05 February 2011

Podcasts, Dialogue, Affirmation of the Mystery at the Heart of the World and Contemplative Life

[[Dear Sister, thank you for doing the podcast on A Nun's Life. It was really interesting and surprising in some ways. I had not realized that hermit life was "communal" at its very heart, and the whole idea of chronic illness as vocation was new to me. I also had not realized that hermits could do podcasts!!! I guess I did have the idea that hermits still live in the [modern] equivalent of caves. I wonder if you aren't concerned that people will think doing the podcast conflicts with the eremitical vocation or that you are giving scandal? Also, do other hermits agree with your description of the life as fundamentally communal or "dialogical"?]] (Redacted)

Good questions, and thanks very much for your comments. The experience of doing the podcast was an excellent one for me personally: exhilarating, challenging, a bit taxing physically and mentally, encouraging and inspiring (especially given the responses on chronic illness as vocation!), and just generally good fun! One thing I was especially grateful I was not aware of until afterward, however, was the number of people who tuned in to listen or participated from the chat room. There were almost 450 people participating in one way and another during the hour and I was terrified enough as we began the program!! I came away with tremendous respect for what Sisters Julie and Maxine are doing and how hard they work at it, as well as greater appreciation for their congregation's support for this ministry. As far as I can see, A Nun's Life is of tremendous benefit to the Church and to vocations of all sorts, so the chance to participate in it in some way was very cool --- and a real honor.

I think if I were doing podcasts every week (or every month, for instance) people would have a reason to complain or question. But this was an unusual event and, I sincerely hope, useful in serving the eremitical vocation and also those with chronic illness (or who are otherwise marginalized) who might never consider that their own illness (etc) can be the medium through which the Gospel can be proclaimed to the world with a clarity and concreteness few can match. However, I am not concerned so much with what others think so long as they are clear that this is one of those forms of ministry which result from the silence of solitude and lead back to it as well. It is exceptional but consistent with both the Canon that governs my life, the Rule I live by, as well as the Camaldolese Benedictine charism. It is also consistent with expressions of the eremitical and anchoritic life as found and embodied throughout history. Hermits and anchorites have always been sought out for the wisdom their very marginality witnesses to and helps foster.

Of course, as a hermit, it is important that my own life be defined not primarily by these exceptional instances, but by the essential elements stated in Canon 603: the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world (that which is resistant to Christ and includes the world which lives in one's own heart--- those various soils which stifle or resulting flora which choke the Word of God within and without us!). Even so another essential element of consecrated eremitical life (and any eremitical life, I think!) is that it is lived for the salvation of the world. One embraces this responsibility in a number of ways --- not least in living stricter separation, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance in the heart of the church so that one's life serves as a kind of leaven and witness to a dimension of mystery at the heart of everything --- but also, in opening up the fruit of these elements to others.

You may have read blog posts that argue a kind of mutually exclusive dichotomy between the temporal Catholic World and the Mystical Catholic World. These posts have argued that a hermit must choose either the temporal OR the mystical Catholic Worlds. I have argued that this stance is theological and spiritual nonsense. The reason I have objected is because Christ, undoubtedly a mystic whose entire life was motivated by the reality of his union with God, was also deeply committed to the temporal world. In fact he could not be a mystic without such a commitment --- and vice versa as well! Heaven (life wholly in union with God) and earth are not supposed to be antithetical realities. Christ came to reconcile them and to implicate heaven within the earthly so that it completely interpenetrates the world of space and time. As I have written before, the result will be what Paul refers to as "A new heaven and earth" where "God is all in all". What mystics affirm is the dimension of mystery which grounds and is meant to permeate all of the temporal world. The affirmation is made for the sake of God's own life and the world of space and time --- God's good creation --- not in rejection of either of these.

Something similar is true of the hermit life, but with an accent on solitude and the dynamic of human poverty and divine grace which defines it. We are not to despise or reject the temporal world in the name of some separate and antithetical mystical world. Instead we commit ourselves to the redemption of all of that reality in God from the perspective of our solitude. Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam, writes: " The hermit does not meet eternity in the way gnostics are tempted to meet it. He does not reject what is temporal. He has his share of eternity by raising all earthly things up to their ultimate fullness by virtue of Christ's redemptive love."

In a section entitled, "Living in Dialogue" Wencel also notes, "The seclusion and solitude that constitute the eremitic life do not aim at negating the fundamental dynamism of human existence, with its entering into dialogue and relationships. On the contrary, eremitic isolation and solitude form the basis of that dynamism. . . . As mentioned before, the hermit's solitude can never be a sign of withdrawal and isolation from the world [used in a different sense than the term "world" in Canon 603] and its affairs. The hermit, since he wants to serve other people, must arrive at a profound understanding of his own nature and his relation to God. That is why his solitude is not at all a barrier, but it is rather an element that encourages openness towards others. . . .His solitude is not therefore a lifeless emptiness . . . it is related to those spheres of human personality that can exist only if they are open to meet God and the world in love." (The Eremitic Life, Encountering God in Silence and Solitude, Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam)

All of this is an expansion of, or variation on, one of the first things I mentioned on the podcast, namely we are each grounded in God and as we grow in union with God, so too do we grow in communion with all else that is grounded in him, all that he holds as precious. Hermits and other contemplatives (and certainly all genuine mystics) know this truth intimately.