, and the message the author desires Leppard's life to convey --- the reporter could consider this particular portrait as one which reminds older persons that "companionship is not always a prerequisite to fulfillment," etc. How in the world the life of Tom Leppard represents one of "fulfillment" is an enigma I doubt the author could really explain.

I am also surprised that although Leppard is surely not "an ornamental hermit" (a term which refers to solitary persons who might be hired to live at the bottom of someone's garden to serve as an estate "ornament" for instance) a life characterized as essentially wounded, bitter, selfish, misanthropic, and completely eccentric --- not to say bizarre --- could be seen as exemplary of authentic eremitical life. Yes, Leppard certainly illustrates all the stereotypes I have written about in the last three years, but really, is this the best the reporter could have done in the attempt to draw positive lessons for an aging British population, most of whom will live their last years alone? Unless the entire article was tongue in cheek (and I wholly and sincerely doubt it was!), the bottom line seems to be, "Not to worry, if you have to grow old alone, defensive antisocial craziness is a numbing comfort!"

But, this story was also like a splash of cold water reminding me that the number of people who know the term hermit applies to something far more positive and selfless than the story of Mr Leppard is very small indeed. My own circle of acquaintances and friends is very much an exception in this, and I need to remember that. Ordinarily, even if the attitude towards hermits is more neutral and less negative, the term "hermit" is simply one that meets blank stares. The percentage of people who ask me "What order are you?" and look completely lost at the response, "I am a diocesan hermit" is huge. Rarely do I hear, "Oh, I have heard of that!" Given the rarity of the vocation and the youth of the Canon governing it, not to mention the relative hiddenness of hermits living under it, this is completely understandable. In any case the term "hermit" is not well understood --- sometimes even by the church's hierarchy and chancery personnel whose job it is to discern and nurture such vocations!

I had a couple of conver-sations with another diocesan hermit this week and this lack of under-standing came up as a real issue, especially with regard to Bishops and their chancery staff. What I came to conclude the bottom line in all of this is is a failure to understand not merely the essential elements of the life (a very real problem), but above all a failure to see clearly what constitutes the unique charism and mission of the diocesan hermit. I say this because once one understands how and why hermits are a gift to the church and world, and how it is they contribute concretely to the salvation of that world, one cannot really count the essential elements as negotiable or mistake counterfeit "hermits" for authentic ones any longer. Eremitical vocations, and especially those under Canon 603 need to understand and reflect the gift quality of the lives characterized in the canon --- and not in some merely abstract way, but in ways that the isolated elderly, among others, can really be empowered by and take hope from.

I have written a lot about the silence of solitude in the past week or so and I will return to this as I try to sketch out the unique charism of the diocesan hermit in greater detail. For the moment though it is important to see the vast difference between portraits like that of Tom Leppard and those of authentic eremitical life in the church. The latter do indeed affirm the things the reporter WISHED Leppard's life affirmed. They are indeed a gift of the Holy Spirit in this way. But counterfeits like Tom Leppard in this article make the vocation appear ridiculous and underscore the vast difference between lives characterized merely by silence AND solitude (aloneness), and those which are expressions of the silence OF solitude.