25 September 2012

Importance of Spiritual Direction for Hermits

[[Dear Sister Laurel, How important is it for a hermit to have a spiritual director? How do I find one? Can I work with one online? Also, will a diocese profess me without one? I am a hermit  by which I mean I live alone and avoid people, but I do not have a director; neither have I worked with one before. My parish priest hears my confessions but he says this is not the same as spiritual direction and has suggested that if I am serious about being a hermit that I get a spiritual director. He said to check out your blog and see what I thought. He also encourages me to get more involved in parish activities and relationships with people in the parish. Would a spiritual director help me decide about these kinds of things?]]

Stillsong Hermitage Oratory
Hi there,
      First, my thanks to your parish priest for recommending this blog to you. I think you will find a lot of material that will be helpful on your journey, whether or not you ever live as a lay or consecrated hermit --- or even if you continue simply to live alone. Check out the labels in the upper right hand column and you should find stuff of interest. If not, do as you have already done and email me with your questions.

For the Hermit Spiritual Direction is Indispensible

      Second though, your questions. A good spiritual director is critical even indispensable to a hermit. No diocese will profess you without one, and more than that, no diocese is apt to treat your petition to be recognized as a hermit and admitted to canonical profession seriously without a history of spiritual direction and a recommendation from your director --- and rightly so. When living in eremitical solitude, especially as a solitary hermit, there are so many ways things can go awry that a good director really is necessary. After all, the human heart is an ambiguous, complex reality. By definition it is the place where God bears witness to himself, but it is also a wilderness where one battles with demons --- the demons of anger, jealousy, fear, bitterness, resentment, boredom or acedia, etc, etc that can truly defile. A director can be immensely helpful in all of this, and in assisting us to grow into persons of authentic and profound love and sanctity. Similarly one needs to negotiate the shifts that come with prayer, and  discern the significant decisions which need to be made regarding what one is called to in this area or that. For instance, you speak of avoiding people and living alone; a good director can help you determine the authentically eremitical motives for these things and tease apart the more unworthy reasons we may live alone or avoid people. She can assist you in discovering the difference between eremitical solitude and simply living alone as well; together over time you can discern what it is God is truly calling you to whether than means how you personally will live eremitical life authentically or something else entirely.

Finding a Director

      Regarding finding a director and working with one online, let's start with finding one. My suggestion is to speak to people in your parish and diocese who are already working with a spiritual director and ask them about who that is. Most Sisters have directors, many priests do as well while many Sisters as well as some priests do direction. (It is not the same as hearing confession as your pastor clearly understands.) Retreat Houses in your area will know of some directors and may even have one or two on the premises. Your chancery office may have a list of directors in the diocese --- though I have found these are not always kept up to date. Another source of listings in your area is Spiritual Directors International. Not every director belongs (usually because of the annual fee) but you will get a good listing of folks who fit the bill in your area so it can be a jumping off point. Finally, if you have any seminaries or theological schools in your area most programs in pastoral theology or ministry require students to have a director so you can always check with  them and see if they have a list of prospects. You will especially want a director who is knowledgeable about contemplative prayer and life (they do not need to be contemplatives but they need to be contemplative prayers), and knowledgeable about the difference between eremitical solitude and simply living alone. Some background in psychology is helpful as well. If you are considering becoming a diocesan hermit they should also have some background in formation and what it means to live the vows. What is most important is that they be persons of prayer in spiritual direction themselves; access to a supervisor is also very helpful.

On Working with Someone by Phone or Skype

Sisters of Bethlehem
        I do not recommend working with a director online or by email and to be very honest, unless the director is very well-known and regarded by competent directors, I would personally distrust them if they accepted clients online except in the most carefully judged exceptions. I will say that this is especially true if the person they are working with is a "hermit" or desires to be a hermit. Spiritual Direction is a particularly intimate and intense relationship which requires face to face meetings whenever that is possible. While this is a help to the director it is far more important to the directee who really does deserve the best such a relationship can be.

While I have some clients I work with by phone or skype when people live a distance from me, I also tend to require regular face to face meetings whenever they can be arranged. That means traveling here for these clients, but I have found it is an important and even necessary arrangement. Occasionally I will accept a client for phone or skype-only meetings, but that person will have a history of  receiving spiritual direction somewhere in their ongoing formation and be clearly able to benefit from the relationship even without face to face meetings. Sometimes I have clients that move out of the area; usually it seems a good idea to continue working together and we do that via skype or phone; it tends to work better than with someone I don't know except through skype, for instance, because we already know each other well. In working with persons who desire to be hermits it is, I would argue, even more important for face to face meetings, as well as meetings in the hermit's own hermitage from time to time. Directing a hermit candidate is a bit trickier in some ways until the relationship is well-established so I especially recommend these folks find a director in their own region or area and take the necessary time to build the relationship.

The Need for Friendship and Parish Involvement

        It is interesting that your priest suggests you get more involved in the parish and in relationships there. Since he has read my blog it sounds like he might regard the eremitical vocation and reject some of the common stereotypes hermits fall prey to. If this is so it means his suggestions could be very well taken. In contrast to some stereotypes solitary hermits need friendships and solid relationships with their own parishes and members thereof. This does not mean they can be with their friends as often as they would like or invite them over to the hermitage more than occasionally (though hospitality remains a desert value which must be honored), but it does mean that eremitical life is a healthy, loving, full life in God and for that reason being an integral part of the parish, even if one is rarely present beyond Mass, is important for the hermit and for the parish. In other words,  misanthropes and curmudgeons need not apply!! I would suggest you speak with your pastor about why it is he has made his suggestion. If he has a real appreciation of the vocation and concerns about your own tendency to "avoid people" as you put the matter, I think you should listen to him. I know that for me personally, the description re "avoiding people" is a red flag. It is about the negative or peripheral rather than the positive or central dimensions of the life. But I don't know you at all and this is a blog, so at this point your comment is merely a red flag, nothing more than that.

        Working with a spiritual director would indeed help you to discern what is going on in your own life and heart and also how it is God is calling you to serve him and those he loves and considers precious. It may be that you are called to eremitical life and to all that involves (including relationships, parish life, and a solitude which is rich with the Word and life of God. It may simply be that solitude for you is a transitional phase of your life; if so working with a director will help you move through this phase creatively and in a way which witnesses to the grace of God. By all means, take your pastor's advice and talk to him frankly about his own perceptions. You need not agree completely but they will factor into your own discernment and your work with your director.