26 October 2012

Appreciating the Charism of Diocesan Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister, I can see why Bishops might choose to profess an individual who is not really a hermit and ask questions like, "Besides, who will it hurt?" Isn't it more important to deal pastorally with the individual than to be concerned with an abstract idea of a vocation? If a person wants to serve God and do it as a "hermit", why shouldn't he be allowed to do this? I really don't see who it would hurt. After all hermits don't minister to people and are shut away from contact. Isn't this up to Bishops to decide?]]

Thanks for your questions. I am linking this post to another one on the charism of the diocesan hermit and the relation of the life to the exaggerated individualism and narcissism of our culture. I don't want to repeat everything I have already said there so please click on the title of this post to be taken to that one for further reading.

The Charism of Solitary Eremitical Life

In attempting to clarify why I am not speaking about a mere abstraction but rather concrete circumstances where the eremitical vocation is particularly effective and redemptive perhaps I should restate what the charism or gift quality of the solitary diocesan hermit is to her parish, diocese, and the church and world at large. I tend to point to the canon 603 essential element, "the silence of solitude" as that unique gift. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, we in the first world live in a culture of exaggerated individualism and narcissism. While people living in community combat this problem by their accent on community life and its importance in authentic humanity, hermits participate in this "battle" in their own way, namely by living a life of "the silence of solitude." Eremitical solitude is not about living alone, but living alone WITH God and FOR others. It emphasizes and reveals that human beings are not made to live individualistic or narcissistic lives but instead are completed by God and called to give their lives FOR others. Eremitical solitude is a paradoxical reality and a gift to a world disintegrating under the influence of individualism, narcissism, and a notion of freedom which really means the license to do anything one wants without regard to (or for) others.

Secondly, we live in a world where people live longer, where consumerism and productivity are the major markers of the supposed meaningfulness and value of one's life. Often then people in such a culture have lost (or never had) a sense of the meaningfulness of their lives apart from work, family, etc. Some are bereaved, some are chronically ill, some are isolated elderly, some are prisoners, etc. Hermits do not buy into the consumerist, productivity-as-measure-of value perspectives. At the same time they are physically as isolated as any of the people mentioned above. What is different is that they say with their lives that meaningfulness is a function of one's relation to God and that they are infinitely precious because God holds them to be precious. Through the grace of God the hermit's life takes physical isolation and transforms it into solitude ---- a communal or dialogical reality measured in terms of relationship with God. The experience of eremitical solitude is the experience of meaning, completion, and authentic humanity which is capable of giving to others. Not least, hermits say to people that the redemption of isolation is possible and that even those who cannot compete as consumers or "producers" can live incredibly meaningful and generous lives which contribute to the well-being of society.

Thirdly we live in a world of unrelenting, ubiquitous noise. People not only don't know what silence is, they fear it, think it unnatural, and avoid it at all costs. Most people believe that silence means turning off the TV while listening to an iPod or something similar. Businesses deal with noise by overlaying it with another layer of noise; office buildings pipe in music meant to soothe and distract from silence but also to distract from the constant noise. The problem with this, however, is that unless we have silence in our lives we never learn to truly listen --- especially to the voice of God in our hearts. Articulate speech requires silence, music requires silence if it is not to be mere noise, and human beings require silence if they are to come to the full articulation of selfhood. Hermits attest to the fullness of silence and the silence of solitude.

As I have written before, [[As a hermit I am not silent (or solitary) for instance, because woundedness and pain have rendered me mute and cut off from others, but because silence and solitude are the accompaniment and context for profound speech and articulateness. Silence is part of the music of being loved completely by God; it is a piece of allowing the separate notes of one's life to sound fully, but also to be connected to one another so that noise is transformed into a composition worthy of being heard and powerful and true enough to be inspiring to others. It is an empowered silence and solitude, the silence of solitude, which finds its source in God's love and reflects relatedness to God and others at its very core. Something similar could be said of all of the elements which comprise the life described in Canon 603. The eremitical life, especially in its freedom, is one of relatedness and love in all of its dimensions.]]

Hermits know all of this because, by the grace of God, they live it daily. They live the physical solitude of eremitical life without significant  distraction. They live the silence of others' absence, for instance, and discover it leads to a world of amazing presence --- the presence of God in the ordinary and in their own hearts. They say with their own lives that each person is infinitely valuable, that life is hopeful, no matter the stage or conditions which mark or mar it. Thus, hermits commit to living their vowed lives of stricter separation from the world, assiduous prayer and penance, and the silence of solitude under the supervision of the diocesan Bishop and those he appoints as delegates precisely as a significant gift (charisma) God has given to his Church and world. Unless one sees the gift this life is, they will not appreciate it or live it with integrity.

Professing Individuals Who are not Hermits and Will not live Eremitical Life

However, if one DOES understand the gift this life is, they will not profess those who  are not called to live this precise gift. Everyone can learn to tolerate and many even to love silence, but very few are called on to live the gift of eremitical "silence of solitude." To profess those who are not called to this is to short-circuit their own true vocations --- the paths they are summoned to embrace to become fully and authentically human. Eremitical solitude is especially dangerous here since so few are called to authentic humanity in this way.  Those who may be newly bereaved, or yet significantly psychologically wounded, or chronically ill and still needing to deal effectively with this reality will find that eremitical solitude demands more than they are capable of giving at this particular time. Solitude is often needed in all of these situations but ordinarily it is solitude as transitional reality, solitude preparing the way for a reinvigorated or reinvented way of relating to others in more ordinary community. Again, to profess such persons prematurely and with inadequate time and discernment will not serve them well and could be damaging. In any case, I would dispute that there is anything truly pastoral about doing so.

And of course professing those without an authentic call to eremitical solitude means professing those whose lives will not be able to witness effectively to the gift which the silence of solitude really is to the isolated and marginalized of our world. There are such inauthentic vocations today: "hermits" who watch hours of TV in order to distract themselves from illness and isolation; "hermits" who really want to be living in community and ministering full time and whose "solitude" and life of "assiduous prayer and penance" is lived out mainly with a desert day per week; and so forth. To whom do these lives effectively speak? Certainly not to the persons mentioned in the section above this one. It is arrogance and presumption to think that such lives can be called "eremitical". Professing inauthentic vocations may well involve the person professed in a life of hypocrisy, failure, and even therefore, significant sin. More, far from serving God, it is a disservice to God, to the vocation itself, and to those who need the gift of the "silence of solitude" because they live full time lives of isolation to call such vocations "eremitical." In an individualistic and narcissistic world such professions only extend and intensify the reign of individualism and narcissism within the very vocation meant to stand clearly against them. In short it is a betrayal of God, of God's own gift to Church and world and, at least potentially, hurts many people! This is hardly a pastoral approach to the matter nor to the person seeking to be admitted to profession.

The Ministry of the Hermit

While it is true that diocesan hermits do only some limited ministry outside the hermitage (if they do any at all), their lives are a ministry. Eremitical ministry is not so much about what one does as who one is in and with and through God in the silence of solitude. It is not true to suggest that professing people without an authentic vocation will not matter much because hermits are shut away. To the degree they are separated from others their lives MUST still speak to others effectively and faithfully --- especially to those who are themselves isolated in some way. This is an integral part of a vocation: God calls, we answer with our profession and lives, and God through his Church commissions us to minister in his name and the name of the Church.

Are Bishops the ones who ultimately determine the matter of who is professed in their dioceses? Yes, but they do so within the constraints of the Canon (603), and the eremitical tradition --- which includes the life experience of contemporary hermits who truly help clarify the nature and establish the limits of the vocation in the contemporary world. Bishops are required to listen carefully to these, to discern carefully with regard to an individual seeking profession under canon 603, to have a clear sense of the gift or charisma this vocation is and to whom, and only then to make decisions which respect all of these elements. Bishops especially cannot disregard any of these elements and simply use the canon as a stopgap means to profess an individual who cannot be professed in any other way, who simply desires it for inadequate reasons (wearing a habit, being a Religious, using a title, validating a failed or merely isolated life, etc), or who wishes to use this profession as an entrance into consecrated life so s/he can then do something else with that life (like founding a community, gaining access to ministries she might not have had access to otherwise, etc). Allowing such professions would actually be a betrayal of the Bishop's own commission to seek out, protect, and nurture new forms of consecrated life --- at least if new means something more than novel, transitory, and disedifying.

I  hope this helps.

 [permanent link to this post: Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Appreciating the Charism of Diocesan Eremitical Life]