08 July 2011

More On Spiritualizing "Stricter Separation from the World"

In an earlier post (June 25,2011), I explained that I had not intended to spiritualize the essential element in Canon 603 known as "stricter separation from the world." In the first place I was trying to counter a rather common misconception in eremitical life, and especially the eremitical life of beginners, namely, that "the world" can be hypostatized or treated as a wholly separate reality external to the hermitage. When this occurs one hears hermits (or monastics more generally) speaking as though the hermitage or monastery is not an instance of the world, while condemning everything outside the cell, hermitage, or monastery as "worldly". We have all heard monastics say, "When I left the world" --- speaking about entering the monastery --- or, "Brother so and so has returned to the world" --- speaking about leaving monastic life, etc. Only when very carefully explained can these statements cease to mislead us into thinking of "out there" -- the everyday world -- as "the world."

But, in Scripture and in theological reflection on everyday spatio-temporal reality, "the world" is a polyvalent or tensive symbol --- a symbol which has several meanings which create tension between them --- which includes God's good creation as well as that which resists Christ. It also refers to the sinful human heart which is equally ambiguous. Because of this, the notion that one can simply close the monastery or hermitage door on "the world" is false, a distortion of reality, and in affirming this fundamental untruth one actually makes of the hermitage an outpost of that which is resistant to Christ. Because of this, I stressed that the term "Stricter separation from the world," as Canon 603 uses the term, was primarily about the state of the individual heart and its conversion, and only secondarily (though necessarily!) about physical separation from significant aspects of reality.

Abdicating our Responsibility to Discern the Incarnate God's Presence in Everyday Life

There were two other reasons I stressed the spiritual dimension of this term as well. Both are related to hypostatizing "the world" and treating it as "that which is outside the hermitage or monastery." In the first one, what we find is that when one forgets about the ambiguity of reality and embraces such an unnuanced perspective, one abdicates one's responsibility to discern what is of God and what is not. One rejects everything as "the world" in the pejorative sense of the term, (i.e., that which is resistant to Christ) when in fact much of what one is thus rejecting is good, beautiful, true, and more than capable of mediating God's presence and summoning to holiness. This affects the soundness of one's spirituality on every level. It fosters dangerous judgments about what is possible outside the monastery (for instance that holiness is not possible out in the everyday world, that lay life is an inferior form of vocation, that the ordinary affairs of people are necessarily distractions from genuinely spiritual life and divide the human heart, etc, etc).

It can lead to notions of contemplative life which are insensitive to and unappreciative of God's presence in significant ways; it can lead to notions of spirituality rooted in an anti-pleasure principle and overly dependent on pain and other forms of unpleasantness (if food is unpalatable eat it, if pleasant avoid it; if something is beautiful eschew it, if it is gratifying to the other senses, reject it, etc, etc). This all seems to me to be counter to the truth of the Incarnation: namely, that God comes to us in everyday reality and asks us to recognize and affirm him there rather than being scandalized by his presence in life's ordinariness.

The Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat Applied to this Situation

It also seems to me that Jesus' parable of the weeds and the wheat speaks to this situation very pointedly. We must not precipitously and simply attempt to pull up the weeds as though they are clearly evident and wholly separate from the wheat. In fact, this is simply not so, and we cannot see clearly enough to do this. Discernment and patience are necessary. We must live with ambiguity because otherwise we will certainly throw out some plants that actually witness to and mediate the presence of God to nourish us. More, we must allow God to clarify our own vision and hearts through all of this. Stricter physical separation from much of the ambiguity is necessary, but the hermit must always remember that "the world" Canon 603 inveighs against is a function first of all of the human heart, and it is this which is the source of our world's ambiguity.

Let me give one example of the way Jesus' parable might work with regard to conversation with others, for instance. I have spoken with a person who wishes to be a hermit who refuses to speak of anything but "spiritual matters" with those she meets. What qualifies as spiritual is God, Christ, the Saints, spiritual books (19th C or earlier --- nothing contemporary!), monastic values, etc. All other topics have been torn out at the roots, so to speak. The result, of course, is not only a loss of friends, but the very matter in and through which God reveals himself. Everything is abstracted from the concrete, and thus, rendered empty. For instance, while one can speak of love, hope, holiness, etc, one cannot speak of the nitty gritty situations, relationships, and daily struggles which give rise to these as concerns, questions, problems, etc.

Karl Barth once referred to religious discourse of this sort, especially in terms of preaching the Gospel without either listening or responding to the every day lives and questions of those to whom the preacher is speaking. It is akin to throwing a rock into a lake. It profoundly disturbs the surface of the pool and immediately sinks to the bottom; it makes ripples, the ripples spread, die away quickly, and everything is left as before --- except that now religion seems to be extraneous and even irrelevant to every day life while the Gospel is seen as incapable of speaking in an effective way to people who use non-religious language. But of course, this is what the incarnation never allows us to do. In Christ our God uses a new and scandalous form of discourse; he comes to us PERSONALLY in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. He comes to understand our situation intimately from the inside out and he redeems us in the same way. He loves, not abstractly, but concretely. The Word he speaks to us is his own self, but it addresses our deepest needs and desires, in whatever way and language we use to pose them. If we forget this, we may well forget ourselves to listen to the person's own spiritual language, classify it as "the world," and tear up the wheat along with the weeds, long before it is able to produce fruit. This is a serious problem with those who tend to hypostatize the term "the world" as this person does.

Abdicating our Responsibility to Speak Prophetically to our World by Hypostatizing "the World"

The second problem I wanted to deal with is intimately related to this. It had to do with the responsibility of the hermit to speak prophetically to the world outside the hermitage. While the prophet certainly summons to repentance, more fundamentally that repentance is a way of affirming the deeper truth and potential of reality. It is meant to recall the world which has moved from God, and therefore to fragmentation, incompleteness, and bondage,  and draw it into true freedom in God. The hermit separates herself from the world to some extent so that she may see it clearly, and address it honestly from a perspective of relative spiritual freedom from entanglements and enmeshment in that which is resistant to Christ or contrary to true dependence upon God. The desert is not so much a destination as it is a context which allows the hermit to achieve freedom and then to summon the rest of reality to the same freedom. Hermits journey for many years in the desert, but the purpose is not only the purification of the hermit's own heart, but a return in some appropriate way to that which was left behind so that it can be loved to wholeness and reminded of its truest destiny.

When the hermit hypostatizes the world so that everything outside the hermitage is treated as though it is sinful, false, distorted, and estranged from God without also being ambiguous and so, true, beautiful, valuable, and capable of mediating God's very self to us, there ceases to be any reason to return to that world with the message of the Kingdom. We are unable to return to the world with the Gospel message and a purified heart which allows us to call the world to fulfillment not only because we treated "the world" as that which was outside us, but because we refused to see its potentialities --- the fact that it is ALSO God's good creation meant to be reconciled and brought to fulfillment as the new heaven and earth spoken of in Scripture.

The hermit does not turn her back on "the world." She attends to "the world" with and in the love of God, first as she discovers that love in the conflicted and fragmented space of her own heart, her own personal center, and then, by finding ways to address "the world" as it exists outside of herself with the hope she comes to know and embody in the silence of solitude. She learns to see what is real, what is true, what is beautiful, what is holy in everyday reality. She learns to see not only the distortion and untruth but also the potential hidden in that reality just as she learned to discern and accept the distortions and potential in her own heart. In so doing, God is allowed to bring reality to perfection and fullness.

So, again, I had no intention of spiritualizing c 603's requirement of stricter separation from the world. Physical separation is essential, but again it is meant to serve what is primary: the personal healing and sanctification of the hermit's own self, a freeing from enmeshment in "the world" precisely so she may serve reality in sympathetic detachment and prophetic presence. Once again, many thanks to the diocesan hermit/friend who raised the question!