[[Sister Laurel, I have read your post on loneliness and the eremitic lifestyle and it was focused on whether or not loneliness might indicate a calling to be a hermit. I understand what you said in the post about loneliness possibly being an indicator that one should look inward for the cause of the loneliness. My question pertains to loneliness once you have become a hermit. I imagine that you at times feel lonely and I am interested in learning about what you do when you feel that way.]]
Thanks for the question. Yes, I do occasionally feel lonely, but as I have explained in the past it is rarely a malignant kind of loneliness. Instead, it usually happens when I experience something in prayer I would like to share, or read something I am excited about and would likewise desire to share and explore with someone, but cannot. One of the most powerful experiences I have had this year is that of several days away from the hermitage where, in the mornings I sat writing while another Sister did her own work at the other end of the table. We rarely spoke, but we were free to do so, and the experience of shared solitude was simply excellent! I was surprised at the period of transition which occurred when I returned to the hermitage --- brief though it was. I felt loneliness then. I am happy in solitude, no doubt about it, but at the same time I honor and appreciate experiences which remind me of what it means to live otherwise.
Loneliness, despite what some non-hermits say about hermits never feeling such, is simply a normal reaction to the absence of human company, and this can mean the absence of various degrees or types of intimacy. Often this means missing someone in particular --- someone who shares the same values, for instance, who invariably makes me laugh --- especially at myself, who struggles with prayer in some of the same ways I do, who challenges me theologically and personally, or whose smile I simply miss seeing, etc. As often it means wondering how someone is doing and bringing them to prayer. However, it can also include transitional times when prayer moves from being consoling to times when it is dry, for instance, or when I feel the need for a simple hug so that even though I am certain of God's presence, I can also feel loneliness.
Simple loneliness does not need anything done about it ordinarily --- except to note it, perhaps, and to bring it to prayer. I try to use it as an occasion to thank God for whatever led to it (the thing read or experienced, for instance, or the people who are present in my life whom I miss --- or my vocation itself, of course). With simple loneliness, I maintain my horarium, pray as I am called, write, study, work, and recreate as usual. I do note in my journal the feeling and the context of the experience; I also record anything I know about what triggered it or might be part of it in case down the line this turns out to be something more than simple loneliness, or in case a pattern emerges (recurrent periods of loneliness triggered by the same situation or occurring in the same context, for instance). Sometimes this will lead immediately to more personal (inner) work than anticipated, but most often it does not. Sometimes I will send out an email to a friend or write them a letter. This can mean setting up some time in the next couple of weeks or so when we can see each other or just spend some time talking. If we meet it will usually be for Mass, coffee, a walk, even dinner, but it can (as a clear exception) mean a day out to see an exhibit at a museum, or an afternoon out to hear a concert, etc. Most often though, it means just touching base enough to help me get in touch with the gratitude I feel for this person as gift, and really, for the whole of my life.
But some "loneliness" is more than "simple loneliness". It can include anxiety, depression, profound sadness and senses of isolation, meaninglessness, a need for affirmation or validation, self-pity, anger, etc. I suspect that many times what we call loneliness is not really that at all, but some of these other things along with whatever is their source. Too often we call this loneliness because there is simply no one around to distract us from it, and no way to fill the need, for instance. But many times being with someone is not the solution here, and so, loneliness is not what we are actually dealing with --- at least not fundamentally. In any case, when loneliness hangs in or is complicated by any of the above feelings then, at least for the hermit, it demands attention with the help of one's director. One really needs to talk things over with someone who knows one well, and can see things from a fresh perspective. This is especially true if one has been journaling right along and using all the tools one has at one's disposal, but is still suffering. I rarely experience this kind of loneliness at this stage of my life and associate it with times of serious illness, grief, loss, unmet needs for love, etc, all of which need to be worked through. Except in the last case (unmet needs which produce a kind of deep and aching loneliness or emptiness) I do not call it loneliness even though my need (or at least my desire) for company is exacerbated at these times --- but I know people who do call it loneliness, so I address it here.
Simple loneliness, to some extent, is, as I have already implied, a natural even penitential part of the hermit's life. Again, I disagree with those people who say hermits (should) never feel loneliness. Usually though, as you can tell from my comments, this is not a problematical reality. It comes from the fact that the hermit loves and is loved by others, as well as from the fact that she has not yet achieved complete union with God. It can, if attended to mindfully, strengthen prayer and one's gratitude towards God for all his gifts --- of which friends and the love and compassion which comes as a part of friendship are a particularly privileged instance. As you can also tell, I don't tend to equate simple loneliness with a general unhappiness which seems to me to be a more global and problematical reality. Instead, simple loneliness seems to me to be a dimension of the love and richness which marks one's life. Should it seem to be a piece of a more general unhappiness, or become an omnipresent sign of deprivation or narrowing of life, then I would agree this is not something that should be happening to a hermit, and it requires special attention.
I hope this helps. If not, or if it raises more questions, please feel free to get back to me. Again, thanks for the question!
27 June 2011
25 June 2011
I received the following excellent comments from a friend and diocesan hermit about something I wrote on "stricter separation from the world." They have been edited to make them more general in application, but raise a very good point on which I have been apparently unclear. I want to try to remedy that in this post.
[[Regarding “greater separation from the world”, I’ve read on your blog about separation from what isn’t Christ-like, was that it? More a spiritual separation/renunciation from whatever is worldly. I still believe that physical separation is essential because interpretations can lead to [a] situation [where one really isn't a hermit at all]. [In an apostolic sister's life] . . . she prays and serves God. What could be considered unworldly about that? . . . Emphasizing physical separation and restricted social contact [is necessary to understand the eremitical life]. I think we need to be careful about spiritualizing the separation. It’s also a practical, physical separation which is a sacrifice in relation to apostolate, work and visits.]]
First of all, let me say I agree completely with your comments. It was not my intention to spiritualize the essential element in Canon 603 which requires "stricter separation from the world." However, I did want to indicate that this element has a primarily spiritual sense even for canonists, and thus too for Canon 603. I see this as a different matter than spiritualizing the term. In that context, "the world" is defined as "that which is not redeemed or open to the salvific action of Christ" (cf A Handbook on Canons 573-746, "Norms. . ." O'Hara, p 33) and I would add that it is also, "that which promises fulfillment or completion apart from him." In particular, the first problem I was trying to confront which created the context for some of my posts, was the situation involving a person who simply closes the hermitage door on everything outside this place and concludes that they have thus achieved stricter separation from the world. This is theologically and spiritually naive at best, and simply dishonest and even sacrilegious at worst. What is far more likely in such a situation is that the would-be hermit has shut the world securely in with her while the hermitage has become an outpost of "the world" of illusions, falsehood, and distortion in the process.
After all, in the act of closing the "hermitage" door in this specific way, one leaves one's own heart unchanged (and, as long as one embraces this perspective, unchangeable) to the extent she embraces falsehood in a foundational way! But the heart is precisely the first thing which requires attention. In its divisions, distortions, woundedness, and enmeshment, it is not only an instance of "the world," it is the source of all the rest of the distortion and illusion which represents "the world" more generally. In my view stricter separation from the world, then, is a way of speaking first of all about conversion of heart and the freedom from enmeshment in the the structures, behaviors, values, distorted relationships, etc, of reality which is resistant to Christ. It is a goal of eremitical life more than it is a means to that, though it will also necessarily include the means to that goal.
In monastic life this goal is usually referred to as conversatio morum --- a continuing conversion of self where one's heart is made whole and undivided and one's whole self is therefore made true and holy. I think this is truly the heart of the element of SSW referred to in the Canon. But, as just noted, SSW will also include and require the hermit to embrace the means to this goal. How could she not? One cannot allow oneself to be wholly embraced by God and embrace him in return if one cannot even hear his voice clearly. Far less can one do so if one is seduced by and entangled in other realities and will not or cannot let go of those. Neither (more about this in another post) can one see reality clearly for its essential goodness and potential, nor address it in a prophetic way if one is wholly enmeshed in it. One MUST step apart physically as well. Just as physical solitude is necessary to achieve the eremitical goal of the silence OF solitude, so too does the achievement of purity of heart and authentic humanity require physical separation from the ambiguities, distortions, and untruths of reality more generally. (This will mean physical separation even from much of what is good and holy as well. Partly this is a function of the ambiguity of reality; partly it is because the hermit witnesses to the priority of the reality and relationship which is the source and ground of every other reality and relationship, the One thing necessary, namely, God alone.)
But at the same time, just as we know that physical solitude per se is NOT the true goal of the Canon nor of eremitical life, neither is physical separation the goal or primary meaning of the term "stricter separation from the world." The problem on one hand is not to mistake the means (physical separation) for the goal (personal conversion and healing) nor on the other hand, as you say so well, to believe one can reach one's goal (personal conversion and union with God) by jettisoning essential means (physical separation). In the first instance the "hermitage" might well simply be the isolated residence of the unconverted misanthrope or failure at life --- and we know if it is to be worthy of the name "hermitage" it must not be this! In the second instance, we will find people completely immersed in the activities, relationships, structures, and rhythms of the world who simply call themselves "hermits". They will empty the terms hermitage and hermit of meaning because while they live a different kind of spirituality in the midst of everyday reality, they may merely consider the term eremitical "a metaphor for (their) lives" rather than a literal state and vocation to be lived out.
There were a couple of related problems I was also dealing with in regard to authentic versus false eremitical life in the posts which gave the impression I was spiritualizing stricter separation from the world and I will bring those up in another post. In the meantime I am very grateful for the comments which provided this opportunity to clarify my earlier remarks, and more importantly, the nature of eremitical separation from the world.
17 June 2011
[[Dear Sister, a blogger wrote about a passage from the Office of Readings recently from a letter to Diognetus. In applying what s/he read, s/he said, [[And others, including [name], have pondered the externals in our lives in Christ. What is written approximately 18 centuries ago, seems sound. It runs counter to the ways of some in our time who dress as religious of the past several centuries, or who live their lives being noticed and in opposition to the life and culture of their environment.
This reading promotes invaluable reflection. By blending in, and the religious life remaining hidden, we give Christ the glory of His due by being Christians living in the world, yet not of it. Is this another way of describing the life of the temporal Catholic world, the visible Church, the social Church, the noticed and distinctively unusual lives--outlandish, if truthful--of some religious solitaries and groups? We may then place this externally-noticed way beside the option of remaining in Christ in the mystery of His life among us and of us subsumed in His life: the mystical Catholic world, the interior Church, the spiritual world.]] (emphasis added) I wonder if you agree with this reading of the passage? Should Christians "Blend in"? How about hermits or solitaries?]]
I suppose the main problem I see with this analysis is that the Letter to Diognetus (at least the passage from the Office of Readings from about a month ago,@ p 840 of the Easter Season breviary) says nothing about Christians blending in, but rather is concerned with the exceptional and pervasive ways Christians stand out despite their normality. While the author makes clear that it is true they do not stand out because of what they wear for everyday things, or what they eat, or because they flout civil laws, fall into ecstasies in the midst of communal celebrations, or buy into a spirituality that is so other-worldly they cannot work for their livelihoods, it is also true that at every turn they are distinguished by the extraordinariness of their lives. They marry and have children, but they protect and honor those children; they do not expose them to the elements or to wild animals and therefore to death when they are unwanted or sickly. They love all men, with a preference for the weak and poor but are universally persecuted, etc. This too is something the author makes very clear.
Remaining in Christ and living in the world means that one will be noticed in one way and another --- at least it means that in "the world" which is essentially contrary and resistant to Christ. It is not necessarily contrary to [[...the option of remaining in Christ in the mystery of His life among us and of us subsumed in His life.]] This is so because life in Christ does not necessarily mean "hidden," nor does it mean working to blend in. Especially it does not mean buying wholeheartedly into one's culture, or refusing to be counter cultural! Emphatically not !!! (If one's culture is basically contrary and resistant to Christ then one has to be counter cultural in significant ways.) But the reason one is noticed, is not due to externals pointing to a disordered or fanatical life. Christianity is eccentric in the technical ("out of the center") sense of the word, not in the common sense of being crazy or bizarre. The author to the letter to Diognetus is concerned with establishing first of all how very normal in every way Christian life is, and for that reason how truly inexplicable the hatred with which Christians are met at every turn. He is absolutely not concerned with arguing that Christians should "blend in" so they are completely indistinguishable from anyone else.
The Paradox the Author is Dealing With
Instead, he wants people to know that Christians are good, even exemplary citizens with a higher moral code than many, and that they serve much as a soul to a body in their presence within their societies. At the same time the author says no one can explain the hatred experienced from both Jews and Greeks (i.e., every non-Christian), he points out that there is a clear reason for the hatred Christians experience; namely, Christians serve to judge the world and its disorder by placing restrictions on its activities just as the soul places a restriction on the body's pleasures. They are very much contrary to aspects of the dominant culture. Thus, the author of the letter is walking the fine line of paradox and indicating that precisely where Christians live completely normal, loving lives, they also live the most exceptional and provocative lives. They are like the soul in the body or like leaven in a loaf of bread, and to some extent they will be indistinguishable, but at the same time, they will stand out because their presence imparts a character to the whole which is undoubted and undeniable. The Christian's religious life is hidden (in the sense that s/he does not ordinarily stand on street corners praying in public, etc,) but it is also supremely perceptible in the way s/he lives.
The General Truth Today
In today's world it remains the case that Christians should be the soul of the body, that we should be primarily distinguishable because of God's love of us, and our love for God and one another. We must remain in Christ precisely so we serve as yeast for the dough, light in the darkness, salt or savor in the food of life, and so forth. This "being in the world but not of it" is the very essence of the lay vocation. But within Christianity, there are specific vocations which are defined even more intensely in terms of their counter cultural nature. The solitary or eremitical vocations the blogger refers to are among these, and these lives, unlike the lay vocation, are characterized precisely by their stricter separation from the world. They are meant to be counter cultural in almost every way I can think of. Is this unusual? Yes, and it is meant to be. Is it noticed? Yes --- even when hermits are unavailable to speak about their lives, this vocation is noticed in a general way.
Hermits live lives of essential hiddenness and stricter separation from the world in part so they may address the world in the same way prophets of old addressed their cultures and world --- to call these to their truest reality, to challenge them to conversion and fulfillment in Christ. A conscious (or self-conscious!) attempt to blend in, which seems to me to include something other than an honest or transparent living out of one's Christianity in the normal incarnational way life in Christ dictates, is very far from such a vocation. Understanding, empathy, compassion, and prophetic presence which are rooted in the Hermit's honest and loving solidarity with the humanity and situation of others are another matter. The hermit must be a convincing example of the latter without falling into the disingenuousness of the former. When Paul spoke of becoming all things to all people, for instance, I think this is what he was speaking of.
Solidarity and Christ-consciousness versus Estrangement and Self-Consciousness
What I am trying to say is there is a vast difference between fitting in because in one's basic Christianity one knows on a deep level how very like every other person one is, and therefore, truly belonging in any circumstance or set of circumstances, and trying to "blend in." The first is motivated by humility and carried along by one's genuine love of others. The second is too self-conscious and seems to me to not be motivated by humility or an honest love of others. Abba Motius of the Desert Fathers says it this way, "For this is humility: to see yourself to be the same as the rest." The first is marked by the freedom of the Christian, the second is marked by its lack. The first can and will go anywhere, but will go there as a Christian (including as a Christian hermit) with all the commitments and differences that ALSO entails, the second is less about being present to and for others, and is more concerned with being indistinguishable or blending in --- self-conscious motives, both of them. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
In my town we have a small restaurant, a converted house, which is a favorite of everyone from every strata of our generally (but not universally) affluent society. On any given weekday morning one may find, especially at some of the larger tables which seat ten or more, the mayor sitting elbow to elbow with the guy who picks up her garbage, the single mother who needs government to pay better attention to her needs, the businessman who regularly leaves a $50 tip, the college student who eats there for free because the owner doesn't want her sick or starving, along with the owner of one of the local (and national) sport franchises, et al. Conversations are not strained, nor are they meant to presume on others. They are simply human. Everyone belongs, no one tries to "blend in." If the college student tried to dress up, or the mayor to dress down, or the sanitation worker to do something similar, etc, then something crucial and crucially honest to this place would have been lost due to self-consciousness and a sense of difference, whether of superiority or inferiority. Residents of our town don't go here to blend in; instead we go here to relate and to be ourselves in a diverse environment. This restaurant is a gift to the community, and it allows the kind of presence the Christian is supposed to cultivate I think. When I eat here (unfortunately, very rarely these days!) I simply am who I am as well --- both in my more fundamental solidarity with others as well as in what distinguishes me. I think this is really what the author of the letter to Diognetus was talking about.
I hope this helps.
12 June 2011
Written Reflection for the End of the Parish School Year based on John 21:15-19:
How many of you have ever done something wrong, or hurt someone in a way which made you feel like you would or could never be forgiven or trusted again? Let me give you an example of how this happened in the life of a Sister friend of mine. Mary was about 12 or 13 years old and her parents had asked her to watch her younger sister.
She had other things she might have preferred to be doing, but she said sure, and the two of them went out to play. While Mary's little sister was swinging on a swing Mary looked away for just a moment and, in just that tiny space of time, her sister fell off the swing and struck her head on the concrete. It seemed like there was a lot of blood, and she was clearly hurt in a way a band-aid alone wouldn't fix! Mary's parents came out when Mary called. They did not yell or scold, but neither was there time to talk. Instead they whisked M's sister away to the hospital leaving Mary home alone with her fears and thoughts. You can imagine what was going on inside her: "She's going to die! People who are hurt badly enough to go to the hospital die!!", "Will mom and dad ever forgive me? How can they ever trust me again?" "Do I love my Sister? How could I let something like this happen to someone I really love??" "If she dies, my life will be all over!"
I am sure that Peter is probably feeling and thinking some of these same things in today's Gospel. Remember that the last time we hear much about Peter in John's Gospel before this it is around the time of the Last Supper, and Jesus' following arrest, trial and execution. Always full of bluster, and never really in touch with his own weaknesses, Peter is protesting that he will never betray Jesus, that he will follow him anywhere; that he'll even die for him if necessary, and when soldiers step forward to arrest Jesus, it is Peter who rushes forward to lop the ear off of one of them! But once Jesus is taken away, Peter is a different guy altogether. He skulks around the temple precincts trying to see what is happening to Jesus, but when people ask him three separate times if he is Jesus' disciple, he denies it. And when Jesus is crucified, Peter is off hiding with most of the other disciples so he won't also be arrested and killed (only the beloved disciple remained with Jesus, Mary, and the women). Peter could talk the talk, but, when left to himself, when Jesus was gone, he wasn't strong or courageous enough to walk the walk.
So, although Jesus has appeared several times to the disciples, this is the first time John tells us that he and Peter will talk face to face. Imagine the questions and concerns roiling or boiling around inside Peter's heart! "What does he want? What will he say?" "Does he want to tell me how awful my failure was, and how disappointed in me he was/is?" Does he want to explain how unworthy I am to be his disciple and a leader in his Church?" Will he tell me to just forget it! Oh I hope he doesn't say just forget it --- that would hurt even worse. He knows I can't do that, and besides it would feel like he was dismissing me as a person! I really hope he doesn't do that!" "Does he know how much I really do love him?" "Will he forgive me? Can he ever trust me again???
And Jesus, who knows Peter better than Peter knows himself asks him three times, one for each denial, "Do you love me Peter?" And Peter answers, quieter, humbler now, "You know Lord, that I love you!" Jesus' questions are not a test in the usual way we use that word. The only right answer is the truth. These questions remind Peter of his denials and all the fear, self-centeredness, need for self-preservation and failure that drove them, but they also help to put him in touch with something which is deeper and truer, something which is more real than these. They help Peter to get in touch with his deeper self, the one God calls him to be, the one who is capable of generosity and empathy and compassion, and who really does love Jesus and others more than himself. Each time Peter answers from this deeper place, Jesus entrusts him with a charge or responsibility: "Feed my Lambs, Tend my lambs, Feed my Sheep!" He doesn't shame Peter. Neither does he treat his denials and failure as though they never happened. They were real and they mark him the same as Jesus' wounds mark his own hands, feet, and side, But Jesus empowers him to move beyond them. This is how Jesus forgives. This is how he creates a future for us.
My friend's parents did something very similar. When they returned home from the hospital with Mary's sister, stitched up and bandaged, they let Mary touch her, and kiss her. Then they asked her a couple of questions: "Did you do the best you could do?" Do you love your sister?" And Mary answered yes to both questions, but with the second one she added: "I thought I loved her but now, after all this, I know how much I REALLY do love her!!" Then her parents reminded her that they were going to need to go away in two more weekends, and they wondered if Mary would be okay to take care of her sister for them. Once again she answered yes, yes to her love, yes to her parents and sister, yes to the future.
Here at the end of the school year we should hear the same questions that Peter did. Do you love me?? Perhaps we have not been always been great friends. Maybe there have been times we have been thoughtless, or selfish, or insensitive to the needs of our friends. Perhaps we have not been the best classmates. Maybe we have bullied others or laughed at them because in some way they are different than we are. Maybe we formed exclusive cliques and shut others out, or otherwise acted or spoke at the expense of another's dignity. Perhaps we have not been the best sons and daughters and failed to listen to or respect our parents. But as we hear the same questions, so too should we hear the same commissioning Peter heard: Feed my Sheep! Jesus knows we are better than this; that deep down we are simply awesome, and so, as he did with Peter, he calls us all to grow into that --- and some of us he just plain calls to grow up --- to take care of the least and the weakest as he does us --- the least and the weakest.
At the end of the Gospel today Jesus tells Peter that when he was younger he could go anywhere he liked, but now that he is older, someone will gird or dress him and lead him where he would rather not go. Today, you sit here in your Summer clothes, all set to have a great vacation from school. Your teachers, your pastor, and all the parish staff all hope you will have a terrific time, full of fun and a different kind of learning. But come September, we will ask you to put your St P's uniforms back on, and leave your younger, less mature selves behind while you to step up to even greater challenges, even more responsibility, and show us your better, truer selves. We know you are capable of this. We trust that you are each capable of fulfilling Jesus' charge to "Feed my Lambs, Tend my Sheep. Feed my Sheep." We know that you will return to us ready and eager not only to talk the talk but to walk the walk of the community leaders and disciples of Christ you truly are.
06 June 2011
[[Sr. Laurel, I see that you and other hermits often speak of living lives of prayer and penance. Can you explain more about what penance means to you: why we do it; what it's for; what it consists of. What are right and wrong attitudes toward penitential practices? I have read what you have said in several places about the meaning of suffering and of chronic illness. Is there a place within those circumstances where penance functions?]]
As usual, great questions. The question of penance, especially on inappropriate or false forms of penance has come up here before so please check some of the labels in the column to the right. Still, it has been some time since I have posted on this so let me reiterate some of it, and also some of what I have written in my own Rule. As you well note, diocesan hermits are indeed bound to a life of "assiduous prayer and penance" so one hopes they have a fair idea of what this term of Canon 603 means! I will make this a pretty general answer, so if it raises more specific questions you can get back to me with those.
Prayer and Penance are Linked
I think the first thing one must realize is that prayer and penance are intimately linked; they are related to one another in an integral and profound way. Penance functions to support and facilitate prayer, while prayer, and especially a life of prayer, requires penance if it is to be authentic and achieve depth or breadth in one's life. In other words, we undertake penance so that we may become people of prayer, and in fact, that we may become instances of prayer in our world. In my Rule I define penance as, "Any practice which assists in achieving, regularizing, integrating, deepening and extending our openness and responsiveness to God through the deprivation and death of the false self and attention to the genuine needs and growth of our true selves in Christ. While prayer corresponds, in part, to those deep moments of victory God achieves within me, and includes my grateful response, penance is that Christian and more extended form of disciplined "festivity" implicating that victory in the whole of life, and preparing for the fulfillment which is to be accomplished only with the coming of the Kingdom in fullness."
In the eremitical life, every hermit finds that solitude itself and all that entails is a primary form of penance --- even if temperamentally they are introverts. Solitude means not merely physical aloneness. It also means being alone WITH God and FOR others. Stricter separation from the world (i.e., from that which is resistant and antithetical to Christ), silence (both inner and outer), fidelity to the regularity and even the tedium of solitary life, and rejection of the distractions which surround or are available to most people all the time, are forms of penance. The inner work (battling with personal demons, falsehoods, compulsions, and distortions!) which silence and solitude lead to and demand is a form of penance, as is simplicity in all things. These are the most basic or foundational elements of the eremitical life which are penitential in and of themselves, and --- though this will be true in different ways and degrees --- I think they will be foundational in any disciplined spiritual life. Penance, after all is meant to assist in prayer, and in dying to self, so anything which contributes to these may be seen as penitential or forms of penance.
Thus too, I would include any forms of personal or inner work needed to deal with the false self we have developed throughout our lives (journaling, PRH -- a particular form of this work --- counseling (if needed), spiritual direction, etc) as part of a legitimate penitential life. I think this is true for anyone, hermit or non-hermit. For most people this would mean (to some extent certainly) turning off the TV, unplugging the phone and computer, committing to and maintaining a regular prayer life, creating an environment of simplicity and silence which contributes to listening to God in the depths of one's heart, and then submitting to spiritual direction or other forms of assistance which help in the accomplishment of the death of the false self and the coming to abundant life of the true self. It will mean, as part of creating and maintaining this environment of attentiveness and simplicity, some degree of fasting (or certainly a practice of mindful eating!), and so too, the disciplined use (or discriminating rejection) of the plethora of things the world offers us as fulfilling. All of these are essential to the eremitical life and I think they are required to some degree by any sound spiritual life, and all of these things may be considered penitential
The second thing I think we should understand and appreciate then is the way penance is linked with a way of life. For hermits, it is the life itself which is penitential. A hermit, for instance, does not merely build in or incorporate occasional, much less arbitrary penances any more than she merely builds in occasional silences or occasional solitude --- though she will add or intensify expressions of these elements from time to time as a way of contributing to an organic whole. Penitential living is a way of living a spiritually healthy life so the focus of everything one does and is is on living in Christ, not on "doing penances" per se. Because of this, many things we might not have considered penance or penitential really are such: maintaining regularity and balance in one's schedule and order in one's living space, being attentive to physical and emotional needs in an ongoing and thoroughgoing way, maintaining a disciplined and measured approach to work, recreation, relationships, etc, will be part of a truly penitential life.
Similarly, then, many things we might have thought to undertake as penances will not be authentically penitential not only because they are 1) arbitrary (which means they are not integral to one's OWN life of prayer), but 2) because they do not contribute to an authentically human life which is reverent, attentive, discerning, and ordered. Instead they may even contribute to or intensify the falsifications and distortions which are already part of our broken and alienated selves. It is this dimension which your question raises when you ask about proper and improper attitudes towards penance. We are not meant to be about hurting ourselves, playing the ascetic athlete, or buying into notions of penance which are nothing more than thinly veiled attempts to control God and our relationship with God, exercises of pride, self-hatred, disdain for God's good creation, or sado-masochism. While our penance serves to underscore our frailty and complete dependence upon God, we are meant to grow as human beings through our penance; that is, we are meant to develop our capacities for discernment, reverence, compassion, humility, generosity, gratitude and selflessness through our ascetical undertakings. They, therefore should not narrow much less diminish us as human beings, nor contribute to qualities within us that are less than human.
Suffering, Chronic Illness, and Penance
Regarding suffering, chronic illness, and penance, yes, penance has a very real place in living with and through these, but it may look differently than many expect. In the main, living with and even through these realities applies all the things I have said up until now. For instance, fasting (or certainly attentive eating) when one has hypoglycemia or diabetes will look vastly different than when one is healthy. The same is true of anorexia and bulimia --- and these provide a really vivid example of the difference between authentic and inauthentic approaches to penance. Maintaining an ordered life and environment may be very difficult when one has an unpredictable neurological disorder. Chronic pain may require regular narcotic analgesia in order for the person to function well, much less to pray regularly and deeply and participate appropriately in the life of their faith community. A regular schedule of sleeping and rising, or of work, recreation, and exercise may be the most penitential thing someone suffering from clinical depression can do for themselves, especially when combined with regular medication and therapy. (For some sufferers of clinical depression, just getting out of bed each day may be a profoundly penitential reality!)
For any form of chronic illness or suffering, finding and implementing ways of combating self-pity, hopelessness, or a sense that life is not worth living can be central penitential practices. This might include any practice which puts the focus on others and the gift they are for us; it might mean cleaning the house regularly, doing laundry routinely, refusing to leave dishes sitting in the sink (or elsewhere), making our beds, getting out for walks, cultivating a hobby, working one day a week in a soup kitchen or hospital, getting to Mass more frequently, or volunteering to contact and assist people who are sicker than we are to whatever degree we are able, etc. It will also mean the inner work I mentioned above. When God is truly victorious in our lives we live fully. This does not mean lives of superfluity, but neither does it mean an austerity or enthrallment with pain which makes these rather than genuine living the focus of our efforts. Penance gives grace and God's future a chance in our lives in the present and that is the perspective I think we must cultivate no matter our circumstances.