13 August 2013

Formation as a Means to Freedom

[[Dear Sister Laurel, another poster mentioned that maybe Jesus is calling hermit without formation. Isn't it kind of outrageous to demand a significant degree of formation for the freest [most free] vocation known? Aren't you asking for more than Jesus asks?]]

In a word, no; I don't think so. We are each called to discipleship, to sell what we "have" (or what "has us"!), to prioritize every relationship and to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. This is true whether we are called to be hermits, cenobites, priests, married, single, or whatever. We are called to live from and for the Gospel, to inculcate the values of the Kingdom, to embrace the radically counter cultural and reject individualism, commercialism, and every other false "god" or ideology our society (and our hearts) have created. We are each called to become men and women of prayer, penance, compassion, and service to others. We are called to become profoundly human; that is, we are called to become persons who are wholly transparent to the glory (revelation) of God --- persons who allow God to love us exhaustively and express our gratitude and joy for this as fully as possible in our love for others. None of this is a matter simply of catechesis or book learning.

For the disciples this becoming occurred in encounters with and in the company of Jesus --- as it must do for us as well. The Christ we meet, however, comes to us in all the ways he has come to hermits throughout the centuries: in the sacraments, in lectio, in contemplative and liturgical prayer, in solitary intellectual and manual work, in solitary leisure and in the personal work these and spiritual direction occasion. Our estrangement from God, self, and others means that none of this is "natural" for us;  none of this is achieved without formation.

Freedom and License are antithetical realities:

Freedom is not the same thing as license. One of the most serious errors I hear people making today is equating these two things when they are really opposites in most ways. While it is true that eremitical freedom is one of the most remarked on qualities of the life, this has always meant the freedom to respond to God as God wills. It has never referred to the notion of doing whatever one likes whenever one likes to do it. I have written here a number of times that authentic freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be. That is, freedom is a capacity to hear and respond fully and appropriately to the will and voice of God in our lives. But developing this capacity obviously takes formation. It requires self-discipline, clarity about who we are and who God is (especially on the basis of the Jesus' revelation of him and the Gospel),  and it requires real time and leisure for listening to God's Word as well as the capacity to commit to this in all the ways it is mediated to us in the eremitical life. Again this all requires and presupposes formation.

You see, most people who write me about eremitical life are clear that they would like to listen to God's voice more wholeheartedly but only in terms of the life they are already living --- they are open to "tweaking" it a little here or there. Only one or two have been clear that eremitical life really requires changing one's life in all the truly radical ways necessary so that God's Word or Voice is mediated to them constantly, especially in and for the silence of solitude. (Remember that the silence of solitude is not only the environment in which this is achieved, but the means and goal of the hermit's life as well.) The symbol of this is the giving over of one's own home to eremitical life (not to eremitical life-lite much less to some form of pious individualism). This idea of giving our very residences over to God in this way so that everything we do or have becomes a piece of the life of the silence of solitude, so that everything is drawn into God's mediatory activity and is capable of revealing God to us, so that everything becomes Eucharistic requires periods of transition. More, it requires that one comes over time to understand the choice that involved when one proposed to become a hermit; additionally it requires the time and training necessary to be made ready to make such a choice, and then, of course, the ability to really do so.

St Peter Damian and the Hermit as Ecclesiola:

I have written here before about the linkage between Peter Damian's notion of the hermit as an "ecclesiola" --- a litte church --- and the homily my Bishop (Archbishop Vigneron) gave at my perpetual profession. It was there that I first heard the  reference to giving over one's entire house. Partly because it had been some time since I could simply "take the train home from work" and leave all that "behind me" and partly because I no longer thought of my own place as an "apartment", it took some time for me to fully appreciate the depth of Bp Vigneron's insight here. What I mean is I could not hear at that moment how striking and radical this image for the commitment I was making actually was. I have also written about the change that must come about for a beginner in this life --- namely, that they must transition from being a lone person to being a hermit in some essential way. In such a context, the idea of giving over one's entire home  assumes a very striking and challenging import.

You may have seen comments, for instance, by a person who was trying to "balance hermit things with worldly things" I noted several years ago. I have heard this difficulty more than once and dealt with it myself. It indicates to me that the person had not yet made the transition from being a lone person living in an apartment (for instance), to being a hermit who lives in a hermitage in some truly essential sense. Signs that one has made such a transition include: 1) a radical break with one's former life (if one does some of the same things one now does them from a radically different perspective and in a different way), 2) a movement from living in solitude because it is required by circumstances to living in solitude because it is truly one's own way to wholeness and holiness (the circumstances may not change but they are now a subtext rather than the defining reality of one's life), 3) a transition from concern with whether or not this latter element (chronic illness, for instance) has merely forced one into solitariness and is an inadequate reason for embracing eremitical life, to living it because it is also, and more importantly, a gift to others which glorifies (reveals) God most fully through one's own life. The hermit may certainly be concerned with her own wholeness and holiness (discernment of a vocation presupposes this vocation leads to these for the individual!), but at some point she must become more focused on the charism which this life is to the Church and World. This transition and the other elements as well all represent a transition from selfishness or a more individualistic focus to a truly ecclesial life. Similarly, they all require formation.

Freedom and Selflessness are Inseparable:

Finally, there is no true freedom unless there is also true selflessness. Freedom and generosity go hand in hand. A life lived for others is a truly free life. A life lived from and for the Love of God is one of authentic freedom. A life of mere license and self-indulgence (including self-indulgence that takes apparently pious forms, as for instance did the person's who spoke of using canon 603 as a means of reserving the Eucharist in her own place and found consecration pointless otherwise).  Jesus always demands a great deal from his disciples. Yes, he is clear that his yoke is easy and his burden light --- and indeed they are --- but at the same time, making the transition from hanger-on to true disciple requires formation. It requires a radical break with one's former life. In a world where silence is rarely heard and solitude has been exchanged for some kind of mere isolation and/or individualism,  Jesus' call to those who would be hermits, and certainly a call to be diocesan hermits who represent the vocation publicly or "in the name of the church", cannot be answered without formation.